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


There is nothing more revered in sport than scoring winning points at the last minute, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. All the biggest sports matches have that moment that will stay with the fans forever. But not for Dennis Ombachi of Kenya rugby.

Looking back on the goal he scored after the siren went off, to send the Kenya Sevens team to the Olympics, he tells CNN Sport: “I really can’t remember much. What I remember is hearing the horn and hearing the coaches, the late Benjamin Ayimba [Kenya’s head coach] and the technical desk shouting Omba, Omba! ”

From inside his 22, Ombachi delivered two Zimbabwean tackles before rushing off the pitch to score the goal that qualified Kenya for the inaugural Olympic seven-a-side rugby event.

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

But at the height of his powers, the Kenyan star suffered a severe leg fracture, which set him aside for most of the year.

But it was Ombachi’s mental health that took a more severe hit than his broken leg. Being forced to move home and having nothing to do but wait for his leg to heal, Ombachi struggled to make it and eventually attempted to take his own life.

“The bones and muscles eventually heal. But what I didn’t really take into account was the mental burden it should have taken on me and that it dragged on, although so far I still suffer a little from it, ”recalls Ombachi.

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

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

The outsider has always loved food and cooking, a hobby that has benefited from a career that has taken him around the world.

“My love of food is intertwined with the game of rugby because it started by playing HSBC legs, you are touring close to 18 countries a year and all of these countries have their own culture, language and food. We used to eat different types of foods, ”Ombachi told CNN Sport.

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

Ombachi says support from teammates, captains and coaches helped him during depressive episodes.

In particular, famed chef Gordon Ramsay has been an inspiration to the home-bound athlete.

“Through his YouTube channel I was able to understand the fundamentals, principles and how to use your taste buds,” said Ombachi.

“This is what actually got me through most of my depressive moments, especially the times I’ve been hurt,” he says before adding with a laugh, “In the kitchen, Gordon Ramsay was my mentor even though He does not know”.

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

With the Sevens circuit canceled and the Kenya Rugby Union terminating his contract, Ombachi was suddenly locked once again indoors and with no income.

So Ombachi went back to the kitchen. And with a DSLR camera 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 would set him apart from other content creators in his videos. These were quick videos, with Ombachi recounting and underlining each step of the process saying, “Done!”

Ombachi started with a fairly large audience in Kenya as an always very active athlete on Twitter and Instagram, but it would have been a different platform, TikTok, that would have made Ombachi a global phenomenon.

Specifically, it was a single video that blew up the player, who now lives permanently in Nairobi.

“I cook plenty of food from time to time and then distribute it to children on the streets, so I once shot a video of doing the same,” Ombachi said.

“I cooked, distributed 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 making chapati chicken stew, canning it and handing it out to children on a Nairobi street, now he has over 15 million views on TikTok alone.

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

“I made a lot of friends with street kids and it made me understand and empathize with them, that they are normal human beings who are going through the same problems as all of us. My opportunities are simply better than theirs. ”

Just like when he represented Kenya to the world, Dennis remembers his roots and the people he represents. This is one of the main reasons he is so open with his mental health struggles.

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

The government set up a mental health task force in 2019 to address the crisis, but being a predominantly rural country, there is still a lot to do.

Many athletes and social media figures have used their platform to talk 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 in simply embracing their struggles with mental health.

“If you have normal people living their normal life talking about it … then it hits the most.”

With two small 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 organizing his Nairobi-based masterclass to teach people how to cook gourmet foods.