Through thick and thin, the Kenyan spirit remains ever resilient


People queue to vote. FILE PHOTO | NMG

“……. Kenya, so warm and wild and free………my land is Kenya, right from your highlands to the sea you’ll always stay with me here in my heart, here in my heart.”
My Land is Kenya, Roger Whittaker (1982).

While I was writing about Nairobi School recently, I came across Roger Whittaker who is an alumnus of that school and remembered the words of his song “My Land is Kenya” in which he declares his undying love for Kenya.

Roger Whittaker was born in Nairobi on 22 March 1936 to Edward and Viola Whittaker. His father, affectionately known as Ted, was a successful businessman running a grocery store in Staffordshire, England.

After suffering a serious motorcycle accident, Ted was advised by his doctor to relocate to a hot, dry climate to assist him recover from his injuries. He moved to a farm in Thika, Kenya, in 1929 where he met and married Viola, a trained teacher, in 1930.

In 1939, the couple opened the grocery store Slater and Whittaker in Westlands, Nairobi (site currently occupied by The Mall).

After completing his primary education, Roger was admitted to Prince of Wales School (now Nairobi School) in 1950. Within three weeks after leaving school in 1954, he was conscripted into national service and spent the next two years in the Kenya Regiment fighting Mau Mau insurgents in the dense Aberdare Forest.

Roger was demobilised in 1956 and he decided to focus on a course in medicine, joining the University of Cape Town, South Africa in 1956. However, Roger was soon to find out that he could not withstand the rigours of day-in-day-out study. After 18 months, Roger returned to Kenya much to the disappointment of his parents. He joined the education department to try his hand at teaching.

Roger enjoyed teaching at his former school and of course knew where the boys did naughty things, so it was easy to catch them. When the boys lost concentration, he would play the guitar for them and that made him quite popular. However, due to his limited qualifications he could not move up the career path in teaching; a university education was essential. The University of Bangor in Wales was suggested, and Roger thought it was ideal.

Roger moved to Britain in 1959 and for the next three years, studied zoology, biochemistry and marine biology with such zest that he ended up with the second highest grades of his year and a BSc. to boot.

During his early years teaching in Nairobi, Roger had continued to sing and perform in local clubs, notably the Equator Club situated in Corner House, York Street (now Kaunda Street), and by then he had started writing his own songs.

Before sitting his final exams at Bangor, Roger became involved in the University Rag Week where he was approached to compose some songs to sing in the Rag Show. In the process, he made a demo track that found its way to a major music publisher.

Before he knew it, Roger was back in the studio recording his first single, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. Roger’s second release, “Steel Men” began to pick up radio air play while he was sitting his exams and soon it entered the British charts.

Faced with the dilemma of which career to pursue, Roger approached his professor who advised; “Take your chance, have a try at show business and if you haven’t made it in 10 years, come back here and teach. I shall always have a place at the university for you.”

Roger took his chance in music and making people happy in what was the beginning of a remarkable career. Today, Roger, with his mellow baritone voice, is an internationally acclaimed entertainer who has reached the very pinnacle of stardom.

The music of East Africa left an indelible mark on Roger’s childhood. “In over 30 years of singing and playing musical sounds, the wonderful drumming, and those marvelous, infectious rhythms, have played a great part in everything I have ever written and sung.”

In 1982, Roger was persuaded to make a movie in his native Kenya and for six weeks the cameras rolled, following him throughout Kenya as he related the story of Kenya’s history through his own unique words and music.

The result, “Roger Whittaker in Kenya”, was screened in Britain by BBC Television in the autumn of 1983, and later transmitted worldwide. It was a great show for promoting tourism in Kenya. Notwithstanding that Roger’s career took root and blossomed outside of Kenya in the glitter of showbiz, his heart is still in Kenya.

I am aware of the dastardly assault on his parents in Nairobi by four gangsters in, which his father was murdered while protecting his mother in 1989. Roger said of the incident, “It will affect me for the rest of my life, but I believe we should all live without hate if we can.”

Kenya has just come out of a highly charged general election cycle in, which the spectre of violence and tribal hatred raised its ugly head again.

We have come a long way since the days of colonialism and have overcome many obstacles through our resilience and indomitable spirit.

There is a long way to go yet and we are certainly not perfect whichever way you view it. I believe we stand a better chance united as one Kenya, in that indomitable spirit which has always pulled us back from the precipice.

Happy New Year 2018.