Thursday, October 16, 2008

‘My split personality’

Joseph Kinuthia (centre) receives Changuo La Teenz Award for Best TV Personality of the Year. Dennis Mugo (left) stars in Tahidi High as ‘O.J.’ Photo/CHARLES KAMAU 

By NJERI KIHANG'AH

Hi, I’m Omosh ama Kinuthia.”

Immediately the star of the hit drama Tahidi High says that, I realise that identity crisis has a face. Joseph Kinuthia lives his character even when off the set.

The man who I’ve been tracing for days is finally free for a chat. But getting Omosh to talk about Kinuthia is a bit herculean. As we start out, he’d rather talk about life as Omosh.

Kinuthia is still in his brown overalls and holding on to a mop with one leg perched on a bucket’s rim just as his “split personality” does on the show.

We had pulled him away from the set at the Nairobi Academy where they shoot the TV drama.

“None of my old friends call me Kinuthia anymore.”

He’s evolved so much into the fictitious character and boy, doesn’t he relish the quirk of fate that gives him a second chance to live as Omosh?

As we talk, a boy plays close by and I can tell he’s confused by this face he can’t quite put his finger on although it looks so familiar.

“I can’t drink or smoke anymore in front of children.”

This celebrity of Kenyan television has been forced to adjust to his new profile, sprucing up and acting role “modelish” in public.

As we take a walk around, a man in his late 40s passes by greeting him excitedly, never mind that he calls him OJ. OJ is another great actor in the drama. Kinuthia responds in equal vigour nonetheless. His character as Omosh has won hearts far and wide.

“I never, ever take my fans for granted, I’m never too busy for them,” he tells us.

Soon enough another fan comes by and begs to be photographed with Kinuthia; after all, he is a man of the people.

And he loves the people back. His idea of a good time is a drink at any time of the day with friends or strangers. I figure it’s true since a mild whiff of alcohol escapes his mouth even though it’s three in the afternoon.

“I drink where drinks are available, and where people are.”

He has no favourite club but he’s getting used to the free drinks that land on his table whenever he chooses to, as they say, “hammer” a pint.

“Someone just calls the waiter and shouts, pea Omosh moja hapo kwanza!” (send a bottle over to Omosh first!).” Small matter of the tipple.

Sometimes, they are so many that he shares them with the crowd around him.

On the small matter of the tipple, Omosh, like most “social drinkers”, says he imbibes but he never gets drunk. But I catch up with him later in the day and he’s high. Perhaps a better time for the man to talk about the real Kinuthia.

Maze, nimetoka far.” (I’ve come a long way), he opens up.

I have a feeling that even though everybody loves Omosh, Kinuthia is of a different bearing. He has had a long and untoward trek to fame.

“I cry a lot,” says the certified public accountant who now makes people laugh instead of counting corporate beans.

Life before, as Kinuthia puts it, was a melancholic affair “hustling” just to put food on the table.

“I used to load garbage onto trucks.” That happened in spite of his CPA1.

Kinuthia once landed a bookkeeping job at city accounting firm. It was a fleeting affair that ended when a former government official bought the firm and had his own ideas about who to keep in and out.

He kept looking for other accounting jobs but to no avail. Loading garbage trucks was the alternative.

That was close to two decades ago when he met his wife Wacuka. Theirs was a love laced with simplicity. Since none was reared on formula and bacon, they shared the little they had between them.
Shared meals

His girl would serve herself food from her mother’s house and walk some 300 metres to share the meal with him. That’s how their 16 year-old love grew, with beautiful genuineness.

At the time, doing odd jobs seemed like the only way he could cater for his then pregnant girlfriend.

He remembers sharing supper with his new family at a food kiosk only for the girl to leave for her father’s home because he couldn’t afford a roof over their heads.

One day he loaded a truck and was idle as he waited for the truck driver to show up.

His impatience soon led him try out driving. He had no prior experience but after months of watching how it was done, he was confident that he could get the truck moving.

