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From Grass To Grace: The Rise Of Captain Webster Otugha From Abject Poverty In Kendu Bay To A KQ Pilot

Captain Webster Otugha, a pilot with the Kenya Airways epitomizes the adage “from Grass to grace” perfectly. The evangelist and music enthusiast who hails from a poor background was undeterred by the lack of school fees in pursuit of his life goals.

Captain Otugha grew up in Kendu Bay, HomaBay County and attended Sony Complex Primary School. The lover of drama festivals had build himself a reputation in the the then Kosele District for his outstanding playwriting skills. His plays wowed judges, students and villagers alike during competitions.

“I didn’t see the play being as good as the teachers and fellow pupils saw it. However, I borrowed widely from my grandmother’s stories and the Bible” he told the Star during an interview in 2021.

Apart from his outstanding performances in drama, Captain Otugha was a bright pupil and was a favourite among teachers. He always topped his class and this made life easier for him while in school.

“I always wanted to go to Starehe Boys Centre and School because it covered the expenses of bright but needy students,” he said.

“I had taken care of performance and marks, and I only needed an assurance of getting a chance at Starehe.”

From Grass To Grace: How KQ Pilot Captain Webster Otugha Rose From Abject Poverty
Captain Webster Otugha with reggae icon Alpha Blondy. |Courtesy| The Star|

Captain Otugha applied to his dream school but his application was declined since he was not an orphan. He notes that, his favourite teacher, the late Antipus Magero pulled some strings.

“Teacher Magero was well connected and he knew big shots in the Education ministry,” he said.

“I remember after the initial rejection from Starehe, he spoke with the then principal of Asumbi Girls’ School to help me get to Starehe, through the Catholic Church’s help. Before then, he had gone to the ministry offices in Nairobi and had my first high school choice changed from Starehe to Mang’u.”

As they retried the process, Captain Otugha’s chances of going to his dream school were curtailed by his former principal who refused to sign his documents. This is despite his father and Magero agreeing to send him to Starehe Boys.

“The headmaster of my school refused to sign where he was supposed to. My father implored him to but he refused. He said he wanted me to go to Mang’u High and do aviation so I could be a pilot,” Webster said.

“That really broke my heart big time because even if I got called to Mang’u, there was no money. Nonetheless, there was nothing more we could do, and I settled for fate.”

Captain Otugha performed well in his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCSE) exams and qualified to join Mang’u High School in Form One in 1998. After enrolling at the Thika Based school, he selected aviation as one of his technical subjects.

“I chose to do three sciences, geography and aviation because they were what I needed for the job. Now that I had come this far, I wanted to follow this aviation dream and quench my thirst and that of those who believed in me,” he said.

In 2000, a Kenya Airways Airbus plane crashed in Abidjan. Despite the tragedy, it came as a blessing in disguise for Otugha. KQ bought another plane to replace it and invited aviation students from all High Schools in Kenya for an experience flight.

“The teacher chose students based on their performance in the subject in the previous term. Some from the Aviation Club were also chosen. For me, I was chosen because I was a senior official in the club and also good in the subject,” he said.

“I remember the flight experience like yesterday. There we were, students from Mang’u, Alliance, Kabarak and Maseno, all joyous and jubilant. We took off from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, flew south to Tanzania, went round Mount Kilimanjaro, came back to the Kenyan Coast, did an approach, flying low enough to see the ground…then we flew along the Kenyan Coast to Malindi and returned to the JKIA,” he recounted.

“According to them, that was a short flight, but for us, it was a very long flight with indelible memories.”

In 2001, Captain Otugha got to experience another flight after Kenya Airways decided to replace its Airbus fleet with Boeing planes and invited students yet again.

“This experience was more exhilarating than the former one because we were treated as guests. The Minister of Transport and other high-ranking government officials were there at the handover ceremony. Then we were also there, soaking in every bit of that beautiful moment,” he said.

The KQ Pilot revealed that this was the experience that made him settle for aviation as his number 1 career path.

“I had always wanted to go into aviation as an engineer but this particular experience was the ultimate game changer,” he said.

“I asked to go into the cabin and I was allowed. There, I talked with the captain and the first officer. They were both wearing blazers with four golden stripes. I looked at my school blazer. It only had two stripes. I said, ‘Someday, I will add two more stripes.’ The fact that the first officer, Irene Mutungi (now a captain) was a lady encouraged me even more.”

While all seemed to go well with the flight experiences, Captain Otugha continued to accrue school fees in school to the tunes of tens of thousands.

