By Brecken Branstrator
Gichuchu Okeno
I am realizing now just how special my first night in Africa was. After several flights, we landed at the Mount Kilimanjaro airport at night and still had a bit of a drive ahead of us. Gichuchu Okeno, or Okeno as everyone knows him, had shown up to our arrival, thinking he would need to drive some of us back to the hotel.

It turns out he didn’t. Yet, upon realizing what a rare opportunity it would be for me to get to talk to Okeno--gemstone mine owner and dealer, among many other things--alone, Roger Dery quickly suggested I drive back with him. 

The journey gave us time to cover a lot of different topics, including his background and how he came to be in the gemstone industry, what he saw as the biggest challenges for the East African market and his goals and ideas for the future.

20160330 Voi-RooftopA group shot from our trip in January, with Okeno at center. This was taken on the rooftop of his office building in Voi after a day spent looking through gemstone rough. (Photo credit: Dan Lynch)
It was immediately apparent to me that this man had a passion for what he was doing at a level that few people share.

It wasn’t just that he wanted to boost the East African gemstone market--it’s that he wanted to improve the lives of everyone involved and elevate them with it.

When the news came out Monday that Okeno died from kidney failure after more than a week in the hospital in Mombasa, I was shocked and saddened. His death is a huge loss.

Okeno is the kind of person everyone should meet. He had the biggest, warmest smile that was almost constantly on his face and a laugh that was contagious. There aren’t many times when I think back on him during our trip that I don’t remember him with a smile. I’m comforted in knowing it lives on in the Sharing the Rough film for so many to see.

“He was a beautiful person, loved by so many of us in the gem trade, and revered by his peers in Kenya, and will certainly be missed by Esther, his children, and the many orphans he supported in Kenya. He was a mountain of a man,” Roger Dery said.
“Kenya is not the easiest place to do business. To be successful, you have to be big in spirit. You have to be bold. Okeno was both."
--Monica Stephenson, idazzle and Anza Gems
He cared so much about taking care of his family--his wife Esther, and their three children: Biyogo, Yorit, and Blessings, and his older son, Biyogo Haron Gichuchu--and everyone around him.

“Big, loud, fun, caring, and so easy to connect with,” Dan Lynch, a gemstone cutter who was on the trip with us and also traveled with Okeno one other time, told me. “I only knew him for around eight months and spent time with him over two trips, but it was easy to engage and fall for his personality. He was genuine.”

Debra Navarro, who met him on a trip last summer, said that “It’s difficult to describe something you cannot see or that has no name. The best way I know how to say it is that Okeno was, and is, a positive life energy.  He seemed to be everywhere at the same time, moving between roles of guide, protector, educator, miner, broker, dealer, father, husband, and friend.”

And it wasn’t only the big things he was doing to change people’s lives. It could be seen in the smallest, most thoughtful ways. I recall a few times on our trip when we stopped at gas stations or shops and he came back to the Land Cruiser with some sort of treat for us. It was just the kind of person he was.

20160330 Okeno-BananasOkeno liked to stop at the stall of one woman in particular to buy bananas because her husband had died in a mining accident and that was her family’s income. He was always looking out for people. (Photo credit: Debra Navarro)
Janel Russell of Janel Russell Designs captured this trait perfectly in one of her memories.

During a safari on their trip, someone in the group snapped a photo of a bird right as it captured a field mouse.

Okeno was not only so excited to see it and talk to them about the birds, but also showed up the next day with a book on the birds of East Africa. “It was so typical of him,” she said, “always trying to meet needs we didn’t know we had.”

Jason Brim, who runs colored stone and jewelry site Select Gem, told me that the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks about his experience with Okeno is his patience.

After hearing that Okeno was interested in learning about the UV properties of gems, Brim offered to send him the proper equipment, which he accepted. One part of it was delivered to Okeno in January but the UV box ended up in a post office in Kenya.

Though Okeno was able to pick it up, it took two-and-a-half months for it to arrive there. Still, Okeno was excited and grateful, and “not one word of griping or complaining that it was taking so long to arrive.”

Okeno also seemed to know everyone, everywhere. It was like every stop we made, big or small, someone was calling his name or walking over to him, excited to see him again. He was wonderful at forging special connections and relationships.

20160330 Okeno-mineOkeno as we all will remember him--smiling. (Photo credit: Debra Navarro)
“Kenya is not the easiest place to do business. To be successful, you have to be big in spirit. You have to be bold. Okeno was both,” Monica Stephenson of idazzle and Anza Gems said. 

Stephenson, who posted her own beautiful tribute to Okeno on her blog yesterday, shared a wonderful story with me.

On her first trip to East Africa, while they were filming Sharing the Rough, Okeno announced that he was going to give her a quartz gemstone to carry for a few days to infuse with her energy, and then he was going to give that stone to the film’s director, Orin Mazzoni. Directing an unscripted film in Africa was bound to cause some stress, he said, and wanted to pass some of Monica’s “good juju” on to him through a gem.

I know that everyone who was familiar with Okeno agrees on how important it is for the work he started to be carried on--his charitable projects, his work with miners, and his efforts in establishing a local cutting school in Voi, Kenya. He was bringing real change to the East African mining and gem community.

Monica has established a fund on YouCaring that will help pay for the medical bills and also will help to support his family. There also will be gemstone auctions and outright sales of gemstones on Facebook to raise money. For more information on that, contact Jason Brim at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

I will provide updates when I hear more about efforts to support Okeno’s family and help carry his projects forward.

And let’s keep the joy and compassion that Okeno personified alive by sharing memories and thoughts of your own in the comments.

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