Dwarfed yes, but with tall ambition and high spirits

Wednesday March 18 2020

Julius Mwangi, who was born with dwarfism, is a jockey at Solio Lodge in Laikipia. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP


In January and February, the sun tends to rise earlier, and is often hotter in the expansive Solio ranch that spans part of Nyeri County and Laikipia — or so it seems.

The morning rays scorch the amber grass that rolls endlessly in this flat land. But by the time the orb climbs out east, before it scalds the land hot, Julius Gakuyo is already up.

He rolls his spare 4’0” (four feet, zero inches) frame out of bed. (The universally recognised adult height for dwarfism is 4’10” tall and below).

He then heads to the horse stable at Solio Lodge — a privately-owned animal sanctuary in Laikipia County that doubles as a resort — where he has been working as a horse trainer, jockey and guide for the past 10 years.

The horses know Gakuyo. They neigh gently and nudge at him, their wet noses against his arms.

He guides them out of their stables onto the well-mown fields of the resort for a walk, and to wait out the day. It is quite a sight — these grand animals, mane and all, and this diminutive man guiding them.


Later on, he will harness the horses, fix the stirrups then don his helmet and strap on his riding boots, and await for visitors who patronise the popular resort.

On any given day, especially in December through February, tens of tourists — especially Europeans and Americans fleeing winter for the eternal Kenyan sun — book in at Solio.

And for repeat visitors, and others who have been recommended by previous visitors, they always ask for Gakuyo. He is one of the more popular employees at the resort.

It is light years from the days when Gakuyo was growing up in a tiny village in Othaya, Nyeri.

Gakuyo, a firstborn son, was born with dwarfism 48 years ago. As a child, before he enrolled in primary school, he didn’t see himself different from any other child his age.

But when he joined school, he experienced a jolt that would define his outlook towards life and its dealings with people born different.

While his parents and elder sister had showed him nothing but love, the school was a different kettle of fish, especially in the playground where children could be viciously callous.

They made fun of his stubby fingers, extended forehead and short arms. “It was so startling and disturbing,” Gakuyo recalls of this period, the days when it dawned on him that he was different.


While his peers galloped in height, discovered — or were discovered — by girls, Gakuyo was treated with snickers: his feet didn’t touch the floor.

It was especially nasty when the school had to travel to participate in sporting activities in neighbouring schools, where hardly anyone had seen a person of Gakuyo’s stature.

The stares and ridicule were devastating for a young boy hardly aware of his lot. It wasn’t only children, adults cast furtive glances his way, whispered and snickered.

It didn’t help matters that one of Gakuyo’s younger brothers was born with the same condition.

There must be something dark in the family; maybe a curse, the unspoken indictment went.

As the years went by, it became apparent to Gakuyo that life for him would never be like the next boy.

It didn’t matter where — church, at the communal playground, or the streets — but people would pinch each other and point his way.

Adults would openly giggle. At school, the bigger boys would pick him up like some rag doll and parade him around.

There were cruel jokes about him descending from pygmies.


At home, he would enquire from his parents why he could not grow tall. There were no answers.

To date, he says, people still stare, laugh and point. But his skin is now rhino-tough. And while he won’t openly say it, hubris isn’t his thing.

He has emerged better in life than most of those who labelled him a cursed child. “There’s a purpose to everything,” he says. “The joke is now on them.”

After sitting his KCPE exams in the early 1990s, Gakuyo, who didn’t perform well in school, learnt of an opening at Bantu Lodge in Nanyuki, a resort owned by a local man friendly to the Gakuyo family.

Bantu Lodge was popular as much for its traditional cuisine as its cultural vibrancy.

It had a full touring circus in which entertainers dressed as mascots and toured the country. Gakuyo packed his bag and headed to Nanyuki to begin a new life.

Because of his unusual size, he was an instant draw wherever the caravan pitched tent, and also at events in the hotel.


The premises also had a spacious horse racecourse. The first time Gakuyo saw the horse stable and the animals, he felt a bond that would eventually make him not just a sensation of the runway but provide him a way out of the zipped garments that had straitjacketed him most of his life.

He filed away in his mind tiny things about horses. They were not merely animals; they were friends.

As it happened, Gakuyo had the good luck of meeting a friendly white man named Rose Caldell, who owned a ranch in Timau in the larger Meru.

He recommended that the young man undertakes some professional training. Besides livestock, the farmer was into horse racing.

