By Ogova Ondego
Published March 18, 2002
Corruption is a cancer that is eating away at the sinews of the Kenyan society. Until recently, artists steered clear of it fearing reprisals until a 27-year-old music student tackled it in a song that has quickly become a household tune in the country. It is one of the songs on an eight-track album known as Sawa Sawa (All Right). But it is not all right from the authorities’ perspective.
In graphic detail, the title track of Sawa Sawa, Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo, singles out some of the offending individuals and institutions and urges them to change their bad ways. For instance, he sings that they should drink tea and a soft drink known as Fanta instead of demanding bribes which are variously known in Kenya as ‘tea’, ‘soda’ or ‘Kitu kidogo’ (literally, something small or little).
While the song enjoys massive airplay on private radio stations, the state-run Kenya Broadcasting Corporation has shunned it. But this has not prevented Kenyans from using the song as an anthem at social gatherings.
Wainaina, a third year double major student of music production engineering and song-writing at Boston (USA)’s Berkelee College of Music, is a founding member of Five Alive, a gospel a cappella group which has since wound up.
Sawa Sawa is on both CD and video, a rare feat among Kenyan recording artists. The video features actors from Phoenix Players theatre group and popular political comedians Redykyulass who intersperse acting with comedy and music for effect. Wainaina was widely expected to be nominated for East Africa’s best artiste at this year’s all Africa Kora music awards.
Saying his intention was to give Kenyans hope, he has arranged his music in such a way as to appeal to the ‘world’ but still remain ‘Kenyan’. Consequently, the songs are in English, Kiswahili and Kikuyu.
Besides the virulent Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo which laments run away corruption in Kenya, other songs on the track include Bolingo in which he urges Kenyans to buy Kenyan products and build their country, Who is to Blame (for the sad affairs of things in the country!), Mashaka, Daima, and Ritwa Riaku. In between the songs is rib-tickling socio-political commentary by Redykyulass stand up comedians.
Having been known to be patriotic for his Kenya Only song which is now known as Daima (forever or always), he was recently invited to perform during the Winners’ Concert after National Schools and Colleges Music Festival in Nairobi. The chief guest was Vice-President George Saitoti. No sooner had he started singing the Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo than the national chair of the Schools Music Festival signalled one of the platform attendants to take the microphone away from him. The impatient chairman, Silverse Anami, then switched off the microphone when the attendant hesitated, leaving Wainaina’s voice trailing off.
Admitting that he felt offended, Wainaina said after the incident that he continued singing because he felt he was doing the right thing.
Undaunted, the young musician launched his album, that he says took him three years to compose, arrange, produce and record at the cost of US$15,385, the following day. He has since held a mammoth concert before returning to the USA to complete his studies.
NB: This article was written in 2001 and published here a year later.