His blog is the most popular in Kenya with thousands of subscribers. His influence is such that a single blog post helped raise millions for a perfect stranger to get cancer treatment. Yet few know who Jackson Biko really is. Magunga Williams takes a stab at unravelling the mysterious man.
The first time I asked Biko for an interview, he turned me down. He said he does not take interviews, which I found rather paradoxical given that one of his fortes is conducting interviews. I figured out that he was scared of the boot being on the other foot. He has been conducting interviews in this city, talking to business moguls and industry leaders, undressing them, making them shed their corporate veils and opening them up to the world. And now here I was, asking to do to him the same thing he does to other people. He cringed, understandably.
However, when I finally got him to agree to talk to me and asked him about this, he said it is because he does not like photos. Imagine that! Photos! I had to swear by my honour not to make him take any pictures of himself. And therein lies the allure of this man, Jackson Biko. He is known by many. Loved and criticised with the same fiery passion. Yet if we were to line him up at a parade and ask his readers to pick him out, very few would be able to.
He likes it that way, this Biko. He likes to be at the centre of events without being the centrepiece. Meaning, he wants to be a fly on the wall so that he can watch people and occurrences unspool and later capture them in words. His exact words were, “I do not like to be the eye of the storm even though sometimes I create a storm.”
He tells me that when he is talking to someone at, say a bar, and this person does not know who he is, the said individual will be more open. They will have a free conversation. However, the moment he mentions his name and the guy recognises he is that writer, then everything changes. No more candid conversations. All you get is smoke and mirrors.
So who is Biko? What is he like?
First, he is a man who writes about men, not because he is an expert in manhood, but because he is a man. He towers well past six feet, loves chinos, shaves his hair to the scalp, is bespectacled and sports a goatee that surrounds his mouth like a live fence. On a regular day, he can be found banging copy for the numerous publications that run his byline at Belva Digital offices in Kilimani, a company he shares clients with and also collaborates with on some projects. His writing business has grown such that he has employed three freelancers; one to transcribe his interviews, another to do sales and an accountant to crunch the numbers.
Biko, 39, is a father of two. And a husband to one. Family man. Recently, he made a confession on his Facebook page saying that he can walk away from anything at the drop of a hat. He would leave everything and bounce. The way he did from his former career as a lab technician. Everything except his family.
“What about writing? Can you walk away from that too?” I asked.
Apparently not. Make that family and writing. He cannot walk away from his family and there is no other way for him to provide for them other than the way he has been doing for the past eight years; using his words. Quitting writing means quitting his responsibility as the man in his house, and that is the same as walking away from his family.
I stopped struggling with questions of identity, about who I am. These days I struggle with questions like what kind of father will I be to my children? I would rather have a moderate career than raise kids who think I am just clay.”
His family is his greatest inspiration and often shows up in his writing, especially his daughter Tamms (Tamisha) aged 9, son Kim (Kimani) aged 3 and his wife Wambui. Biko clearly adored his late mother Jane who died in 2012. The grief in his annual tributes to her is still palpable and drives many readers to tears. The family she left behind – his father Simon, Biko’s two sisters and two brothers also show up frequently in posts on his blog, http://www.bikozulu.co.ke.
While many people know Biko from his preeminent blog, some may not know that he writes for an assortment of other publications. He sells his words to Saturday Nation, Business Daily, Yummy, True Love, Safaricom Foundation, Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF), Travel Africa, and Msafiri, among other freelance gigs. In a month, his stories can appear on up to a dozen platforms. In a week, he does about 5,000 words. And he has been doing this since 2010.
Getting these spaces to write has been a progression, but when Biko decided he was going to be a writer, he went all in. He does not do anything else on the side; like perhaps a clearing and forwarding business at the coast, or a butchery in Kinoo, or an MPesa shop in town, or growing sugarcane in Muhoroni. There is no fleet of matatus bearing his name on their log books. Nothing like that.
Writing pays all his bills. This is why he does not write for free or for ‘exposure’.
For someone to churn out so many words, you would expect that Biko is in fear of burning out. You are wrong. “Our parents lived lacklustre lives in boring jobs for up to 40 years. I am doing something that I love and I am passionate about. How can I burn out?”
Biko is not a man without controversy. He is not new to it, and still, he thrives through it. Be it through his blog posts about a denied visa to the UK or a Letter to Kenyans Abroad, he receives a lot of flak. Especially the Man Talk and his Business Daily columns. It is no longer strange for a section of Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) to go after him for something he has written. He lets them. Silently. Seldom responding to a situation unless he has to.
His coping mechanism? The way he keeps his ideas fresh and flowing is through travel, his daily run, whisky, rest and reading.
Speaking of reading, for a man who writes so much and who has won many hearts in this town, where is his book?
I am good with short stories. I am not built to do a book. The same way Usain Bolt is built and trains for 100 metres and not cross country marathon. I am not saying I am not going to write a book, just that I am currently held back by insecurities,” Biko replies. “That said I am currently working on something. Just wait.”
For someone who makes a living out of talking to people of every shade and then writing about them, I was curious about what he has learnt about human nature. “People have titles like CEO, Director, Managing Partner, Doctor, Chief, Mr…but at the end of the day when you strip them of these titles, you realise that we are all just the same. Men are just men with manly challenges and so are women. People are just people.”
Is he content? Happy? “I have two gorgeous children, a job that I love and my health is in mint condition. So yes. I could not ask for more right now. I found out that these days when I kneel to pray, it is to say ‘Thank You’ to God rather than to ask for something.”
“You are religious like that? You pray often?”
“Oh yes. I am an Adventist. I believe that I am who I am because of the prayers and good deeds of my mother. So yeah, I pray, even though sometimes I do forget.”