Martin Ngugi, born with deformity on his hands, is living his life, creatively pursuing his dream and passion – art – and not one to let any obstacle come his way. Marti’s story will inspire you and fill you with admiration for this young Kenyan, unhindered by nothing.
and A little boy was born in rural Nakuru, 28 years ago. His birth did not however bring the expected joy and pride, but great sorrow and shame to his unmarried mother, who was already raising another son. She was so disappointed she did not even invite friends to come and see her bundle of joy. Instead she got busy knitting. Knitting a refuge for her shame – a poncho. So the young boy spent most of his early years with his upper torso covered in poncho, upon poncho, to conceal the embarrassment he brought his mother.
Things have since changed, and Martin Ngugi and his mother, whom he adores, can laugh at her ignorance then. “Imagine a little boy moving around draped in ponchos,” he laughs lightly. I tell him that he probably looked like a little girl because of his striking looks. I have only met Martin and all the fears I earlier had about discussing his deformity with him are gone. He is real, honest, funny, charming, confident and happy. All these and more make him so inspiring!
Martin was born with deformed hands. He lacks forearms, and in place of the normal five fingers, he has two on each hand, a state that would probably make a weaker willed person in his shoes self-conscious, bitter and dependent. Today I meet him in a neat, short-sleeved white shirt with navy-blue stripes, totally unapologetic about the state of his exposed arms. He gives me a firm handshake. He is at work at Jacaranda Designs, where, as an artist, he does graphic design and illustrations.
With a wealth of experience from working with various publishers and individuals, Martin is confident that he can do just about anything in his field. “I’m more than an artist. I do crafts, drawing, designing, and all manner of things creative, including printing of T-shirts,” he says. Art means so much to him that he is already training upcoming artists privately to look beyond painting and drawing. “I inspire the youth I train to look for that extra oomph in art. I hope to go into full time training in future,” he shares confidently.
With his artistic mind roaming various industries, the soft-spoken youth believes he has what it takes to redefine advertising concepts in Kenya. “I don’t limit myself to one field – advertising concepts is also my area,” he discloses. In fact, he is currently studying animation with a view to pushing a new edge in advertising. “I want to give a new twist to image presentation,” he says, adding that the secret is to always be driven by the desire to create unique pieces that stand out from the rest.
Martin loves merchandising art – which goes well with advertising concepts – too. In this field, all that he creates has to sell. “If, for instance, I’m working on a newspaper cartoon, it has to communicate to a majority and be a concept that would sell anywhere. I believe I can artistically package and sell tribalism and sheng language, among other ‘undesirable’ things in Kenya,” he shares.
A lover of documentaries, Martin, who is very eloquent, has an eye that sees beyond the ordinary. For instance, from watching a piece on US President, Barack Obama, he could tell that the seats of the president’s Cadillac are hand-made. It is this eye that he brings into his work, always adding a detail that takes everyone by surprise. “Some of these qualities you pick up from your superiors,” he shares, adding that his director of art at Jacaranda Designs has helped in sharpening his skills.
He is a dreamer with so many big ideas that leave me awed. “The problem with dreaming is that making your dreams tangible or earning an income from them needs proper planning. You need to be good at thinking and executing to be a successful dreamer,” he states. Is Martin an executor? I ask, to which he answers, “I always want to see every good story I read in drawing. I am already seeing to it with some…”
Known as Artist Mchoraji on facebook and other social circles, Martin has touched quite a number of people with his artwork. His portfolio is large and impressive too. He did a portrait of former president Moi, which he handed over to the ex-statesman on the last Moi Day celebrations. Martin also has a number of portraits of Wangari Maathai and several famous people. Of the portraits, one has an interesting story to it; that of TV personality, Jeff Koinange. “I did a portrait of him and liked it so much, I used it as my facebook profile. Someone told Jeff about it and he asked to have a larger version of it. Now he also has it on his facebook profile,” he laughs. Martin has since appeared on Jeff’s show.
Clearly, art is an inborn thing in this youth, who proudly states that he had three mothers: his biological mother, an aunt who has since passed on, and Gillan Scott Kelley, the administrator of the primary school he attended. Of these three, his late aunt was the artsy one. “Everything she created was so aesthetic and appealing,” he offers the praise. “I realise more of her creativity as I grow older,” he says. Martin’s elder cousin is also an accomplished artist – and the person who inspired him into the profession. “Were art paying, my family would have been very rich,” he says wistfully.
The youth has travelled long and rough to be where he is today. Not only did he have to battle the obvious – stigma caused by his uniqueness, but poverty was also in the mix. When he attained school-going age, Martin joined Tumaini Primary School in Molo, an integrated school with children who are normal and those coping with different disabilities. This was by chance, his mother having been referred by someone who was better enlightened. The administrator of the school, Gillan, subsidised Martin’s fees, and later got him sponsors who saw him through primary, and secondary education at Joy Town School in Thika.
He knew from an early age that he would end up an artist. “Never in any of my classes was there a better artist than me,” he says humbly. He liked to draw and paint. By the time he joined high school, and with facilities such as an art room and good teachers, Martin became very serious with art. His aim was to join Kenyatta University to study Art and Special Education, because of the stigma he had experienced throughout his life. High university fees however drove him to Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art, from where he graduated as a graphic designer.
Stigma is rampant for people with disability. “A lot of people don’t know how to handle us. Some stare, others try to be good by giving us hand-outs, always assuming that we are beggars…it is not good at all.” Because he is older, Martin knows how to deal with it better. “I live a simple and low life not to attract attention,” he says, adding that it was not always his style. “While younger, and because children are very innocent, they teased me a lot and I in return developed a hot temper. I would kick and hit them on the head,” he recalls.
A lot of times Martin is not conscious of his physical deformity until people’s reactions catch his attention. “I could be having a wonderful day then someone does something with prejudice and my mood shifts totally. Some times I get emotional and even want to be rude, but then I hold myself back, knowing that a majority of people don’t know how to relate with people with disability,” Martin intimates. The cheerful youth has watched a lot of documentaries and news clips of inspiring people with disability, and knows that there is always something new to learn from others.
Having attended an integrated primary school, and a secondary school exclusively for people with disability, Martin believes integration is best. “It helps us develop strong life skills, like in sports.” The go-getter, who lives in a commune, can perform all his tasks unassisted. “I wash my clothes and cook, but most people close to me, especially my mother, believe they should spoil me,” he discloses un-accusingly. “My mother hates to see me performing any tasks. She is trying so hard to make up for her earlier goofs,” he teases further.
A confessed lover of life, music and reading inspirational books are Martin’s hobbies. After reading Who moved my cheese? Martin, who is still single, believes people should never anticipate to receive things for free. He professes Christianity, and is a social drinker, but “art is my thing. It is like a drug; it takes you, impacts in your brain and makes you unique,” concludes the entrepreneurial youth.
Published in February 2012