By Sarah Kimani with Ogova Ondego
Published August 2, 2013
A young bride dressed in a white wedding gown exchanges vows with an equally young and handsome young man in splendid ceremonial Police uniforms as the audience sings, ululates and dances to rhythmical, almost hauntingly hypnotic music. But shortly before this, that same woman is portrayed as a domestic servant who suffers abuse at the hands of her employers, such as water being poured on her face as she goes about her work. Overcome by pain, she weeps forlornly, desolate, surrounded by garbage as her only companion.
This is the story of Gospel singer Hellenah Kitheka-Kaloki whose life, 22 years ago, was that of servitude and hopelessness; she did not even imagine she could have formal education. Today, Hellenah Kitheka-Kaloki has a career, a family and has recorded eight well selling Christian music albums that are listened to across Kenya and beyond. And it is this success that Umenivusha (Kiswahili for ‘You have helped me cross over’), from which the above description is made, celebrates. This song is off Mambo Yanabadilika (Things can only get better!), her eighth album that was released in December 2012 and became a sensation overnight.
Born in 1977 as the 12th of 13 children to a monogamous family in Kabangi village of Mwingi district of Eastern Province of Kenya, Hellenah Kitheka-Kaloki had a strained relationship with her father who did not champion education of her children, leave alone that of a girl. But this was not to stop Hellena Kitheka-Kaloki whose focus was on education.
“I am the kind of person who presses on until what I want done gets done,” says Hellenah Kitheka-Kaloki of the attitude that has enabled her achieve her goals in life.
But dad’s attitude to not educating his children despite having the means to do so wasn’t the only handicap Hellenah Kitheka-Kaloki faced; things turned worse for her when her parents separated while she was in form two followed by the death of her eldest brother who was paying fees for her secondary education. She was aged 16 at the time and with nothing definite to look forward to except her participation in co-curricular activities like music, drama and ball games at Mulango Girls High School. These co-curricular activities were later to become her life-line: she excelled in them, bringing credit to the school and thus the school clung to her for a while she despite her school fees challenges.
She says she remained steadfast in her desire to develop her singing talent; participating in church choirs and other events that required performances, especially, traditional music. But as misfortunes never come singly, the school where she was studying couldn’t do anything about her inability to pay the fees for her final year Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination (KCSE) and thus asked her not to return to school without the money. It was around this time that her mother went to see David Musila, the then Director of Tourism who hailed from their village, to seek assistance for her daughter’s education. She says Musila paid the KCSE registration fee and then prevailed on her father to pay up the pending school fees. She completed Secondary school and joined Kenya Utalii College in Nairobi to study House-Keeping and Laundry. After graduating with a diploma in Housekeeping and Laundry, she secured a job as a Housekeeping and Laundry supervisor in the same institution.
It was while at Utalii College that Hellena Kitheka-Kaloki ventured into the recording of Gospel music in 1997. She used the proceeds from the maiden album—Evinda ya Kuthingithwa (These are the Days of Shaking)—to kick start her career in gospel music.
In Kenya, it was Hellena Kitheka-Kaloki’s seventh album, Sitarudi kuwa vile (I will Never Return to Desperation) that thrust her to fame. She says the lyrics of Sitarudi kuwa vile mirrored the experiences of a majority of her audience and that explains the popularity of the song. In the song, that she says is autobiographical, she is first derided as being barren, jobless and desperate but that God blesses her immensely even with things she hadn’t imagined she could have
Hellena Kitheka-Kaloki’s earlier albums were mainly done in Kikamba, her first language, but were later translated into English and Kiswahili in order to reach a wider audience. This included the 12-song Evinda ya Kuthingithwa that was recorded in 1997 while still a student at Utalii College; it was translated, recorded and released as her second album in 1999.
Her third album, Kethwa tuwe mwii ai? (If it were not for you, Lord, where would I have been?), was released in 2000. Like the previous two, this one also had 12 songs that reflect on the intervention of God in her college education all through to her securing a job at Kenya Utalii College.
Acheni kuulizana (Stop Murmuring among Yourselves), her fourth album, was released in 2001 as a response to the people who could not understand how quickly she had risen in life. Ngooya Yakwa (Give praise to God was the fifth album released in 2005.
In Mambo Yanabadilika, Hellenah Kitheka-Kaloki is taking stock of her life and assessing the distance she has come musically and career-wise. It is this album that carries the song Umenivusha. Like other songs in the album, the song compares the two phases of her life—as a poor, needy girl from a dysfunctional family which cannot afford her school fees to an inspiration from which other people can draw strength.
The artist applauds Kasanga’s Music Shops that markets her CDs and DVDs for nurturing her talent.
Hellenah Kitheka-Kaloki commends Groove Awards for acknowledging talent among Gospel artists. However, she proposes that the panel should consider awarding winners cash prizes to enable them do more recording of quality music and take their career to the next level.
Wife of 10 years to Ken Kaloki with whom she has a six-year-old son, Prince Levi, Hellenah Kitheka-Kaloki reveals how she has managed to balance her work life with that of family. “There is no perfect marriage but it is a responsibility for the two to understand each other and learn to tolerate each other in times of happiness and sadness,” she says.
Hellenah Kitheka-Kaloki has now been moved to the Public Relations Department at Kenya Utalii College after she completed studies in Public Relations and Diplomacy at diploma level in 2013.
Hellenah Kitheka-Kaloki’s story will go down in history as a tale that inspires sympathy and admiration almost in equal measures. She purposed to make something out of her life in spite of her personal circumstances and because of her sheer determination, fate conspired to give her a chance. Her life is almost complete, having completed her college education, secured a stable job, and is, by all accounts, happily married.
Sarah Kimani has just completed her Journalism and Public Relations Internship at ArtMatters.Info