Boy from Kinangop whose American dream came real
From a village boy, whose parents couldn’t raise his school fees, to a former US marine and now an IT expert as well as a financial coach, Benson Gitau proves that with determination and having a never-say-die attitude, nothing is impossible.
Harriet James @harriet86jim
In 2008, Benson Gitau went to a cyber café to try his luck by applying for a Green Card, a permanent residence card that allows one to live and work in the USA based on a lottery system.
He had just resigned at Securex Agencies where he had been working as a security guard and was hoping that this step of faith would lead him to America.
Though he didn’t win the the first time, Benson went ahead and bought a computer and applied several times until he was successful.
“I applied, waited and behold, I got a yellow envelope in my mailbox. My hands were shaking as soon as I saw the address was from Kentucky.
I read it at Tom Mboya post office and I cried tears of joy as I couldn’t believe I had been accepted,” he narrates.
Born and raised in South Kinangop in the cold Munyaka village, Benson recalls how tough life was as he was growing up.
His mother was a farmer while his father worked in the city. And when he retired, Benson was forced to drop out of school in 2000 due to lack of fees to allow his elder brothers complete their education first.
Once his brothers completed school, Benson was enrolled at Munyaka High School, which was a walking distance from home.
“I was a top performer in Form One, but due to the unstable educational environment, I got a C Minus in Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education,” he says.
After secondary school, Benson started a business of roasting maize before getting a job as a guard. He then quit in search of greener pastures.
After winning the Green Card, Benson went to the US in 2011 and for the first two months, he stayed with a family that offered to pay him Sh20,000 ($200) a month to keep their house clean.
Even as he worked, Benson’s mind was set on working in the US Marine Corps, hence he contacted the recruiter and on the fifth month of living in the US, one Sunday morning, he was told to get ready for a boot camp as he was scheduled to join the next day.
“The family that hosted me tried to convince me to drop my plans of joining the military and instead pursue a career in healthcare, but I am stubborn by nature. I followed my heart,” he says.
But the journey was not easy. First, he had a strong Kikuyu accent, which made his colleagues pick on him.
This crushed his self-esteem. “There’s something they call Intensity Training (IT), which is more of punishment for every time you mess up.
I used to get a lot of IT as punishment for mistakes. I once showed the drill instructor my family photo and he IT’d me for being a “disgrace” to my family for being the ugliest!
It’s usually a lot of mind games, so if you’re not mentally prepared, it can break you down,” Benson reveals.
Having lived a much more difficult life than the experience he had at the boot camp, Benson’s dream of one day enlisting in the marine became his daily motivation.
Luckily, he won the hearts of many through his athletic skills. “I excelled in running and that made me admirable and they stopped picking on me,” narrates the 35-year-old.
Compared to other departments, marines have the toughest and longest training, which lasts for about four months.
After that, one gets a 10-day break, before advancing on to a different level of training called Marine Combat Training (MCT) for a month.
Then, one is supposed to choose what skills they want to be trained on and in this case, Benson opted for a mechanic.
“In the US, they like to decorate job titles, so a mechanic is an Automotive Maintenance Technician.
I stayed in that school for six months learning how to troubleshoot and fix issues related to military motor vehicles in North Carolina.
I was then stationed in Camp Pendleton, California for my permanent duty station around March 2012.
I actually applied for my naturalisation while in North Carolina, so I got my US citizenship while being in the US in less than a year, which is uncommon,” he reveals.
Working in Afghanistan
Benson later discovered that he lacked passion in being a truck driver and a mechanic. “We had a term we used.
It was “grease monkey” to refer to fellow mechanics. I lost interest in that quickly and I enrolled in a community college to study Computer Networks and Cyber Security. I would go to school in the evening after work,” he adds.
In 2014, Benson was picked to be among those who would relieve the veterans who were in Afghanistan.
“As soon as we landed in Camp Leatherneck, there were explosions everywhere. Every day, there would be more than 30 explosions in the area.
It was frightening. I realised that all the training we had undergone was all geared toward this moment,” recalls Benson
He got used to the tough environment after two weeks. In the seven months that Benson stayed there, two near-death experiences happened that traumatised him.
The first was watching as his friends died in a convoy after the vehicle they were in landed on an improvised explosive device and it got blown up.
Six people died on the spot and two military dogs. In the second experience, Talibans attached them with cannons that could shoot long range aiming at their base.
This happened twice while he was staying at the camp. Each time they did that, the explosion would land inside the base.
“I think there’s a conception that since we are trained, we are somewhat robots that are numb to feelings. That is not true. Everything consumes you emotionally,” Benson says.
Change of heart
Benson came back to the US after seven months and received counselling for a year, which helped him in dealing with the trauma.
After four years, Benson’s contract with the Marine expired and he didn’t renew it even after receiving many medals such as the National Defense Service Medal in 2011, the NATO Service Medal in 2014, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Global War on Terror Service Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Overseas Service Ribbon, Green Belt in Mixed Martial Arts in 2015, and six letters of appreciation.
“Every time I look at them, I remember the sweat and blood I used to earn them. They mean a lot to me,” he says
During Covid-19 period, the need to empower others on financial matters drove the father of two to create a YouTube channel dubbed Benson Gitau.
“I began the channel at the same time I completed my Master of Business Administration.
Now I have extra time to teach people on finances. Coming from a small village and now approaching a net worth of $1,000, 000 should be inspirational,” he says in ending.