Dennis Ombachi: How the Kenyan rugby player learned to live with bipolar disorder

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CNN
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In sport there is nothing more revered than scoring the winning points in the last minute, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. All of sports’ greatest matches have that moment which stick in fans’ forever. But not for Kenya rugby’s Dennis Ombachi.

When looking back at the try that he scored after the buzzer had gone, to send the Kenya Sevens team to the Olympics, he tells CNN Sport, “I really can’t remember much. What I remember is getting the hooter and hearing the coaches, the late Benjamin Ayimba [Kenya’s head coach] and the technical bench just screaming Omba, Omba!”

From inside his own 22, Ombachi handed off two Zimbabwe tackles before storming down the pitch to score the try that qualified Kenya for the inaugural Olympic Rugby Sevens event.

Ombachi would be a part of the Kenya team that went to Rio and rubbed shoulders with the greatest athletes in the world, becoming a regular with the team on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.

But at the height of his powers, the Kenyan star suffered a severe leg break, side-lining him for the best part of a year.

But it was Ombachi’s mental health that would take a bigger hit than his broken leg. Being forced to move home and with nothing to do but wait for his leg to heal, Ombachi struggled to cope and eventually attempted to take his own life.

“Bones and muscles eventually do heal. But what I really didn’t factor in was the mental toll that it was going to take on me and which dragged on, even up to now that I still suffer a bit from it,” Ombachi recalls.

Thanks to intervention from friends and family, Ombachi was hospitalized and finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness characterized by manic highs, depressive lows and possible periods of psychosis.

But Ombachi also remembers that what also helped him through that dark phase of life was his hobby, cooking.

The winger had always loved food and cooking, a hobby that benefited from a career that took him all over the world.

“My love of food is intertwined with playing rugby because it started when playing the HSBC legs, you tour close to 18 countries a year and all these countries, they have their own culture, languages and food. We used to eat different kind of foods,” Ombachi tells CNN Sport.

“I used to come back home and challenge myself to try and create some of the different dishes I had here and there. I think that’s how the passion grew.”

In particular, renowned chef Gordon Ramsay was an inspiration for the house-bound athlete.

“Through his YouTube channel I managed to understand the fundamentals, the principles and how to use your tastebuds,” said Ombachi.

“That’s what actually got me through most of my depressive moments, especially the times I was injured,” he says before adding with a laugh, “In cooking, Gordon Ramsay was my mentor although he doesn’t know about it.”

When Ombachi returned to playing his career took another hit, this time in the shape of the Covid-19 pandemic.

With the Sevens circuit canceled and the Kenya Rugby Union terminating his contract, Ombachi suddenly was once again stuck indoors and without an income.

So Ombachi got back in the kitchen. And with a DSLR camera that his former captain and mentor Humphrey Kayange brought back to him, Ombachi began making cooking videos and posting them on Instagram and Twitter.

He quickly developed a style that in his videos would set him apart from other content creators. These were rapid-fire videos, with Ombachi narrating and punctuating every step of the process by saying, “Done!”

Ombachi started off with a fairly large audience in Kenya as an athlete who was always very active on Twitter and Instagram, but it would be a different platform, TikTok, that would make Ombachi become a global phenomenon.

Specifically, it was a single video that made the player, now living permanently in Nairobi, explode.

“From time to time I cook plenty of food and then hand it out to the kids on the streets so I shot a video one time of me doing the same,” said Ombachi.

“I cooked, handed out the food and it went viral on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram. From that video alone I managed to gain more than 300,000 followers.”

The video shows Ombachi preparing chicken stew with chapatis, boxing it up and handing out to children on a Nairobi street, now has over 15 million views on TikTok alone.

“I think this [cooking for street kids] comes from when I was back in high school. There was a time I was a little bit depressed, a little bit lost. So I decided to run away from school. I knew I didn’t want to go home. So I ran away and I was a street kid for a week.

“I made lots of street kid friends and it made me understand and empathize with them, that they are regular human beings just going through the same problems like all of us. My opportunities are just better than theirs. “

Just as when he was representing Kenya around the world, Dennis remembers his roots and the people he represents. That is one of the chief reasons he is so open with his mental health struggles.

According to the World Health Organization’s 2017 report on world mental health, Kenya was the fifth highest ranked country in Africa for cases of depression and that an estimated one in 10 people suffer from a common mental disorder.

The government set up a mental health taskforce in 2019 to address the crisis, but as a country that is overwhelmingly rurally based, there is a lot still needed to do.

Plenty of athletes and social media figures have used their platform to speak out about mental health and partner with organizations and charities to spread awareness.

Ombachi supports that work, but he also sees an important role for those with public profiles to simply embrace their struggles with mental health.

“If you have regular people living their regular life lives talking about it … then it hits the spot more.”

With two young children at home now, Ombachi is looking for a more stable lifestyle than that of a globetrotting rugby player.

He is also following in the footsteps of his “mentor” Gordon Ramsay and is setting up his own Nairobi based masterclass to teach people how to cook gourmet food.

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