By Mike Omamo
Buckle up. You are about to go on one hell of an emotional rollercoaster. It won’t be an easy journey, not for me, and definitely not for you too. It’s a little longer than I thought it would be. But I promise you, this story will be worth your time and I dare say worth the screens too. My name is Mike Omamo and I am a student in Bennington College majoring in Drama and Theatre. Here’s my story.
I remember it quite fondly. I was 7 years old watching the movie ‘Robocop’ with my dad when I asked him who made more money in the movies. Believe me, I have no idea where I got the impression that money was the most important thing in life. Now I know better. Anyway, I digress. Dad told me it was the directors and so I asked him where the directors were in the movie. He told me they can’t be seen. They worked behind the cameras. I remember doing a dramatic thoughtful pose and saying “The actors seem to have more fun. I want to be an actor one day.” And that is how my dream of being an actor began.
I was always a mature kid than my agemates. Even now, I continue to feel so much older than people my age. An old person trapped in a young man’s body. As old as I was then-a 7-year-old who felt 15, I had no idea how I was going to start acting, leave alone get into Hollywood. My primary school didn’t have a drama club and I had never acted before. I was a shy kid but somehow, I knew that acting was my thing. Maybe it was all the movies I had watched with dad. I don’t know. That same year, we relocated from Nairobi to Western in Khwisero in a small village called Ebukanga. I didn’t like the place.
First of all, I knew that Nairobi was nearer to Hollywood than Khwisero. Secondly, I loved to go there as a visitor…during Christmas, not to live there. Thirdly, the “New Nairobi kid” attention I got didn’t last as long as I thought it would. I couldn’t speak Luhya, there was no electricity and that meant no movies. No Nairobi tap water. We had to go fetch water in the river. I heard there were night runners too. Hell, I heard one of them throw stones on our roof in the middle of the night. I could come up with an infinite number of reasons that would pull you from your computer into my village but I won’t. Come find me later and maybe I will tell you everything.
So basically, it wasn’t Nairobi and I was a Nairobian and I didn’t like it. My mum however thrived in it. She loved it so much and I couldn’t understand why until recently. She and my one-year old sister always lit up when my dad arrived from Nairobi. He visited after every two weeks and was always brought home by the same bodaboda guy. Only one human being could bring us joy like that in our humble home. Dad. That same year, about 3 months after we had relocated, dad passed away while in Nairobi. I can tell you for sure, I’ve never cried as much as I did for him. My mother too. Even my little sister knew something was wrong. We don’t cry anymore, that was it for us. This is when things got crazy. I did promise you an epic ride didn’t I? Hold on tight.
I wanted to start from the beginning so here I am. I had been enrolled into Khwisero Primary School. My studies went on. It was the first time I had experienced death so for years I struggled to accept his death. I did terribly in my exams. Things changed when I got to 6th grade. The new teacher was forming the drama club in school.
I had no idea what was happening so when I was summoned to some room, I thought the love letter I had written earlier to the “Love of my life” had been discovered. Madam Christabel was talking to Miss Harriet when I entered. She had a stern face so I knew I was in trouble the moment she turned to face me. Except she asked me to read lines. I hadn’t tried this before but I had watched lots of movies with dad so I had an idea what she wanted me to do with the lines. I was told to go summon students I knew would be perfect for a play. I sent most of my friends to the audition room and most of them got picked for roles.
Till today, I have no idea who recommended me and why…maybe Mrs. Harriet? A student who had gone before me? I guess I’ll never know. Long story short, I got to play one of the main characters in the play, I won the award for best actor in the District Drama Festival competitions, our school won the award for the best play, my grades shot up and I began making friends. We would go fishing on people’s ponds on weekends, swim in the river when the sun was scorching then play football in the evening at the green fields we liked.
The music club was formed in second term and I got into it. The same drama club teacher had me solo a song. There I was, consciously singing. I sang all the time at home but it was always subconsciously. We drank lots of soda and ate lots of bread during the competitions. It was a priceless combination. Later, every other person got into Drama and Music Club just for the soda and bread. I slowly got over my stage freight over the years and on my final year, I did well. I was at the top in the whole district. I was hoping the whole country but oh well.
