Archives for April 2017

Cancer, and how to celebrate Easter this year like a god

The last one of them died today. The cancer patient who came to the newsroom seeking to have their story aired so that they could pay their bills in private facilities when public hospitals were closed during the doctors’ strike. One of them died on the day his story was published. I think my greatest test of emotional intelligence as a journalist and a woman was covering the doctors’ strike, arguably the longest doctors’ strike in Kenya’s history after independence. On the first day of the strike, my colleague photographer Dennis Onsongo and I met people with infections that we knew would have killed them if they did not get medical attention fast. So we put our notebooks and cameras in the pocket and placed human life before a story, then went on with our work later.

I met Rose Adhiambo through Kenya Cancer Association (Kencasa), an organisation that offers some little support for cancer patients in Kenya. She was at Nairobi West Hospital where she was being treated since Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) was closed. My colleague Leila Mohammed from NTV shot her story.

As she talked of how her friends ran away from her, how she was worried for her two girls and sonnwho now have to fend for themselves, I felt a knot in my tummy. I looked at her daughter standing near her, wiping her tears, willing to give anything to see her mother okay, and it just broke my heart that people had to live like this. Her children stopped living. They work, go to school, make trips to the hospital to see their mother. They had no time to be children. Rose died on Wednesday, just a few days before the death of Jesus. Her daughters are now in Kibera, without a guardian or a means of income. I do not need to tell you just how tragic that narrative can turn for those girls and a son in just a few months and they will have no future. As Rose kept calling after the story aired, asking whether anyone offered to help, she made it clear that her greatest fear was that she would die and her children would be alone. She died; they are now alone.

These stories just made me wonder. Isn’t great to have a choice? A choice to work on this one story over that; to talk to this person or not; to attend this event or that… That is a choice that people with cancer do not have. Rose’s diagnosis and death will not even make headlines like Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o’s. She is poor. When you have cancer, you will have to pay attention to your body because of the pain. It will stop you from doing the things others take for granted like a friend calling you for coffee and you turn it down because you “do not feel like it”. A choice to stay indoors for Easter for instance. For them, time is a luxury. Every second counts because they do not know when they will wake up and they would not be able to hold their children. Sometimes that fear comes to pass and they die.

As we celebrate Easter, I would like to make an appeal to us Kenyans. I have no right to tell you how to spend your money, but I would like to make a proposal. What if your bottle of beer tonight changed the life of a needy orphan such as Rose’s? At Kencasa, there are so many of these people who have been impoverished or completely tethered to misery because of cancer. They cannot afford food, rent or just basic life necessities like water. It is easy to rubbish this as “these cases of appeal have become too many” but today I’d like you to imagine that another human being’s discomfort is greater than yours and deny yourself something for them. A sacrificial act of kindness makes us supernatural. We become little gods when we resist the temptation to attend to our needs and take care of another creature who may not even pay you back. Sometimes helping others leave you in material need yourself but I am in faith with you that you would be kind today.

We are a kind generous and hospitable nation. See how many refugees live amongst us? Kenyans pay bills for people they do not know to get medical care in India. We share those posts of requests for fees or funeral expenses on our social media walls. I know we can get into the discussion about how we need to fix the system so that there are no cases like Rose’s but the truth is, she is dead. Her children are now orphans, and it does not matter whether they lost their mother because of a broken health/social system or not. It could have been an accident. As we fix the system, those girls need food to eat and have a roof over their head. Jesus is dying today, and with him I would like you to deaden your desire to take care of you, just this once. Be a Judas and betray your needs and attend to another. Today, be kind to someone. Mothers, give some of the clothes your children have to another mother or an orphanage. Ladies, allow the woman who does your laundry to take those clothes/ shoes/ bags you have never worn for ages and you probably never will.

Should you want to help Rose’s kids( two girls and a son) please contact Kencasa: Moses Osani, Programmes Officer, Kenya Cancer Association, Situated at Nurses Complex at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) and the phone number is +254716145616

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Legendary gospel songs in Kenya; what they tell us about gospel music today

Today I was looking at my friend musician Douglas Jiveti’s picture and I was laughing at how digital he has become, a growth so parallel to the gospel music industry in Kenya. Who remembers Nduti Onestop video productions where people were floated on a mountain when they were singing that God created the mountains? My goodness! If you had a Gratewall Black and white TV – with that detachable colour screen looooool— you must have watched Joy Bringers on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation(KBC), just a few minutes before Juma Mdudu’s Burudani was off screen. Due to my age, my memory does not take me so far but I guess I would credit Reuben Kigame and Douglas Jiveti – by the way they are great friends— as the fathers of contemporary music. The permission to choreograph songs that was so popularised by Maximum Melodies was a right those two fought for. Coincidentally Jiveti’s Yesu aliyesulubiwa was the opening song for Kuna Nuru gizani programme by Pr Pius Muiru from where the Maximum melodies.