He sought to have Gakuyo apprentice at the Timau ranch. “I gained a lot of experience at Timau,” Gakuyo says.

“Not just riding, but about safety, about the welfare of the animals and about guiding learners on the art of riding.”

There is an almost-universally accepted notion, especially in Africa, that people born with certain “defects”, more so those of a short stature, usually flourish in the entertainment scene, where their unusual appearance is likely to draw sympathy and the tinkle of loose change.


But Gakuyo dismisses this belief. From his experiences, he had come to see himself as no different from the next human; his small frame was not a fluke of nature but an opportunity to stretch his gifts.

If size would play a part, then it would be only a plus to his resume.

After several months, Gakuyo, now equipped with a letter of recommendation from Timau, returned to Bantu Lodge to continue with his horse duties and occasional dance parties for patrons.

More luck was to shine his way. In 2000, Gakuyo was sent to the animal rights lobby — the Kenya Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (KSPCA) offices in Nairobi.

“Now that I had knowledge about horses, I hoped to learn about donkeys,” he tells Lifestyle.

There was some congruity. Perhaps no animal has been more maligned, mistreated and neglected than the donkey.

At KSPCA, he learnt about the plight of the beast of burden. In Naivasha and other places, there were troubling reports of donkeys beaten till their hides festered with wounds; inhumane owners left their animals out in the open without proper shed.

He also trained in the craft of creating, harnessing and stirrups for both horses and donkeys.


Gakuyo has a certificate from KSCPA, and he says he used his time well during his training, not the least turning into a fierce animal activist.

To this day, he bristles at the sight of a wan donkey. “Tell you, if I learn of a case of mistreatment (of the donkey) I am coming at you,” he reiterates.

It was going to be a daunting task from the get-go. The insecurities that had dogged him in his boyhood and young adulthood had not completely left the scene even as he neared 30 years.

In his private moments, he wondered if he would find a woman to spend his life with.

As it turned out, the door to love was half a jar — Gakuyo had spotted a woman who worked at the Bantu, but the woman hadn’t, at least her heart …

Her name was Lucy Muthoni, a 5’5” foot hotel attendant. “You know when he first approached me, I was taken aback,” she said at their home in Othaya.

She has striking, intelligent eyes and is given to bouts of infectious laughter. “I had never in life met a person like him.”

But Gakuyo’s heart pumped redder blood, and with daily entreaties from him, Muthoni finally decided to introduce him to her family in Nyahururu.


Gakuyo wasn’t exactly what Muthoni’s widowed mother had envisioned for her daughter. It would be two years before she came around and gave the pair her blessings.

The couple has three children — 19-year-old Joseph Wachira, an electrician working in Nairobi, 13-year-old Alex Muthami, who is in Grade 7, and 10-year-old Eunice Wangari, who is in Grade 5.

“It’s funny,” Mrs Gakuyo says. “There are people who even now say things like, 'No, the children can’t be his.' The insinuation is that Gakuyo cannot possibly father healthy offspring. (Medicine disproves this). “We simply close our ears to the noise.”

While Gakuyo shed every bit of the shackles that had threatened to tie him to a miserable life, his younger brother, Muturi, who was born with the same condition, couldn’t seem to shake off the burden of being different.

Though he grew about half an inch taller than his elder brother, he didn’t have the mettle to fit in with the lot life had handed him.

In his adulthood, he appeared rudderless. The stigma of his condition proved too much.

According to multiple sources, everywhere he went, ridicule, compounded with unresolved issues with his late father, stuck to him like cigarette smoke.


He moved from menial job to menial job but never settled down. It was drinking that nailed him.

Two years ago, after years of alcohol abuse, he was found passed out outside a seedy joint. He died a few days later.

“I am happy and confident about who I am,” says Gakuyo. He sports some salt-pepper in his hair and speaks in a high, slightly pitched voice that belies his age.

When he is in his hometown, people still turn and stare, but not in sympathy. Some shout, “Baba Wachira!” and Gakuyo laughs.

Back home, there is a family waiting: a wife who travelled hundreds of miles to settle in a strange land with a man she never envisioned she would ever put down roots with to children who have in all ways risen above the once-in-a while snide remarks about their father.

“I want people everywhere to know that you don’t need to be put in a pigeonhole because you happen to be different,” Gakuyo says. “Look at me.”