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Broken Shackles

Updated: Jun 24, 2020


| This is the 444th story of Our Life Logs |


It often feels like an unbearable privilege to write and make a simple living from taking all those wonderful and horrible patterns of my past by turning them into something new and strong. Sometimes I want to hang up writing stories about me because I can’t bear the idea that it may one day run or ebb away from me. Sometimes I would rather stop, lest it owns me up completely, but I can’t. I earnestly share these sentiments in their entirety.

My life began in 1985 in Siaya, Nyanza, a region of Kenya. I was born to a couple who were a benediction to my life; they were “Proverbs 6” kind of parents. I was the last of seven siblings, closing the chapter of my parents’ appetite for more children, and by most measures, I had a typical childhood and excelled in most of my academic endeavors. The welcoming warmth of home and a full family—where everyone was in each other’s space—was an endless adventure.

With my brothers (I’m on the right).
With my brothers (I’m on the right).

Literature has been present since I can remember. As a little boy, I would sit on the doorstep, a book opened in my hands or resting on my lap while I lost myself in a world created by stories. Reading begot writing and it hovered about me through my early teens, pleasing only an audience of one. Still, I had big dreams. I wanted to live a life that was worthy.

Some ships wreck right next to the harbor. My last year in high school proved tasking with a mix of peer pressure and the expectation to perform exceptionally at my end-of-year examination. This pressure slowly snuck into my mind and threatened to weigh me down. A little moment of pleasure; a tot here and a glass there gradually took my mind and rerouted it, creating a single tributary that only led to drinking dens.

By the time I joined tertiary education, I was a certified alcoholic. I lived by the glass and made decisions as the bottle dictated.

Just as the label in the alcoholic drinks bears emblems of lions, tigers and more, so would I feel the roar. I’d become so destructive, unkempt, miss meals, and just sleep where my head found comfort only to get the narration the next day from the dailies on campus or my home town. It’s the reason I got kicked out of campus hostels and had to find myself alternative accommodation.

Constant drinking ruined my interactions with everyone. Once a humble boy, I transformed into an aggressive authority in speech and became violent when nothing came my way. It is this kind of disgrace that my family had to endure even as they remained on their knees praying for my reform. However, the sweetness of the glass never allowed me to consider myself an alcoholic as everyone else seemed to claim.

I once woke up with a brick-stiff neck in a totally strange environment naked, with a woman close to my mother’s age next to me. It haunted me for a whole week trying to decode the unresolved riddle. Education was my first casualty. I delayed my semester time and again, eventually ending up with numerous exams resisting. I was not doing well academically and to suppress my frustrations, I turned to the allure of pretty girls and hard vodka or whiskey.

Me and a friend back in my heyday.
Me and a friend back in my heyday.

I abused alcohol my entire adult life…

I still do not believe I met and married such a wonderful wife between my stupors. Even though my marriage was only a transitional come-we-stay, we solemnized it by a traditional marriage not long after. She must have loved me enough to have a child with me. Despite her support and hopes for me, my apologies became as routine as the mockery and vileness, violence and rejection. I knew it was just a matter of time until she would give up on me.

My dedication to what should have been my pride, dripped right off my fingers when she was involved in a freak accident in 2000. The bus she was traveling in collided with another and burst into flames. In a flash, I was left to deal with the aftermath. Guilt and unknown pain washed over me and to numb that pain, I buried myself deeper into drinking.

How could I run elsewhere when I was already tethered to the bottle?

I was left with a son whom I was supposed to be responsible for. But with the traumatizing death of his mother, I lost myself even more and I barely took cognizant of the task awaiting me. There wasn’t much I could do for him when I needed help myself! My in-laws took a look at my miserable life and decided that they could just as well raise their daughter’s child by themselves. And so, he went.

They say, at your lowest moment you get to know your true friends. So, you ask, how many stayed? None at all. It reached a point where nobody wanted to associate with me.

Blood is still thicker than water, and unlike friends who flew when the going got tough, my family remained. Of course, I caused a major rift in my family and the blame game took a center stage to try and unravel where my addiction originated from, on either side of the family tree. Despite becoming a total disappointment, they didn’t abandon me. A sleeve was always stretched for me to grab. They figured they’d have to step in to help their own son.

In such situations, you mock prayers and become very violent, resisting any attempt at changing what has become comfortable to you. I did.

Nothing changed much until a priest and a childhood friend came into the picture. We both had desired to be priest while growing up and had taken part in being altar servers in our Catholic church during our childhood. Our paths diverged at a point but he followed his dreams.

It became an appealing balm to spend time in an environment that could have been my home. Besides, if I ever wanted to be a father to my son, I had to accept help. I soon crossed the border and headed to my spiritual rehabilitation at a distant Catholic parish in Uganda where I was welcomed to experience life in the priesthood.

It wasn’t exactly the easiest choice, but life away from my former environment was what I desperately needed. The monastery had been a safe refuge and the priests were patiently there for me, walking with me into a spiritual journey and picking me up when the road proved slippery to tread. I wanted the peace they seemed to hold in them. In this atmosphere, I craved to reform myself.

To keep me on the recovery path, I chose one of the activities offered, and joined the writers’ guild, pouring a bit of my soul into my writing. This way, I kept myself busy enough to turn my back to alcohol. I spent time with my artistic life by reading, writing, doing spoken word poetry, going for nature walks, joining the choir, and involving myself fully into church-related activities. I am forever grateful that I gave this path a chance.

The priceless gift of beating my addiction was my reunion with my son who is now in high school. I have been able to act in my fatherly role and answer his questions about my life and triggers. Quitting an addiction is never a walk in the park, especially when withdrawals are a common occurrence, but I have learned to keep control.

My reform came with great opportunities that allowed me to excel once again and receive recognition for my work. Winning several literature awards, being the mind behind several initiations of different theater groups in my hometown like Imara players, ANA KWA ANA, empowerment of many youths into the journey of priesthood and nuns are my only tangible way to remind myself what alcohol might have taken from me.

Giving an inspirational talk to high school students.
Giving an inspirational talk to high school students.

It’s true that when we don’t face challenges, we don’t get to see the other side of what we could have been. It’s in countless years into unemployment that it dawned on me that writing is no longer just a part-time passion. It became my new line of work. I operated within a shoestring budget. It’s still a miracle that I am happy now, so much alive. I am guided by primal instincts, feeling my way around this until I get it right.

Working in my farm in the village.
Working in my farm in the village.

This is the story of John Paul Odhiambo

John grew up with every hope to have a successful career and had a brilliant mind. However, a little moment of pleasure piled up and became an alcohol addiction that rendered most of his youth into a blurry vision. He dropped from school and couldn’t hold any job. Despite starting a family, he could not break loose enough to be responsible and ended up losing his family. Hope came in the form of an old friend who tagged him along to a priestly life where he sobered up and regained his life. He was reunited with his only son and doing everything possible to make up for the lost time.

John is a devoted Roman Catholic, who enjoys spoken word poetry, writing, reading, painting, sculpturing, drawing, basketball, volleyball, and rapping. John now works at a Christian-based radio station in Nairobi.

John at the radio station in Nairobi.
John at the radio station in Nairobi.


This story first touched our hearts on October 21, 2019.

| Writer: Opondo Maureen | Editor: Colleen Walker |

To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)
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