It is sad Kenya has little or no culture of documenting our art. What can music tell us really? A lot, like the change in cultural, perceptions, attitudes on gender and politics around us. Take arrangement and writing for instance. Composers are breaking some rules on the use of compositions— like major chords being for happy songs as minor ones being for sad songs— and becoming emotional ambiguous as is the world today, and there is a study that shows this has been changing since 1960s. Dr Nyairo’s Kenya@50: Trends, Identities and the Politics of Belonging shows you how- from Maroon Commandos to Esir—songs’ lyrics is a testimony of the temperature of the politics in our country. Y’all should read that book, I highly recommend it. So, let me sample a few gospel songs, which by the way are not exhaustive. I talk from the few pieces that I have listened to.

Mary Atieno Adamu and Eva

You cannot fail to fail to recognise Mary Atieno Ominde’s steady voice… and that leader guitar in her songs. What stands out for me in Mary’s songs is how she chooses the themes. In Adamu na Eva, she starts with narrating the fall of man in Adam and Eve  and goes on to the third verse to carry out some evangelism role asking you “where will you go after you die?”. That can be seen in Sodoma and Gomora and Sauli mbona wanitesa (Saul why are you persecuting me?),a song inspired by Saul’s encounter with Jesus on his way to Damascus.  I don’t know what the dominant social issues in Mary’s time – I was not paying my own bills then for sure— but I know now the issues young people are facing want to talk about hope and the ability of God to grant you your earth’s desires, more than the hit-hard are-you-going-to-hell? stuff. Let’s us Sample Bahati’s songs: after his opening “Bahati tena”, comes Machoz of how God picked him from poverty, then he and Deno with Story Yangu  on the same topic.

Godwin Ngosso siku ya Kufa Kwangu

I do not know where Godwin went, but he had this song—Siku ya Kufa Kwangu — that was so profound on matter of life and death that it would be played before death announcements on radio. What I noticed in Godwin’s music was the people singing the backup and playing instruments. Notice the keyoboardist is Abedi Ngoso , a musician and a producer of his own right but there is no mention of “Godwin featuring Abeddy”. Today, there are collabos, and the only thing we can talk about them is whether one musician outshone the other or not. Today’s gospel artistes collaborate with one another, pooling different styles into a song. Look at Gospel Fathers, Jogg C and Mr Vee Fundi wa Mbao

Reuben Kigame Mshukuruni Bwana is a Pentecostal anthem, a masterpiece.  Well what would you expect of Reuben Kigame who has studied music to the highest echelons in terms of performance and the theology behind it? You would notice the song is downloaded word by word from Psalms 136. Now the gospel musicians today take their songs from the bible but they are paraphrased in a way to include Sheng’ but still inspired from the bible and sampled from many verses. Let’s take Owen “Daddy Owen” Mwatia Kazi ya Msalaba” from Psalms 146, 59 and other parts.

We cannot fail to notice how today’s musician does not stress being affiliated to any particular church. They can perform in various places, unlike their older generation would be in one church. What have you noticed of Kenya’s music, not just gospel.

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Why the most beautiful women are the ones with stretchmarks and a potbelly

Do not marry a creative if you have no grace. True story. There is this …thing I was editing whose first sentences I was not “feeling”. Writing should move you, make you cry, annoy you enough to get to at least think of doing something about the subjects therein. Finally, at 6 in the morning I got possessed by these words while in the bathroom. Immediately, I left came to the sitting room to write that down before the words disappear. After I had hurriedly scribbled the words, I realised my hair was wet, soapy and I had a pool of water where I was standing. “Oh okay”, I commented to myself and thanked God I was alone in the house.  In an assignment, I was a bit apprehensive that I was going to meet a Chief Executive of a certain reproductive health organisation in the restaurant. So I paced the room rehearsing my speech. Then when it was time, I grabbed my bag and headed to the lobby. After an engaging ten minutes of me putting my best foot ahead selling my brand and the company I worked for, he said “you must have loved those”. He was pointing to my feet. I was wearing the bunny eared house sandals my friend Irene Anyango gave me. I forgot to take them off to wear proper shoes on my suit!

