Why Kenya’s National Anthem is So Beautiful

Written by | Quick Reads

It’s simple, because it was the result of the first “Kenya’s Got Talent.”

On the last day of the Rio Olympics, the world woke up to this melody they had never heard before. Kenyans had heard it so many times that it might as well have been the lullaby it was built from. But to others, it was hauntingly beautiful, and sounded like a movie score. Something you put either at the beginning of a brilliant story or just before the real drama. That moment, even for Kenyans watching Eliud Kipchoge get a gold medal for the marathon to wrap up a successful, yet messed-up Olympics, was something else.

That moment when you still love your country despite its ugliness.

That moment when you still love your country despite its ugliness. Image by Chang W. Lee/NYT

Kenya’s national anthem was born the way all other anthems in new African nations were born. Colonial governments were going around handing out independence like it was a gift, knowing full well what a clusterfuck they were leaving behind. There were many things they could trick the new padded African politicians into, like constitutions and international organisations. But when it came to anthems and things that were symbols that weren’t worth money, like flags, they stepped away.

On September 4th 1963, with just months to bringing down the Union Jack, a small music competition took place. In all the gorgeous places within this third-trimester republic, it took place in Kenyatta’s front yard in Gatundu. That front yard would become many things in the next decade and a half, including the cabinet headquarters and where land was divided. But on that Wednesday, Kenyatta sat on a seat leaning on his seat, watching the finals of Kenya’s first true music competition. Perhaps it’s most important.

But one group already had an unfair advantage.

It was like going to Tusker Project Fame when you had been brought together, funded and trained by the organizers.

There was a reason for this. Choosing a committee to write a national anthem doesn’t seem like a good idea. In fact, bringing together a committee for anything shouldn’t even be legal. Yet that’s what Kenya did (Surprise surprise! Remember that years later, we also had a Devil Worship Committee?).

There was another option, but it was as chaotic as it was potentially messy (which is why music competition shows keep playing audition tapes). Public competition.

You announce everywhere you are looking for an anthem and then you sit and shortlist and judge. And then maybe the finals are held in Nairobi and you have Kenyatta as the perfect ancestor to Ian Mbugua and Simon Cowell. And voila! Anthem galore!

This had already worked, in Uganda and Nigeria. But in Uganda it resorted in the shortest anthem in the world, musically speaking; so short that it has to be sang or played twice to lengthen it. It was composed in a single day, by George Kakoma who, it seems, had had a wild night before and had a sudden burst of inspiration. We’ve all been there, Kakoma, we’ve all been there.

But it was Nigeria that presented the greatest problem of using public competition.

You see, when you open up a competition you assume there are enough people within that place that can join in. You of course expect more bad entries than good ones, but once the interns and the bottom of the barrel employees have dug out a few gems, you can then sit and judge and look like you’ve worked.

But what if there aren’t enough people with that ability, and those who can are exactly the guys you are running away from?

When the national competition for Nigeria’s anthem closed, the winner “Nigeria, We Hail Thee” was actually catchy but had a glaring identity problem. The lyrics were written by Lillian Williams, and the music by Frances Berda. If those don’t sound like Nigerian women, that’s because they weren’t!

Frances had never even been to Nigeria, and Williams wasn’t a permanent resident of this vast country whose jollof and future coups she had decided to honor with a patriotic song. As you can imagine, in a country seeking a nationhood, having your anthem written by two foreigners isn’t really the way to start out. (Nigeria had to change its anthem in 1978).

Controversy followed almost immediately, and was still raging on when Kenya sat down and decided to marry the disastrous committee method, and the risky public competition one.

So the boringly-named National Anthem Commission came to be. The all-male pack included George Senoga-Zake, Peter Kibukosya, Washington Omondi, Thomas Kalume and Graham Hyslop.

Graham Hyslop, the artistic director of the committee, was whiter than his name implies.