That same year, I had frozen on stage after forgetting all of my lines in the narrative I was performing. What do you imagine is the most dreadful thing to experience as a kid? Try imagining a thousand eyes staring at you with admiration while you start a narrative then seeing those eyes change when you freeze on stage because you’ve forgotten all of your lines. That was embarrassing. Thank God I did well in my exams and got admitted into Lenana School. It definitely cushioned that blow. After that embarrassing moment on stage, it took a while before I could get back on stage.
My mum couldn’t afford paying the fees for the national school I had gotten admitted into but we soon found a scholarship and I got full aid for the four years of my high-school. I did mischievous things in high-school and I never got caught. We sneaked into the computer lab late at night to watch movies until the sun was up.
I finally mastered the courage to go talk to girls whenever they came to school. I kissed a couple of them on the school piano in the music room. Did I mention I learnt to play the guitar and piano just to impress girls? I added some singing too and girls were flocking around me in no time and I loved every minute of it. These girls were going to kill me! I fell for a girl who actually killed me. She dropped my heart. Smashed it into pieces and continued to step onto the pieces. I got back into acting. No freezing on stage this time. No forgetting lines.
Whenever I went home after closing school, my boys and I would sneak out to go dance some reggae in the village. Every evening I would wonder around some spot hoping to meet the girl I had a crush praying I would gather the courage to finally say hi but I never did. Before finishing high-school, I knew, with strong conviction that I wanted to be an actor and director so I told mum. She got furious. I did extremely well in high-school so I decided to apply to schools abroad. Everyone thought I was insane. Even I thought I was insane. Things got pretty insane after this.
I had been sponsored by Equity Bank so when I passed my KCSE, they admitted me into their University program. I travelled to Nairobi to live with my aunt as I waited. I started working at the bank right out of high-school as a receptionist. I didn’t have the friendliest face and I definitely never smiled so they had me train to be a cashier instead. This I was good at but I didn’t like it. If you’ve worked as a cashier you know how monotonous it can get.
So when I heard the bank had a study abroad program, I applied immediately, got into it and left for a 2-week training. The SAT’s weren’t as hard as I thought they would be. The problem was the time. Very little time to do lots of things. They picked like a hundred of us from the five hundred of us and I was among the a hundred. I felt my dreams get closer and closer every day. We went for another three weeks at Gems Cambridge and my God, that period carries one of my best memories.
On a daily basis, we continued to be trained on the SAT’s. Things got a little easier. I could now finish the entire sections without running out of time. Again, I felt closer to my Hollywood dreams. When we weren’t doing the papers, my friends and I were busy hitting on girls-the prettiest and the smartest in the camp. In our previous training camp, I had locked my eyes on this beautiful nerdy girl. When I wasn’t talking to Judyanne, I was busy showing off my abs at the swimming pool. My friend and I were the “bad boys” in the camp doing all manners of mischievous things. The girls loved it. The boys hated it. We were stealing all the girls’ attention.
We had the best mentors. Get a good mentor by the way. They helped us with everything, including asking girls to be our prom dates. I asked Judyanne on my own though. I took her on a nighttime walk and we talked for hours after everyone had gone to bed. For some reason the stars shone brighter and the moon was right in front of us at the place we were seated. I really liked her so I asked her to be my prom date and she said yes.
The last day came, we had our suits on and waited for the girls to come down. We waited for a while. I waited for longer but the moment she came down that stairs I knew it was worth the wait. She was beautiful. It felt like for the first time I was really seeing her. We danced most of the night, she and I were crowned the King and Queen of prom, I took her to sleep very late at night and even then, we didn’t want to sleep. The next day, we packed our things and everyone went their way feeling more ready to take on the college application process.
We soon joined campus. We were all advised to get into our campuses while we did college applications. I had been admitted into University of Nairobi. Judyanne too. I continued studying for my SAT’s with Judyanne though not as hard she did. We rewrote essays like a thousand times but then again, not as much as she did and this was going to show in my performance. It’s scary being in the SAT room full of people who radiate smartness more than you do. Everyone in the room looks smarter than you. Everyone always seems to have their things together and if you are not, you don’t dare show it. I didn’t do as well as I thought I would in my SATs.