So now I want you to clear your vortex because I want you to picture me, crazy deranged Verah, walking in Nairobi’s Central Business District in the most philosophical colourful way. Please take a very good look at the picture below. What do you see? Take notes because this is going to be our little induction to philosophy.

Yeah I had to wear the damn forehead looool
PHOTOS/Dennis Onsongo… If You are in Kenya you can have the skirt in any colour, for just 30USD (Ksh 3,000)

These last two weeks have been draining for me in every aspect of my life that I wished the earth would stop rotating I alight from it then y’all can continue with the journey. On Monday night, I sat on my bed to go through a document. No sooner had I finished the first page than the alarm rang reminding me it was Tuesday Morning and it was time to wake up… well did not sleep. That is hardly surprising for journalists anyway. I had an interview to catch so after dressing the part, I realised I had misplaced my key. I could not leave the house. I called him— thank God he knows me— and told him that I had locked myself in the house and agreed to talk to me over the phone.

When I finally managed to leave, it was too late to have my breakfast. So I put my porridge in my flask. I was about to put it in my backpack then I remembered I broke one of these flasks in that bag as I use public transport. This particular flask had sentimental value— one of my godfathers gave it to me—so I carried the flask in my hand to the bus station and to the office. I noticed the funny looks in Kimathi Street, and then my colleague George Ogutu would not stop making fun of me. At the entrance, I heard one of guards’ comment in Luhya how colourful I am— yellow skirt, blue jacket, green flask—…I lived with a Luhya for seven years, I understand the language. That comment drove me back to last year in Kisumu in this very skirt around this very time. I was writing my series on circumcision (READ a piece here and here). I woke up missing my late sister that day—I only had one biological one— and this skirt was the last thing we did together. She loved pleats, and round patterns and the colour yellow. Whenever I miss her, I wear it with whatever I find even boots. So I wore it, this time with a luminous green oversized biker t-shirt and this oversized sandals. I took a walk to town to have my dreads fixed. At the salon, I told the hairdresser the head was hers she was free to do whatever she wanted with it. Towards the end, a conversation starts in Dholuo.

Stylist 1: Pat wijni duong’ matek ma okonengo iket yie wiye go e toke (That forehead is too big you should not take her hair to the back of her head)

Stylists 2: Koka nyarwa oruakore ma ochalo ongowang’ (and our sister has dressed she looks like a crane bird).

Describing me in bird terms made me burst in laughter I spit the juice I was drinking. To their shock I was as Luo as they come. With the accent from South Nyanza and the stupidity that my degree and books cannot seem to rub off. I actually explained, in Dholuo, that I wanted it held behind in a bun as I have tried the other styles. I have had these confusions with my Kikuyu folk as well. That is the beauty of being in many foster homes: you gather all these culture, languages and habits that make you some sort of a…gypsy.

I did have a point. There are things that are seemingly ugly to the rest of the world and people get shocked at how we could be comfortable wearing them. I love how some women wear Bikinis and let that ugly scar of caesarean section be seen. That scar is nothing compared to the agony of waiting for years for a baby and then when you conceived, CS was the only possible way to hold your child. So who gives a fuck if the scar is there? The stretch marks…the potbelly…Life happened. People may never understand why you would protect some stuff so much – like me and my flask— because you lost before and you don’t want to go through that again.They get shocked because they do not the story behind that ugly. I have never learnt to be politically correct.  I tell people “You want to curse? Curse godamned it!”

Have you ever seen those people who tell you “the Lord knows why this had to happen, look in the positive and the bigger picture” just after you have been bereaved? I have very little patience for the optimism of people who have not lost something. People who have been there know how hard, and impossible to be positive.Sometimes people can admire the pride with which you wear those ugly or the beautiful ways in which you have learnt to live with them. Occasionally they comment “I wish I could do that” and I always wonder to myself “Will you pay the price?”. I can understand little bits of Kikuyu, perhaps carry a sentence in broken grammar. My Luhya is sketchy but I assure you I would not starve amongst Luhyas because of language barrier. The truth is, what placed me in these tribes were not the best of circumstances. When I picked those pronunciations, I was in tears but I learnt to adjust by accepting the kindness that was being shown me in that valley and I adjusted myself to so that I could receive my help better. The same can be said of my design, my writing and my music. They were gifts of stuff I picked while going through extremely dark moment. I know of musicians who know who are good at their craft because throughout their childhood, music was the only alternative voice from the abuse. People do not know you, intimately, until they have gone over your pathetic resume. So wear the godamned forehead, fetishes, weight… fill in the blank because you have had the misfortune – or blessing – to be on the other side.

Even the finest armour has a dent~TD Jakes

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