By Fred Mbogo
Published November 19, 2008
Love and politics wouldn’t ordinarily walk together. But throw in persuasion and the two might just get cemented. An example of this marriage of love and politics is best presented when one considers what in the history of Kenya is termed the Nyayo Era (1978-2002). This was a two-decade period over which President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi was in power. Political scientists and historians can sift through the numerous methods, which they think Moi employed in his retention of loyalty of the citizenry over the 24 years of his reign. But in ranking these approaches in order of influence they are unlikely to think highly of the power of choral music. Yet the persuasive nature of organised voices often does smother, soften and warm the heart while cooling the mind.
Some of these choral arrangements includes one whose lyrics belted the idea that: “Moi, Moi, rais wa Kenya/ Sisi wanakenya wote tumeungana/kwa mwito wako wa amani na umoja”(Moi our president, all we Kenyans have come together behind your call for peace and unity). Other choral renditions had titles such as Tawala Kenya, Mola alitupa Kenya and Fimbo ya Nyayo yatuongoza (Lead Kenya, God gave us Kenya, Nyayo’s Staff leads us).
The trick with these beautifully crafted pieces is that they combined the notion of nationalism with Moi as the leading patriot. They suggested that Moi really cared for the country and that he loved his people. The covert message was that any one who seemed to criticise President Moi was a dissident who was anti-Kenya. In romanticising Moi’s capacity to lead peacefully and through repeatedly trumpeting his Nyayo “philosophy” of “peace, love and unity” the music created an image of a saint ready to die for the country.
Of course when put into its historical context this “patriotic” choral music did also serve the purpose of concealing the many ills that may have been committed by President Moi’s government. The many incidents of detention without trial, torture, negative ethnicity and the violence that went with it, and notable political assassination in the Nyayo Era (“Nyayo Error” to detractors) were never sang about. Instead the complainants, suffering under these ills, were labeled, “wachochezi” (rabble rousers) and “adui wa maenedeleo” (enemies of development). The songs served as vehicles for the creation of the myth of an all-loving President who needed to be loved back for the sake of the country’s unity and development.
But how come these Nyayo praise songs have not been given a new tweaking to accommodate the current regime of Mwai Kibaki? We should have praise songs in the name of Mwai Kibaki, the President or Raila Odinga, the Prime Minister. The problem is technology. While, during Moi’s time there may have been a limited number of radio and television stations, now there is a proliferation of broadcasters all in competition for attention. No longer are listeners restricted to one line of thought through a single broadcasting station like Voice of Kenya and Kenya Broadcasting Corporation that was used as the mouth piece of the ruling party and government during Moi’s rule.
KBC (previously VoK) was a major tool in the promotion of these Nyayo praise songs. Its reach across the country through its radio and television stations spread the songs to the citizens as a unit. The myth or “philosophy” of Nyayo was presented in romantic terms particularly when constantly replayed during national festivals. Moi became the father of the nation so that when these songs were played the image of the president as a person who cared came to the mind of listeners.
These praise songs following in the pattern of many choral music arrangements had accompaniments such as drums and shakers (kayamba) and sometimes the marimba in a variety of beats drawn from the various Kenyan communities. The costumes were made to look “African” with the kitenge dominating the clothing. All these elements were to evoke in the audience the idea of “tradition”. They pointed the audience towards accepting Moi and his Nyayo philosophy as part of an African tradition, which ought not be rejected. How could one therefore run away from the authority of tradition by failing to acknowledge a “philosophy” preaching peace, love and unity?
In fact the idea of kufuata nyayo ya mzee (following the foot marks of founding president Jomo Kenyatta) was mostly advocated for in such “developmental” projects as the Nyayo Bus Service, a highly subsidised public transport in Nairobi. Moi invoked the idea of following in Kenyatta’s footsteps, which were in his estimation important steps especially given his perceived credentials in the struggles for Kenya’s independence from colonial rule. The Nyayo praise songs made Moi the protector of Kenya’s sovereignty and unity against foreign interference.
But Moi’s style also worked in making these songs come to life as the “rungu” (club or staff) became a symbol of “herding” the country towards a common end. At functions where these performances were featured, the President often joined the singers and danced along while raising his club to the delight of the audience. Composers were often paid during such occasions.
The songs were easy to sing along. They were therefore quite immediate in echoing humorous political statements in praise of President Moi. There were such claims for instance that Moi was mkulima, mwalimu, baba namba one (the leading or number one farmer, teacher, father). Such attitudes could form the subject of a whole song. The praise songs with such lines as hakuna kiongozi mwingine (there is no other leader) reinforced the notion of Moi as the only example to follow.
But did these songs lull the populace into sheepishly being behind Moi or were these praise songs so enjoyable that they were a therapy of sorts from the ills visited upon the populace by the Nyayo regime? What is certain is that the songs were enjoyable and could as well have been instrumental in forging an image of an acceptable president, particularly when competing political voices were given limited space by the publicly-funded broadcasting house.
It seems as though Kibaki and Odinga are in no hurry to nurture and accept praise singers. Perhaps the headaches of working in a Government of National Unity are so enormous that such distractions, as praise songs, have not crossed their minds. Possibly neither leader is a keen listener to choral music. The practicality of these songs working for either of the two is not as clear now as they were in President Moi’s Era. Maybe the Kenyan populace has become less accommodating than it was before to songs spreading anyone’s praise. Maybe the myth of one leader as father of the nation with everything in his hands has been broken particularly with the advent and exercise of multi-party democracy. It is also quite possible that with the proliferation of so many radio and television stations and the possibilities wrought by the internet have assaulted the chances of one mouthpiece broadcasting the single “truth” spread by such songs.