“I was always in the fee defaulters list throughout my days in school,” he said.

“My parents were really struggling but they could only afford a little after a long time. I even enrolled in the school work programme, where I stayed behind during holidays to work in school. The money we were supposed to be paid was channelled into our fee accounts.”

Despite battling huge fee balances in school, Otugha was only sent home once to fetch school fees once throughout his entire time at Mang’u.

I was always given the exeat sheet but I didn’t go home. Instead, I went to the principal’s office and pleaded with him to let me stay. I remember telling him if getting fare to and from home was a problem, could I ever return with the fee? By God’s grace, he always listened to me,” he said.

While he was in Form Four in 2001, somewhat of a miracle happened. His then class teacher, Belden Ochieng forwarded his name to a bursary kitty and was successful. It paid Otugha’s Term One school fees and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examinations registration fees.

“When I learnt about this, I cried and poured out my heart to God with Thanksgiving. By the way, Mrs Ochieng told me she was the one who worked behind the scenes to help me get that bursary 15 years later,” he said.

Captain Otugha scored an A- in his KCSE exams, with an A in Mathematics, Physics and Aviation.

Before proceeding to college, he taught high school students in Nairobi. He taught them sciences and was paid Ksh100 per hour. He charged Ksh2,000 per month, per student.

Since there were no aviation schools back then, Otugha applied to the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) to pursue mechatronics. Before he joining the school, he applied for an internship at Kenya Airways but was declined.

One year after leaving high school, Kenya Airways was looking for students to train as pilots, and so he applied.

“I applied and took the letter in person to the company so it could not get lost in the postal office,” he said.

“It was in October and we were told to wait for feedback by January the following year.”

Time passed and nothing came. He decided to apply to the Kenya Air Force which was also seeking recruits at the time.

“I went to Kosele for the physical exercises. I was fit and agile, and so I passed all of them. Just when I was about to be given the green light to progress to the next phase, another officer called me and said I had a skin disease, and he struck me out. Just that way, a heat rash on my neck thwarted my dreams of joining the Air Force. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

In 2003, after he had somewhat forgotten about his application to KQ, a call came from Nairobi saying he had been shortlisted by the national carrier. He underwent a series of three interviews and passed them all.

“Interestingly, the interviews had largely borrowed from the things that I was teaching those high school kids in Nairobi. It was a very sweet revelation,” he recalled.

After the successful interview, he was required  to present his documents to KQ including his KCSE certificate which unfortunately was held at Mang’u High School due to fee arrears.

“I went to the principal, who was a new one now, and asked him to give me the certificate I take it to the company they verify and then I return it. But he was good enough and he wholeheartedly gave me the document,” he narrated.

“I promised to pay the balance as soon as I was able. A few years later, I went back and settled my balance, much to the surprise of the principal.”

Since then, Webster has flown for 11,500 hours cumulatively. He has risen through the ranks and now he is a captain, flying Boeing 737-300, a cargo plane, and Boeing 737-800, a passenger plane.

“I flew President Kibaki from London to Nairobi. I also flew President Faustin Archange of the Central African Republic, among many other key dignitaries, including Alpha Blondy, the international reggae star,” he said.

“I have also flown cargo planes loaded with cash of up to 16 tonnes of money. Such flights, just like those of dignitaries, are accorded top-notch security.”

Captain Otugha notes that his scariest flights are those to West Africa during rainy seasons.

West Africa is characterised by serious storms during the rainy seasons. The storms can get so nasty that sometimes, we are forced to abort landing or reroute. We thank God there has never been an extreme incident. We always get away successfully,” he said.

“And one thing with flying is that you have to handle every flight as if it’s your first one. You can’t take chances. You must be careful to protect your life and those of the hundreds of passengers you are carrying.”

Captain Otugha notes that he has two duty rosters, one for flights and one for the church. He attends Newlife Seventh Day Adventist Church where he is a chaplain.

“I needed the Lord when I was in school. We were ministered unto. Today’s kids also need to hear the message of the same God,” he said.

When he has the time, Captain Otugha evangelises in high schools and colleges and universities.

“The work is great that it can’t be finished by pastors alone. That’s why I joyfully take part,” he said.

When free, Captain Otugha enjoys watching documentaries and listening to KBC. He also sings.

“Songs such as ‘If we ever needed the Lord before’ and ‘How beautiful heaven must be’ always uplift my soul, the way they did many years back in high school,” he said.

He advices, “Stay focused, stay righteous, stay humble. God will lift you.”

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