Yup! Despite a whole argument in a serious cabinet meeting about public competition allowing whites to participate and win, Kenya plugged a white man right at the heart of its song-birthing committee.He was the most experienced in Kenyan folk songs because he had been free to roam around the country since 1936. It was a committee anyway, so no one would notice?

No one seemed to.

An anthem for this new country called Kenya would need to be national in its outlook, short enough to not be “In the Closet” by R. Kelly, and unifying in its content and delivery. It could be played by a military band or sang by a choir without losing its original feel or dampening the words written for it. It was also more about the spirit, as opposed to the outright translation, that should guide its translation from Kiswahili to English. This last point has been contentious, as it starts from the very first line. You’ll no doubt, at some point in your life, sit in a bar opposite a drunk who will tell you of an earth-shattering revelation; that “Ee Mungu nguvu yetu” should be “O God our strength” not the “Oh God of all creation.” Drunken geniuses.

The song this commission finally settled on was a Pokomo lullaby, sang by a musician called Meza Galana. Only a committee would find a lullaby striking. Maybe they listened to it immediately after waking up. But it was “hauntingly beautiful”, as it would be called in plagiarized headlines 53 years later. With the music part solved, they sat down to write the lyrics.

When the first version of the anthem was played, which is where the Ugandan in the group, George Senoga-Zake comes in as a choirmaster, Kenyatta and his minions loved it. Like good politicians though, they couldn’t simply applaud and just not comment. Kenyatta, like an even more astute politician, had a pressing problem. One of the spouses he was inheriting, the Northern Frontier, wanted a divorce. So he needed a song that reminded everyone else to protect the sovereignty of their nation; in case of course there was a war. The second verse needed some work, and a fourth should perhaps be added on devotion and readiness to defend this gorgeous Kenya.

It’s not recorded if any over-zealous minion derided the group for not including words to wish the supreme leader eternal health.

The eventual version would go back to three-verse six-lines-per-verse structure because what do politicians know about music. The theologian in the commission, Thomas Kalume, drawing on his vast experience with religion and prayer, wrote that first prayerful line that reminds all and sundry that we are a godly state.

Then everyone else chipped in what had been a Pokomo lullaby became an anthem to finish all anthems. Kibukosya was a music teacher from Eregi Teachers College, while Washington Omondi had a music degree from Edinburg University. It was a committee of experts whose work would be judged by people whose only musical qualification was patriotism.

It was the edited version that would be presented at Kenya’s Got Talent: Ichaweri Edition. Two other presentations were made that day, just to make it look fair. One was by a man called Garishon Manane, who had just graduated from music studies in England. The other was by another man called Peter Colmore, an ex-British soldier who had gone into music instead of farming and doing colonial things in 1938. Colmore had contextualized a Central African song, and Kenyatta Simon Cowell-ed almost as soon as it was done playing. He liked Manane’s though, there was a certain vigor to it and the words warmed the soul of the first patriot. But he had already invested resources in this other committee thing, so he decided to open the choice up.

He turned to the crowd and asked which anthem they thought was lit, and the crowd chanted they had liked the committee version. It was the start of Kenya’s official love affair with commissions and committees; and voting by shouting at the guy on top. With this genius, half-public competition, half-commission half-vote-by-acclamation hybrid, an anthem was brought to existence.

On December 12th, at Uhuru Gardens, thousands of citizens of this new nation, thinking themselves free, stood at attention as what would become the new song of the nation played. The first part was a prayer, a hopeful opening to a deep melody. The second was about nation-building, reminding the citizens of the newly independent country that they should be ready to protect and defend the country. The last covered patriotism, playing into the trope that nationhood meant nothing if its citizens didn’t respect and work hard for the country. The closing line “kila siku tuwe na shukrani” was about being thankful, for God and country (and ostensibly, the politicians whose scathing reviews had given us a melody and hope). Absolutely patriotic!

Featured Image is a screengrab from video below

Owaahh, 2016.

One story is good,

till Another is told.

Last modified: November 8, 2018