Mother knows best!

This was originally posted in December ’11, and then I thought to take it down, convinced that it was too personal.  Clearly, my plans for the blog have changed somewhat since then.  Stop nodding.  It seems fitting to put it back up now, as we head to the polls to cast our…umm, votes?  Truth be told, this is as close to patriotic fervour as I’m going to get this month.  Folks, may my mother’s voice be in your head as you put a check mark against a (possibly dubious) candidate’s name…  

Many years ago, my mother and I were watching a music programme on TV featuring the group Jabali Afrika, they of the bulging torsos fame, and the drums, performing in concert in some far off land (this I deduced from the nature of the crowd, which was mostly white, with no rhythm).  One song in particular caught our interest…well, my interest and the mother’s wrath.  At one point of the show, Kenyan ragamuffin artist Hardstone, long lost to us over in America, bounds onto the stage and begins to do his ‘ting, I forget what the song was called, but it was the one with the ‘ng’ombe yakwa ya gredi…’ line, ‘Uhiki’ I think?  And then suddenly, the ‘Stone stops the band and bursts into song, ‘Eh Mungu Nguvu Yetu…’  I believe we all know that hit single. 

Cue one very irate mother.   

She was quite disgusted that some “foolish child” had the audacity to sing the national anthem in such an inappropriate place, and in such a disrespectful manner”.  Now in my characteristically blind and stupid arrogance, I blithely assured the mother that singing the anthem in the middle of a concert wasnt disrespect, but simply a celebration of Kenyan identity.  “Kind of like waving the flag,” I said, as I recalled the various times I’d sung the anthem, at concerts every New Year at the stroke of midnight, football and rugby matches (back when the Kenya teams actually won something), I think I’ve even sung it in a bar.  Granted the effect of mass euphoria and inebriation had something to do with a bunch of Kenyans bursting into song, but what’s important is that rather than bursting into, say, ‘Wasee Tumetoka Githurai’ or ‘Get Down’, whatever was top of the pops at the time, we sang the anthem, presumably to express the Kenyan pride we were feeling.

“What?” the mother sputtered, corners of her mouth speckled with foam (she was that pissed!), “What rubbish are you talking?” she spat at me (direct translation from Kuyo).  She then went on to explain how she remembers hearing the anthem being played in public for the first time, at independence.  And she remembers the days when the anthem could only be heard on national radio, and much later on television, long before they began teaching it in schools.  Have you ever listened to the words? she asked me, and I shrugged indifferently, struggling to understand the source of her anger.  The anthem is about our dreams.  It’s a prayer, a prayer of hope for the future and a reminder of our past.  He’s showing disrespect for our country just singing it like that.  You foolish children have no respect for your country!  Nkt!”  (In fairness, she didn’t really ‘nkt!’ me, but I could see she wanted to...)  She then got up and stormed off to go look at her cows, no longer desirous of my ignorant company.

The thing is, the mother is disturbingly good at planting a seed of doubt in my mind; like when I wanted to get dreadlocks and she didn’t say no, all she said was, ‘Is that who you think you are?’ and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and this is 15 years later.  That’s her M.O., she simply suggests, and leaves my over-active imagination to do the rest, secure in the knowledge that her frown of disapproval is so indelibly etched in my subconscious that I see her face every time I buy a pack of condoms.  On a related but completely unnecessary note, I think that gift is given to women once they procreate.  I’ve seen my eldest sister doing it with her son, it’s a bit creepy.  With such tactics in play, it was inevitable that her just ended rant would sit in my head and fester, wouldn’t it? 

And so I started to wonder, when we, and by we I refer to the post-independence generation, when we sing the anthem, what meaning does it hold for us?  Is it significant that we sing it in Kiswahili and not in English?  How many of you out there know the words of the anthem, all three stanzas (yes, there really are two more), in English and Kiswahili?  I confess I can barely remember the first stanza in English, let alone the next two, in either language.  I can, however, tell you that all stanzas have the same tune, of that much I am sure.  Pathetic, isn’t it?  For eight years in primary school, I carried a school diary, daily, with the complete anthem printed on page one, in both languages no less, and all I remember is the colour of the damn book (manilla pink if you’re interested, but I digress.) 

The more I think about it, the more I realise that the anthem is more than just a verbal national ID.  It’s what we hope our country is and always will be.

Haki iwe ngao na ulinzi
Natukae na undugu,
Amani na uhuru,
Raha tupate na ustawi.

A summary of the Kenyan dream, isn’t it?  Maybe that’s why we sing it in Kiswahili, and not the ‘white man’s tongue’, as my mother calls it.  The anthem is more than just a hit single, like ‘Malaika’, it’s a statement of who we are and what we want our country to be.  We may not have fought the colonialists, but we continue to fight for our national identity and sovereignty in a world where borders are becoming even more blurred.  And this fight entails us upholding the sacredness of our national anthem for all to see and hear.

Eh Mungu Nguvu Yetu

The anthem is a prayer (would you believe I truly hadn’t realised that, until the mother brought it up?  Shame, man!), and even the most irreligious amongst us (stop looking at me like that) knows that prayers are not to be flung about with disregard.  Now I’m not saying we have to be in a church to sing the anthem, or that you must be sober and fully clothed…well, maybe fully clothed, for the safety of others, and perhaps sober enough to stand upright.  The way I figure, it’s not where you sing, its how you sing and why you sing.  Why do you think we sing the anthem on New Years Eve and not at Easter?  Why do we sing the anthem when Kenya wins Safari Sevens, but not when Arsenal wins the Premiership (both seemingly unlikely events these days)?  As children we’re taught to respect the anthem, but as we get older we begin to lose the awe and take it for granted.  We don’t stand up unless we have to, we wont sing along unless we’re intoxicated by something or the other, and when we do sing we jump around and scream like…well, like we’re intoxicated by something or the other.  As a generation, perhaps we are losing touch with what national pride entails?  Or maybe we’re just trying to re-interpret the anthem, you tell me.

It turns out, at the end of the day, that mother really does know best, and for a child who’s spent a great deal of time convinced otherwise, this is a frightening, frightening thought.  It also scuppers all plans to put locks in my hair, finally, but thats a story for another day.  Folks, the next time you stand up to chant the anthem, intoxicated or otherwise, do me this favour, for my mother’s sake, please stand tall, pull your pants up and put the damn booze down.

Ive just wandered across this track on my playlist and thought to share it with you, not because it has much of anything to do with the post, but because its a classic Kenyan tune, the likes of which we seldom see these days.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present, Maroon Commandos, all 8 minutes of Amka Kumekucha’ (lyrics courtesy of the lovely gentlemen at Ghafla.co.ke).  

Uvivu ni adui mkubwa wa ujenzi wa taifa,
Kwani nicho kiini hasa 
kisababishacho njaa

You didnt see that one coming, did you?