Larger than Life: A Tribute to Gichuchu Okeno

I am numb. Stunned. Two weeks ago today I was FaceTiming with Gichuchu Okeno, gem dealer, mine owner, father, husband, and friend. And today he is gone. I’ll never hear his laugh again.

It’s hard to reduce a life down to its essence, to mere words. Okeno, as he was known by his many, loyal friends around the globe, was a giant among us. He had a big heart, a big laugh, and, it turns out, an enormous legacy. It’s fitting that gems were his profession, as they will live on with a permanence that transcends.
Gichuchu Okeno
In addition to gemstones, which he loved and lived and breathed, he was about family. He is survived by his wife Esther, and their three children together: Biyogo, Yorit, and Blessings. His older son, Biyogo Haron Gichuchu (known as Haron), faithfully kept me updated during Okeno’s brief stay in the Mombasa Hospital. On my last trip to Africa, Okeno showed me architectural drawings of a home, for his family, that he hoped to build near his family’s village. To say that he lived to support his family is an understatement. Now it’s up to us to help them. Please consider giving to this YouCaring site to help his family, as he helped so many others.

Okeno was also a philanthropist. Kenya is a very difficult place to be successful. In a land of survival, to be prosperous enough to provide for your family is a huge accomplishment. To provide for others who are less fortunate? Almost unheard of for native Kenyans. Okeno was a success story in every sense of the word, including his tendency to care for others who could not care for themselves. He helped orphaned girls go to school through the sale of soapstone sculptures, carved by artisans where he grew up. He was working very actively on a lapidary school in Voi, the first of its kind in Kenya. He sent me paperwork about the incorporation of the school literally days before he was admitted to the hospital.

I first met Okeno when I went with cast and crew to Tanzania and Kenya for the filming of Sharing the Rough. When I mentioned that I practice yoga, we bonded over that, though his yoga was far more spiritual than mine. I would come to find out that while he was very practical at taking care of logistics–he moved with ease everywhere we traveled–he was also deeply thoughtful about the people around him, and the future of Kenya.

Gichuchu Okeno Mine

This is Gichuchu Okeno’s tsavorite mining camp, state of the art for Kenya: concrete buildings, a flush toilet, safety protocols, room and board and food for the miners.

I am so grateful for the film now. Sharing the Rough was conceived as the story of a gemstone, from the dirt to the end consumer. But the truly compelling part of the story is about East Africa, the gemstone trade there, and the passionate, persistent people who are making it happen against major odds. It is really a story about Okeno. He is the able and persuasive narrator of the film, the protagonist hero, and the one who ties the whole chain–gritty artisanal miners to the final awestruck consumer–together. He is the spokesman for what mining in East Africa could look like, and the champion for education to get there.
Gichuchu Okeno BBC Article

This is a photo from a BBC article that featured Okeno as an entrepreneur “Off the Beaten Track.” Click the photo for the full article.

Roger Dery called Okeno “The Pied Piper” (maybe there is an equivalent African legend), and I, for one, fell under his spell. I believed so much that I have invested in Kenya, with my sweat and money. ANZA Gems, which invests in education in that region through fairtrade gemstones, exists because of the film and Okeno, with Roger and others around to make it a reality. Okeno believed in my dream, and helped me whenever he could. He had a space and a plan to run a lapidary school, and a few of us were lining up equipment and trainers to help. This hole he leaves is as big as a cavern. As big as a mine itself.
Kenya garnet

Garnets I purchased from Okeno on my last trip to Kenya.

Yesterday, as I wept and answered texts and emails to those who shared his rarefied universe, I felt Okeno’s presence. He stares out of the faces of his gorgeous children. And I believe he will live on through a gem trade school in Kenya that will be founded in his name.

So thank you, Orin Mazzoni for making Sharing the Rough, which forever preserves Okeno’s voice and thoughts. Thank you to Roger and Ginger Dery for cultivating the relationship that became the movie. And thank you to everyone else in the gem business: the miners who brought him gems to sell, his fellow dealers that will hopefully support his network, the gem cutters who bought his gems and brought them to life. We all need each other. We are his “two wings of the plane: education and the end consumer.”

I opened myself up to this very different world in East Africa, one where there is no, or very little, health insurance or preventative care. A world where there are no life insurance policies, just the kindness of family and friends. Where overseeing a mine or business or starting a school is fraught with challenges unheard of in the US. But I would not trade this knowledge for the world. I embrace the challenges and reluctantly now the heartache of losing someone so integral to success there. I will go back to East Africa for my business. It won’t be the same: I won’t hear Okeno’s voice, sage and questioning. But I feel like he is with me, and those of us willing to do business the right way there. This larger than life man made an outsize contribution to our world. This is for you, Okeno.

Gichuchu Okeno Monica Stephenson

I treasure this photo of Okeno and I at his tsavorite mine, a particularly memorable trip. Click for the full story.

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