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Learning disorder not a stumbling block for me

Four golf trophies bagged. Numerous golf tournaments attended. Seventeen years of life lived; an eventful life because Nicholas Irungu has dyslexia, a learning disability.

It is eventful because years back, classmates would laugh at him because he couldn’t read. Schools would refuse to admit him because his slow learning ability would “lower their mean grade” as his mother Miriam Mwarania recalls.

Then there were days when he would be announced as the lowest-ranked pupil in class and in all his innocence, he would go home and ask his mother: “Watoto wanasema mimi niko namba last. Hiyo inamaanisha nini (Colleagues are saying I’ve taken the last position. What does that mean)?”

He developed slowly, learning to speak aged seven and only after “a lot of” speech therapy, says his mother. He would fall over for almost no reason. He was timid, isolated and by all definitions a misfit.

All that is now edging behind him. Meeting us for an interview at the Royal Nairobi Golf Club is a young man with a spring in his stride.

Having left the “competitive” 8-4-4 curriculum schools and taken their son to the Kenya Kenya Community Centre for Learning — a school for students with learning challenges — Nicholas’s parents masterminded a turnaround for his life.

“Our applications kept getting dropped and we could go to other schools. After that, we found a good school that could help me with my problem as a dyslexic teen,” says Nicholas.

Joining in Year Four on the IGCSE system that doesn’t pay much attention to ranking, Nicholas found acceptance and stepped up his confidence. And with his mother pushing him by challenging him to always punch above his weight, he got to look at the world not by what others say but what he sees.

“You have to show them by walking upright and not being bothered if they try to bring you down,” Nicholas says to anyone who might be feeling distraught because of disability-related ridicule. “Don’t mind people who say bad things about you because they are not you.”

He now has a YouTube channel (Nicholas _Dyslexic Advocate TV) through which he champions the rights of disabled children by showing what he can do. He plays the piano, rides bicycles, edits videos, among other activities.

Nicholas Irungu at the Royal Nairobi Golf Club on February 13, 2022.

Pool

“My YouTube channel is where I create content about dyslexia and special needs; where I can help youth to have an impact in activities or to be accepted in schools or to jobs because these youths don’t get opportunities,” says Nicholas.

“They are misunderstood by other people. So, I created some videos of activities and they reveal a lot about dyslexia.”

Nicholas even runs an eatery near their home in Nairobi’s Kasarani, though his mother is very much involved because he has problems with mathematics. He also takes roles in plays staged by his local church, though he is quick to add that he takes roles with fewer lines.

“They have simple roles for me. I cannot pick long roles that have a lot of reading. I just pick a short reading so I can keep it in my mind and focus on it. It helps me a lot because it can bring emotions to me: I can be happy, and I can be sad. And I love to be somebody different from me. To be me, it is complicated,” says Nicholas, laughing.

His mother always marvels at the sight of her son taking up activities that might have seemed unimaginable before.

“He was badly off. And I thought he’d live a life of misery: being behind, fearing, lacking confidence. He had no confidence. So, every time Nicholas is so confident, I’m like, ‘Waah, we had to train that,’” says Ms Mwarania, an agricultural researcher at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology.

One major milestone in Nicholas’s life was his discovery of golf, a sport he first played aged nine and in which he keeps surprising himself by how good he can be.

His most recent appearance in the Daily Nation was a paragraph on page 38 of the January 31, 2022 edition.

It read: “In the boys’ category for 15 years and over, Nicholas Irungu, who is attached to the Junior Golf Foundation, carded 99 gross over 18 holes to win ahead of Nyahururu Sports Club’s Mish Ngotho on 120 gross.”

The reporting was about the Safaricom Junior Golf Series held at the Nanyuki Sports Club, to which Ms Mwarania had frantically driven on the night before the tournament to get her only child there on time.

By winning in the junior series in Nanyuki, Nicholas added to his growing cabinet of trophies in golf.

“I believe by the time he’s turning 21 [the age when golfers leave the junior bracket], he will be a top golfer if not a pro,” his mother says.

She adds: “We have like four cups in the house. Given the challenges he’s had, we have done well. Other regular children can do golf better; yes. But I’m gauging him for who he is because concentration has been an issue. Focusing has also been an issue; same as balance and direction.”

Asked why he likes golf, Nicholas said it is because the game helps him connect with himself.

“It makes me focus, to enjoy the game, to feel at least myself. And I meet other new people: teenagers, even children. I also find special needs children and I help where I can; to at least get focused and to understand the rules of the game: the swings and everything else,” he says.

Ms Mwarania and her husband have spent quite a fortune to ensure their son pursues golf to the best level. For instance at the Royal Golf Club where we are, they have had to pay Sh1,00 for a caddy, pay for the golf balls, cater for his transport because he can’t use matatu with his heavy golf bag, among other expenses.

“It is not cheap, but it’s worth it,” says Ms Mwarania, noting that they have visited almost every golf course in Kenya. “Golf is one of the sports he likes most.”

She goes on: “I spend a lot, and sometimes I don’t have, but I have to. I think one day he’ll be independent. That’s my wish; that he’s independent and makes his own life.”

In her bid to make him independent, she pushes him to take on demanding tasks like going to places on his own. Boarding matatus, or even crossing roads, are not the easiest of undertakings in Nicholas’s life but the mother has to push him.

“Sometimes I pity him. I wonder whether he’s going to make it back home,” she says. “I’m launching him into the world before he even turns 18 [in June this year]. I’m sure he is going to make it.”

Given Nicholas’s condition, emotion plays a big part. It is when he is in the best of spirits that he plays his best golf.

Living with disabilities

“He just loses concentration sometimes, and that can affect his game,” says Ms Mwarania. “It’s something I need him to learn to bring himself back together; that even if he’s losing a game, he should get himself back together; to focus and go.”

To keep his focus in check, Nicholas says he listens to music or sometimes just stays still.

“I like to listen to music. Before I go to a competition, I just create my own song on the piano and play a few melodies,” he says. “I also have my earphones and I listen to music, or sleep in the taxi. Even today, I slept on the way here because I needed to focus.”

Another recent coverage of Nicholas in the media was on KTN News in March 2021. That day, he had joined hands with other people living with disabilities to wash cars. He wants children in a situation like his not to limit themselves.

His mother says he has taken her places.

“He has made me go to places I could never go. He has greeted President Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto, ODM leader Raila Odinga and his wife Ida. They have sat in the same space,” she says, adding that Nicholas has taught her patience.

“I still don’t know what the future holds for him, but I believe there is a lot in place so long as we keep working with what God has given us,” she goes on.

Nicholas is in the final stages of his secondary education and he plans to get practical skills in college.

“I want to take short courses in cookery and computers and video editing and music,” he says.

After the interview, mother and son walk out of the golf club. She helps him carry his golfing tools. But first, she has to foot the day’s bills. He took some golf balls, had a caddy and ate some food. Ms Mwarania pays via mobile money then they head to their car.   BY DAILY NATION    

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