Former Vioja Mahakamani actor Lawrence Gwako has opened about his alcoholism struggles and how a near-death experience changed him.
Gwako who plays Lidoji Kokoto in KTN comedy drama ‘Daktari’ became an alcoholic while in primary school and started with just a teaspoon of chang’aa.
He spoke to The Nairobian on his struggles and finally winning the battle after drowning in Nairobi River.
Can you remember the first time you took alcohol?
That was in 1998 while I was in primary school. My parents had transferred me from Nairobi to a school in the village in Nyakach. They believed that would change me into a better person. My stepmother was brewing chang’aa, so alcohol was readily available. I started with a teaspoon of chang’aa.
How did it taste?
It was very bitter, but I got used to it.
How often did you drink?
It was a daily habit. When I joined high school in Dandora, Nairobi, I was already an addict. There was one student who didn’t eat githeri so the teachers would allow him to get food from outside. We would send him to get us alcohol. Our favourite drink was called Pullers and cost about Sh70.
Were you not scared of being caught by the teachers?
No. You see, the drink was clear (like water) and smelled like pineapples.
How long did this habit go on?
I went on drinking even in my adult life. I would drink whisky and vodka but when I lost my job at Vioja Mahakamani, I got depressed because I was so broke. I resorted to drinking busaa and chang’aa in Dandora.
Were you not embarrassed, I mean a celebrity drinking cheap brew?
Not really. I used to drink with my childhood friends. They were happy that I was hanging out with them. If I made money from any gig, I would end up buying the whole den alcohol. A litre of busaa was just Sh70.
What about your family?
My family was not happy. When I lost my job, my wife went back to the village since I couldn’t afford to take care of her.
When was your turning point?
In 2012. We were hoping from one chang’aa den to another. While drinking, a pal asked me to join him at Lucky Summer. He wanted to give me some cash that he owed me. We had to cross Nairobi River from Dandora Phase 4 to Lucky Summer. That day, the river was overflowing. I was a little bit scared, but my friend led the way and asked me to follow in his footsteps to cross safely. However, I fell and started drowning. I didn’t know how to swim, so the currents kept pulling me towards a water fall that was said to have crocodiles.
What was going through your mind?
I had a flashback of my life. I saw my children. I vowed that if I came out alive, I would change my lifestyle. I held on to a huge rock and could feel the water sweeping off my shoes and clothes. The only thing that I had left were my trousers and phone.
Were you rescued?
People were just watching us and I heard one say that is was time to save me since I had fought hard.
So, after being saved, did you change your lifestyle?
Not immediately. We still went to another chang’aa den to drink on the same day. But that night, I told everyone that I had quit and if anyone wanted to buy me alcohol, then that would be the last day.
Did you keep your word?
Yes, I did. I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol since 2012.
How did your life change after that?
Things started falling into place. I reached out to my friends from Vioja Mahakamani who had since moved to KTN and were acting on Daktari. At first, they were reluctant because they knew I was an alcoholic. I had to work hard to gain their trust.
What about your family?
My wife came back and continued with her small soap-making business. She supported the family for a while as I gained stability. I sincerely don’t know where I would be without my wife. She is the best thing that ever happened to me.