In some ways, you could say the life of Kenya's video game master Brian "Thee beast" Diang'a is itself like a video game – trapped in an unhappy place by forces beyond his control, he fought his way out! And a console was his salvation.
Brian Otieno Diang'a started his life in a comfortable suburb of Nairobi, Kenya. He lived in a nice home with his parents and siblings. He had his own bedroom. He went to a good school.
Then, suddenly, things took a turn for the worse. His dad lost his job as the head of medicine storage at Kenya Medical Supplies Authority because of a drinking problem, Brian says. The family of seven moved to Kibera, a sprawling slum in Nairobi, into a one-room house with mud walls and a roof made of rusty sheets of iron pocked with tiny holes.
"One could see sun rays during the day and moonlight rays during the night," he remembers.
That was in 1999. Brian was 7 years old. There was no electricity in their new home. They had to use a public toilet about 300 feet down a dark pathway.
"I was a kid and I didn't know what to do," says Brian.
He'd become a lover of video games when his family was still living the posh life, thanks to an uncle who'd one day brought over a gaming console. He kept up with his hobby after the family fortunes turned. He'd walk a mile or two to fetch water for other folks in the slum, hand over some of his earnings to his family — but keep some for himself to pay for video game time at local hangouts.
"They say video games are violent, but for me, that is not the case. I was escaping from this reality that I was in now," he says.
It turned out to be a beneficial escape both psychologically and financially. Today, Brian's mastery of video games is encapsulated in his gamer nickname: "Thee beast." The 30-year-old earns a living as a gamer with prize money from tournaments.
In 2022, he was even given the title of Kenya's "Gaming Ambassador" by the informal gaming community of Kenya and East Africa.
As he enjoys his fame, he gives back, giving tech tutorials to kids in impoverished neighborhoods — and even serving as a volunteer firefighter since he was a teenager.
He credits his tough childhood years for his success as a gaming competitor. Brian says life in the slum made him a better gaming competitor. "Growing up in the ghetto prepares you for a tough life, there is no sign of weakness when living in slums like Kibera," he says.
"You know if you have mental toughness you don't get tired quickly and exhausted. Plus, remember, I was also working out my body through my side gig of fetching water for people in my 'hood. Carrying water for more than 2 miles was not a joke, it contributed to my toughness," he adds.
But school was another story. He says it was hard to keep his uniform clean, and teachers called him dirty and would beat him. And if he came home from school late, his mother would be mad, suspecting that he'd stopped to play video games (and she was often right).
He ran away when he was 14, he says, and lived with other people living on the streets in Nairobi's Uhuru Park. For two months, he scavenged food from trash and begged from passers-by. One day he went back to his old gaming place. "I had missed video games," says Brian. On that trip, he ended up meeting his grandmother, and she held his hand and said she was not letting him out of sight again.
The working world
After finishing school, Brian tried his hand at various jobs — illustrator at an ad agency, a concierge at a hotel in Egypt. And he was still captivated by video games. When he found out that there was prize money to be had, he decided to "start challenging people" to win money.
Towards the end of 2015, Brian returned to Kenya, used his job savings to build a house for his mother and enrolled in coding class. He also started participating in local gaming tournaments, won more and more games and ended up being baptized "Thee beast," a reference to how he plays his signature game, Mortal Kombat.
These days, Brian says he makes about $1,000 to $2,000 dollars in a year – a significant sum in a country where most people earn $3 to $5 a day.
A childhood friend, Mohammed Suleiman, says that Brian's success "made us feel proud that Kibera's brand was being lifted positively – that, yes, we can also do great things."
And he's shared his fame and wealth. He's provided food baskets for families in Kibera and offers free programming lessons for kids at a friend's cyber cafe in Kibera, as well as free photography and art classes.
"I appreciate the works of this young man Brian, our children have been engaged in meaningful activities," says Halima Chimera, the mother of three. "My son who is 10 years is now showing more interest to want to learn how to type on a computer."
Ibrahim Mubarak, 15, is one of Brian's students. He says he has learned photography. "I am now developing more passion for photography and I should be great at and earn from it," he says.
Said Ishmail, 13, says he's loved learning how to use a computer. "I am glad that I am starting to learn early as compared to my parents who did not have access to computers," he says.
"I feel happy when I am able to see the kind of light I bring to these kids," Brian says. "They are not only benefiting from what I offer but seeing me as their role model."
On top of that, he's been a volunteer firefighter since he was a teenager. "I am counting about 122 fires that I've helped [put out]," says Brian, remembering how a fire that consumed his one-room house in 2021. He says had he not found gaming, he actually may have been a firefighter.
But, now as a gamer, he says he's passionate about training and mentoring kids. "I would also love to host and run more tournaments countrywide to promote video gaming and have more professional gamers emerging into the limelight," says Brian. This year, he will attend his first international tournaments in person and is eager to get a sense of how international events compare to African ones. He says he also wants to "go big" with mentorship and raise enough sponsors to create more safe spaces where children can come to play games.
Thomas Bwire is a co-founder and editor at Habari Kibra, a news hub that focuses on reporting stories from the Kibera community. He previously worked as a radio journalist at Pamoja FM, a community-based radio station in Kibera, and was the 2019 first prize winner of Media Monitoring Africa's journalism awards for his reporting on children.