TALES OF COURAGE: Mockery, scorn didn’t quell my passion for art

Friday August 09 2019

John Nyaga poses with some of his artworks. PHOTO| SILA KIPLAGAT

John Nyaga, an illustrator for the East African and the Daily Nation has quite an anomalous background for someone illustrating narratives across the East African region.

Nyaga was born and raised in Embu County and amid the rivers, plains and hills, his talent as an artist blossomed.

Nyaga’s first encounter with drawings and images was through his older siblings’ school books. Newspapers, magazines and televisions were quite rare. His imagination was therefore sparked by the simple images he saw in his siblings’ books.

Eventually, he started schooling and got hold of books, pencils and paper. His most enjoyable task in school was drawing diagrams for different subjects.

He gladly helped other pupils with drawing assignments. He was amused that most of them claimed not to be able to draw.

“I just thought they were lazy because then, I did not know that art is an inborn gift.”



Unfortunately, as young Nyaga perfected his artistic gift, his skills slowly turned into a source of misery. One incident remains forever eked in his memory, the day he received a sound beating for “drawing too well.”

“Whenever our teachers gave us drawing tasks, they warned us sternly against tracing diagrams. One day, our class four history teacher asked us to draw the ‘Zebu cow’, as depicted in our textbooks

As was the norm, she came to class and started checking whether we had done our homework as instructed. I captured the cow’s image precisely.

Once she got to my desk, she had one look at my book before ordering me to go to the staff room without any explanation. Ordinarily, if we made a mistake, the male teachers would punish us.

At the staff room, I was beaten thoroughly for a crime I could not understand. I later came to find out that the History teacher assumed I had traced my diagram. Was this gift a curse in disguise?”

While most teachers did not flog Nyaga for drawing perfectly, the remarks on his report forms and their general comments told a clear story; they simply did not appreciate his art.

Whenever his performance dropped in particular subjects, teachers would be quick to remark that he was busy drawing rather than studying. Though these remarks did not inflict any physical harm on him, they left him questioning the beauty of art.

He was embarrassed by drawing and so he had to hide his drawings. Even so, his passion and love for art would not allow him to stop.


“In High School, we didn’t have art programs or clubs. Nonetheless, I devised outlets for my artistic prowess, which was already burning inside.

One day, I used the little pieces of chalk left by teachers in our classroom to draw something on the blackboard. It was nothing sinister or obscene.

However, when I left the classroom to attend a session in a different room, one of my classmates wrote a very vulgar insult on the blackboard next to my drawing.

When the teacher walked into the classroom, he was outraged. My artistic skills were well known and the teacher did not take long to find out who had drawn on the blackboard.

He instantly assumed that I was also to blame for the insult and therefore came looking for me in the other room.

When he walked into the classroom, he called my name and I thought someone from home had visited. Being in a boarding school, the excitement kicked in, but it was met with something less exciting.

A fist punch...yes, the teacher punched me in the face.

I was confused, perturbed and scared. I could not understand why he had charged at me with so much animosity. By the time his hand separated from my face, my mouth was covered in blood.

As I walked out to go clean my face, all kinds of thoughts were racing in my mind. I thought my life was over. I was expecting to be suspended from school.

Fortunately, the teacher must have felt guilty for causing so much harm to me. He, therefore, failed to pursue the issue further. However, I never got a chance to clear my name”.


It took a lot of resilience and passion for Nyaga to continue drawing, despite the challenges. When he finally joined a school in Uthiru for his O levels, he met people who appreciated art.

“There was one teacher on attachment at the school who heard of my skills and when he finally saw my works, he was intrigued. I had drawings of my favourite musicians like Lionel Richie, Bob Marley and Michael Jackson.”

The teacher advised Nyaga to register for art exams as a private candidate, which he did. He also told him to seek the guidance of a private tutor who would help him grasp examinable art skills as per the curriculum.

He followed the teacher’s advice to the latter and sought the services of Mr Okanga, an art teacher from Kenya High School.

After high school, Nyaga passed his exams and proceeded to college where he pursued a course in Education. He became an English and Arts teacher.

“My days as a teacher were filled with hope. I developed an interest in helping budding artists which drove me to create an art club by the name Mushroom Gardens. Teaching allowed me to nurture young talents but I later realized I had a greater calling."

Even though Nyaga was comfortable teaching and mentoring young artists, he eventually quit his teaching job. At first, he was unsure of what the calling was, so his search began.

He walked in Nairobi City with his artworks hoping that someone would buy them or offer him an opportunity to display them somewhere.

“Sometimes I would walk into people’s shops with my artworks asking them to buy and they would laugh in my face.”


Nyaga working on one of his illustrations. PHOTO| SILA KIPLAGAT

At that point, self-doubt crept back into his life. He began to think his teachers back in primary school were right about art being useless.

His expectations, therefore, dwindled little by little. After six months of seeking a home for his artworks, he decided to try the media.
“I first tried lower-ranked publications as I deemed my talent unworthy. As I was headed home from an unfruitful tarmacking session, I passed by the Nation Centre. The tall building towering over me was quite intimidating but I decided to try my luck anyway. After all, I had nothing to lose.”

At the reception, he expected to be turned down, but this did not happen.

“The lady at the reception made a call and directed me to go see “Stano” an illustrator at The Nation. I was shocked by that gesture.”

Stanley could not believe that Nyaga’s artworks had never been displayed anywhere t. It’s at this point that Nyaga realized there was value in art.

He had visited The Nation on a Saturday and the following Monday, he started working as an Illustrator. He had found his home; a home for his talent and his pieces of art.

Even though he describes his journey as walking on a tight rope, every incident, including the hostility from some teachers was a piece of his life’s puzzle.

Learning art without a teacher meant his artistic capacities were unlimited as there was no one to ‘control’ his explorations. He also learnt to be patient and humble despite having a rare gift.

Today, Nyaga hopes to help as many young artists as possible through mentorship, while impacting the society positively with his illustrations.