Bit by bit, he was able to get to the dumpsite that was a few meters and work his way back to the collection point. Each time he would sign in and out at the gate and by the time the driver came he was done with the work. That’s how he got promoted to a driver.

His boss urged him to take driving lessons which he did with his meagre earnings.

But still, he knew he could do with a little more cash. In the evening, he fashioned out flat iron sheets from tar drums and make that badly needed, extra shilling. “Kuchoma mabati,” he calls it.

Each sheet earned him Sh10 but he got smart at it and did about 100 at once. On a good night and three hours into the burning he would take home about Sh2,000. He kept this up until the job was no more.

They say that it’s not work that kills, but worry. Kinuthia knows this only too well.

“If there was ever a day that I really hated myself, it must be the period when my kid would go to bed without food, wake up the next day, get dressed and leave for school without breakfast and no money for lunch and I had no way of assuring her that I would bring something home in the evening.”

What pierced his heart even more was hearing his baby girl’s voice one day saying, “Daddy usijali” (worry not, dad). Kinuthia poses for a while and looks away. “When your child tells you that, you feel it … you just hate yourself).

Somehow this little girl understood that for daddy to try and to fail was not laziness.

Naomi Kamau, Kinuthia’s sister and one of the leading actresses in the country who now stars in the local drama Mother-in- Law, had spotted talent in her brother.

“She kept telling me to try out at the auditions but I didn’t think much of acting, besides, I was not willing to wait for my salary at the month end.”

Kinuthia, now a father of three, had got used to instant cash from the iron sheets “career” but he still toyed with the idea of crossing over to the arts.

One day as he drove the truck to Mlolongo, he felt he couldn’t take it anymore.

He parked the truck at City Cabanas and called his boss to come over for it. His loader had no clue that Kinuthia was quitting, but neither did Kinuthia.

He recalls boarding a matatu back to town then making his way to the Kenya National Theatre. Sleeping under the sun at the KNT grounds was a man who was trying to establish if he was really up to the task of wowing audiences.

“When it comes to acting, you either have it or you don’t.”

But the director of Tahidi High seemed to think that he had it, and now audiences concur. His most memorable show had to be his first. He played thief so well and they just had to keep him and capitalise on this natural talent.

Kinuthia had tried his hand on radio but he cut a niche for himself by being Omosh, the know-it-all, street-smart sweeper.

“Omosh is my favourite actor and Naomi my favourite actress,” he jokes. But the man has deep respect for Dennis Mugo who plays bad boy OJ. “He is just good.”

The 35-year-old actor is planning to go back to school to study production as soon as his first-born daughter goes to High school. Being on the set must have made him realise his passion.

He’s even thinking of doing a movie that will feature him, his sister and other siblings who all, except for one, (a graphics designer) have chosen to go into the acting and production business.

There are signs that his last born girl who is in pre- school will take up after her father and has been squeezed into the high school drama for a minor role. “Sometimes she dresses up and tries to say my lines.”

He has this cheeky smile across his face as he talks of his pride and joy.

“It’s just that I don’t have the money right now, I would have enrolled her in an acting school,” he says.

Plays teacher’s wife

Kinuthia’s wife is also getting into the act. Sometimes she plays as one of the teacher’s wife but Kinuthia has no problem with it. He encourages her to do it well.

“There’s no point of doing some shoddy job,” he would rather she makes it believable.

Although he gets his two personas mixed up for most part of our chat, one thing is certain: Life is much better as Omosh.

It maybe hard for people to take him seriously sometimes since all they know is the joker called Omosh, but he knows the one place he can be himself is at his house.

“I’m glad to have a place to call home for my four beautiful girls in Eastlands Inner Core estate.”

And everyday, a walk in and out of that house has become a walk of fame, not shame as it was a couple of years back.

His newly-found career doesn’t leave him with much time to spend with the girls since he’s always free when they are in school but that’s life.

Tonight he’s rushing home to be with the girl who stuck with him through it all and the children who love his “split personality.”