The school interviews we had appointments to I hadn’t prepared enough so they didn’t go well. Judyanne did exceptionally well. She got admitted into Williams College during early decision. I got rejected into my early decision school and all of my regular decision schools. It was devastating. I almost imagined that it was destiny for me to get into a school. That I would never fail. Many of us did. Many of us failed. I decided to quit University of Nairobi after my first year and do it all over again. They say if you want change, summon chaos. I did and chaos answered my call.
I got the Equity Bank job again and my own place for the first time. Alone in the city. I was studying for the SATs while I worked. I failed the SATs twice before deciding to quit my job so I can concentrate on the SATs and the applications. I had some savings so I knew I could survive for a while without working. On my third year too, I never got admission into any school. Rent was due a couple of months. I got locked out of my house. Everything I had was auctioned to pay for the rent. I didn’t have a place anymore. I lost everything I had so I went back home in the village.
My mum was ashamed of me. Everyone at home was ashamed of me. They looked up to me and there I was, pursuing this impossible Hollywood dream that was bearing no fruit. I fell into depression. So deep into depression but I decided to give it one more try. I got a loan to pay for the SAT’s and I can tell you for sure I’ve never studied as hard as I did. I did so many practice papers. Nothing felt enough. I lost my social life (not that I had any anyway) because all I ever did was lock myself up in my ‘Isimbaa’(a boy’s house) and study. I wrote the most genuine essay I’ve ever written. Find me later and maybe I can share it with you. I shot so many acting videos, guitar videos and singing videos. I packed a few clothes and came back to Nairobi to do the SAT’s. I stayed at a friend’s.
The SAT room didn’t feel as intimidating as it did this time. Why? Because I knew I had put in the work. I felt smarter than them even though I wasn’t. Hard work beats talent and I had put in a lot, you have no idea. I got 1340. 670 in math and 670 in Reading and Writing.
I travelled back home, prayed, then sent everything I had to Bennington College. I got in. I couldn’t believe it because I was actually high when the email came in. I asked a friend to read it to me. I really had gotten in. And into the competitive drama and theatre course. They hadn’t given me a full scholarship.
You want to know what I did? I emailed financial aid office and told them that I was from a very humble background and I needed full scholarship to attend. I wasn’t losing anything anyway was I? I expressed to them my situation and you know what they did? In a week they had gotten back to me with full scholarship. I have never been happier!
I took a gap year, did therapeutic things, got into this amazing singing group called Spellcast (we were EAGT finalists by the way), I met this girl beautiful girl in Spellcast who I fell madly in love with. We’ve been dating for two years now and she continues to be the most beautiful thing my eyes have ever seen. I decided to do my entire first year remotely. I am almost done with my first year doing drama and theatre and I continue to love every minute of it!
The boy from Khwisero is scared to go to a strange land. I have never been outside Kenya so you can imagine how scary the US is for me. My girlfriend however thinks I am a travel ninja warrior and come September, hopefully, I will travel! My mum loves how bold and strong I’ve been. I know dad is proud of me too up in heaven.
So here’s my advice to you, very simple stuff really. Study hard like your life depends on it, remember, hard work beats talent. Number two, write essays as genuinely as you can. Write your own story and be willing to be vulnerable in it. They want to know who you really are, not who you think you are or what people think you are. Believe me, your life is full of epic stories. If anyone were to write your story, it would be picked up by HBO. Number three, give it your all. Make sure before you send your application, you can genuinely say you gave it your all. Lastly, believe in yourself. It starts with you, then the rest of us can believe in you. Yours is the most important. And I am done!
I’ve travelled through life experiencing the good and the bad. I’ve been lost through all this and I have been found. I have travelled far enough in life and continue to even now. A little bit more fearlessly than I began. I’ll definitely do my masters in Yale School of Drama.
I still feel like an old person trapped in a young man’s body. Hell, I’ve even gone back to listening to Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross and Michael Bolton. I’ve gone through all these things and I am pretty sure like a billion people have gone through the same, are going through the same or will go through it in the future. Life. This is life. A full human experience. We travel very far and we get lost all the time but eventually we find ourselves. Eventually everything makes sense.
Eventually we end up where we were supposed to be. Eventually we are found by none other than ourselves. So, you travel far enough in your college application madness (I know how crazy it gets) and you know what? You will still meet yourself there. Life, Interesting thing, right?
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