My life is proof that you can curve your own path

‘What would you do if you were not afraid?’ is a question popularised by best-selling author Dr Spencer Johnson in his book Who Moved My Cheese? Pastor James Okumu, 45, knows a thing or two about fear and what exactly happens when one is unafraid in pursuit of his dreams.

He was in Standard Five when he encountered fear for the first time in his life.

“Towards the end of Class Five, we got a new Mathematics teacher. He was very strict and used to whip us with a fan belt. I would pee on myself on a daily basis because of fear. Every one of us feared him and in solidarity, my classmates offered me their sweaters to cover up my wet clothes. We dreaded this teacher’s classes.” 

BULLYING ATTEMPTS

Okumu’s high school life was pretty uneventful save for several bullying attempts which he was able to thwart before they could bear ugly roots.

“On my first day of high school, a Form Two student came over to where I was sitting with my friend and tried to bully us. We threatened to give him a thorough beating if he did not leave us alone. He scampered away. He did not expect us to stand up for ourselves,” Okumu says.

He admits that he was big-bodied as a child and this helped him scare away his bullies as well.

DATING AND COLLEGE LIFE

He started dating his wife soon after her reported to Kenya Polytechnic College to study graphic design and public administration.

“I noticed her as he walked into class and we instantly clicked. We became friends before we started dating.”

Towards the end of their two year course, they skipped classes increasingly and almost missed their final paper.

“We used to go to Gikomba market where we would buy second hand clothes and later resell to other students in college.”

They had also started a graphic design company where they made plaques with bible verses and bookmarks. Their target market was lunch time prayer meetings in towns. But soon, increased competition would force them out of business.  

Months after finishing their college studies, they continued with their graphic design business. Okumu had moved back home and Maureen was getting agitated over when they were going to get married. Okumu, however was not in a hurry.

WANTED TO EXPERIENCE LIVING ALONE

“I wanted to live by myself before I could commit to Maureen. I wanted to have the experience of cooking for myself and doing my laundry. To actualise my desire to have this, we started looking for a house. We settled for a two roomed house in racecourse estate that I paid Sh2,700 per month.” Okumu felt, at the time, that he needed to fulfil this stage of living alone before he could start living with someone. His fear was that once he got married without having tried it on his own, he would regret it and have the ‘fear of missing out’.

Meanwhile, his wife moved in with her friend in Waithaka.

Pastor James Okumu and his wife Maureen Okumu

Pastor James Okumu and his wife Maureen Okumu pose for a photo in earlier years. PHOTO| COURTESY

Three months in, Okumu could not raise the required rent and he had to move in to a cheaper house. He found a mabati double-roomed house in Waithaka. Since the graphic design business was not doing so well, Okumu started cooking mandazi which he would sell to offices in town. He had been applying for jobs but none seemed to go through.

They decided on the wedding despite their dwindling finances and in 1997, they walked down the aisle albeit with a myriad of challenges. Maureen did not have a job but continued to run the design business. Both were focused on the wedding and couldn’t wait to start living together.

GOT HIS JACKET FROM GIKOMBA

Okumu got his jacket from Gikomba market while Maureen’s dress was bought at a flea market in Uhuru Park for Sh6000. At the church, the bride had not arrived by 4pm. Okumu turned to prayer. At the back of his mind, he knew his wife had not stood him up, and he knew it was only a matter of time before she showed up.

Pastor James Okumu and his wife Maureen Okumu

Pastor James Okumu and his wife Maureen Okumu pose for a photo with gospel artist Kirk Franklin. PHOTO| COURTESY

He was determined to go on with the ceremony regardless of what time she got there. Those sent to fetch her had gotten lost on their way. Additionally, the car that was supposed to take Okumu to church went in pursuit of the bride’s car forcing James to catch a matatu to the church when it got late and that car also was nowhere to be seen. As fate would have it, a neighbour who was driving to the wedding incidentally met James at the bus park and gave him a lift to his wedding.

“Looking back on that day, 20 years later, my wife and I laugh about it very much,” Okumu says.

ULTIMATUM TO VACATE

Their challenges were far from over after the wedding. Their rental house was in arrears and their landlord gave them an ultimatum to vacate. On the same day, Okumu miraculously landed a lucrative deal with missionaries who wanted them to design banners that they were going to use for a crusade they were organising. Okumu was paid upfront Sh30,000 and they were able to move to a permanent, self-contained house.

Several months into their new home, a neighbour took note of Okumu’s deep voice and organised for an interview with a new gospel radio station.

She was an elderly woman who grew fond of the Okumus because they attended most neighbourhood fellowships together. She had also noticed they were struggling with their design business.

“I had no experience in radio but I was very talkative and very confident of myself. I went and met with the MD at Family FM and without even looking at my papers, I was offered the job. The machines were intimidating at first but I quickly learnt the ropes,” Okumu remembers.

He worked for eight months before his church, the Light House Chapel called him to be a youth pastor. Eight years later, Okumu would find himself in radio once again after Hope FM came calling.

STARTED HIS OWN CHURCH

After several years of hosting a successful breakfast show, Okumu left Hope FM and started his own church.

The father of three is now a full time pastor at the Destiny Chapel Church and a public speaker.

Pastor James Okumu and his wife of 20 years,

Pastor James Okumu and his wife of 20 years, Maureen Okumu pose for a photo. PHOTO| COURTESY

He tells his story in different forums with an aim of making people believe in themselves and that they can excel in any field that they wish.

“Many people are conditioned to believe that you can only operate in a particular system. I tell them that’s wrong. We all churn our own paths,” Okumu concludes.

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