With a career spanning nearly two decades, Mwanaisha Abdalla’s stage name Nyota Ndogo comes easily to many. For a woman who has made a career out of admiration and controversy in equal measure, Nyota Ndogo comes across as a down to earth, much sought after star without the airs associated with big players in the entertainment industry.
So why has she been quiet? Her absence from the music scene has given rise to murmurs that she quit due to dwindled fortunes in the industry, something she denies. Far from it. I am very much in the game. My fans should prepare for surprises ahead,” she says.
The mother of two believes that the best is yet to come her way in spite of her achievements. She says music is her life, despite taking a hiatus in the same. She promises a comeback soon. “I have embarked on some projects in Voi, hence my absence from the music scene. I urge my fans to brace themselves for a surge when I return,” says the musician who, for two years, has been running a small hotel in Voi.
Having risen from such a humble background, how does she feel employing people at her hotel and home? “It gives me so much energy. If I did not experience the same, maybe I would not have looked forward to being an employer. I get a lot of messages from people looking for work but I can only employ so many,” she said in a previous interview with The Standard. She says she has recorded three new songs but regrets that the Corona pandemic has slowed down the music industry.
Born to a musical father and a sibling to jazz crooner Juma Tutu, Nyota Ndogo is no stranger to the music industry, despite the circuitous route she took to get here. Easily the queen of Taarab pop for her unique style, her music weaves into it an intoxicating blend of Coastal Bongo and Benga.
She singles out Sheila Mwanyigah (Nikki), Suzzana Owiyo and Kalamashaka as some of those who inspired her to take this path. “I wanted to be like them,” she says. And she did become a big name in the showbiz industry, and her journey is quite the story.
With four albums and multiple awards under her belt, one could easily forget that she once worked as a house help for two years to fend for the family. Nyota Ndogo attended Makande Primary School but did not sit the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations after failing to register due to lack of money.
But she was determined to find success in life. “I was convinced that I was not made for the gutter. My decision to assume roles of responsibility early modelled me into the woman that I am today. The coming of my children honed the motherhood instinct in me. I appreciate and relish their presence in my life,” she says. She says she was forced to drop out of school after her mother told her she did not have enough money to pay her school fees.
Born in a humble family in Ukunda slums of Majengo, Mombasa, Nyota Ndogo is the second of six children, and the eldest among girls. Not one to be idle, she was only 17 when she stepped out to look for jobs in Old Town, Mombasa, ending up as a house help. The future composer of award-winning Kiswahili hit, Kuna Watu na Viatu worked for Sh1,500 per month, taking care of three children. She says older house helps made more.
“I took the job in my stride, unbothered by the little pay as it gave me the opportunity to nurture my music talent by listening to songs on television and radio that were absent back home. I would write and hum the songs, a habit that helped me perfect my talent. Luckily, my employer noticed my ambition and supported me, to the extent of treating me as part of the family,” she says gratefully.
A neighbouring house help, who watched her sing introduced Nyota Ndogo a music producer, Andrew Burchell, aka Madebe, who was impressed by her compositions and recorded her debut album, Chereko. She was still a house help when her music started playing on Mombasa radio stations.
It was in her recording sessions that the musician met her first husband (whose name she declines to disclose), who worked as a sound engineer at the recording studio. Hardly four years down the line, their marriage hit the rocks and they called it quits because, she says, “I felt it was not working for us.”
Finding love again
Cupid was, however, to strike again and Nyota Ndogo met Danish-born Henning Nielsen in 2014 during a music tour in the US. They have been married for nearly seven years now.
Nyota Ndogo recalls thinking that happiness wasn’t something she would find in her path in in life. “I felt happiness was a luxury I could ill afford and opted to move on without it, but I have found happiness with someone who truly cherishes me and loves my sons.”
“I had finished my performance for the day and was at a cyber cafe in Washington DC, when we first set eyes on each other. Ours was love on first site,” she says of when they first met. “It was such a coincidence. He came over to greet me and within no time, we begun talking. He asked for my phone and social media contacts. Months later, we started a relationship,” she says.
Nielsen proposed to her six months after they met, and the two love birds tied the knot a year later in 2015 at a colourful Swahili wedding ceremony in Voi. But Nyota Ndogo is not in a hurry to relocate to her husband’s country, Denmark, because, she says, she loves her job and country.
She is hopeful that her husband will relocate permanently to Kenya at some point. “We have kept in close touch with each other and look forward for better days ahead,” she says on their union, confident they have made the best of their marriage.
Dealing with online trolls
She spurns rumours about their marriage being on a cliff. “We have nothing but love for each other,” she told this writer on phone after a long holiday with her husband in Kenya recently before he returned home to Denmark.
Her marriage also attracted rumours and snide remarks, given their gap in age. He is 18 years older. “My husband found me with my own share of investments, among them a house, land and tuk tuk,” she says. Nyota Ndogo, recently came out to defend her husband, Nielsen, against online trolls. This after a social media user tore into Nielsen’s age and wished him ill.
The Watu na Viatu crooner recently revealed that she has with time mastered the art of turning a deaf ear to naysayers who say hurtful things about her online. “Some of the comments we artistes receive are very hurtful. At that point, you just want to meet that person and explain things out, but you can’t. Social media has helped us reach our fans but what some fans write back is just off. You just grow a thick skin with time.”
The Mpenzi songbird, said Nielsen is the love of her life, not a ‘sponsor’. “He takes care of Mwanaisha and not Nyota Ndogo. My music takes care of Nyota and that is why I chose to stay in Kenya to work and not move to Denmark. He is an honest man and I am glad we met. If he was a sponsor, I wouldn’t work, right?” she said in a previous interview.
“The important thing is understanding each other’s weaknesses. We are still trying to adjust to each other’s culture. The challenging part is also being married to a mzungu. Many always expect me to help whenever they ask for help and if I don’t, they speak ill of me.”
She reminds her critics that true love knows no boundaries. “Love just strikes, it does not knock,” she says. And just last week, social media were awash with speculation about her being pregnant, something she denies. But what makes this star shine despite the negativity? “I have always been real, in my music, my personal life, and relationships with other people. I live in Voi, I rarely go to Mombasa except for gigs or to visit my mum, I work at my small hotel and life goes on,” she says.
And her husband is quite supportive of her music career. He was featured in her song, Woman, released last year. The song was written by Kelechi Africana and recorded in his studio. “I had not planned to feature my husband on the video but when I got the idea and told him, he was excited. In fact, he was the one who woke me up on the day of the shoot,” said the star in an interview with The Standard late last year. The video and song were recorded in 2016.
Even with success finally, in her grip, Nyota is determined to maintain her simple lifestyle and vows never to change her dark hue and simple mode of dressing.
-Additional reporting by Diana Anyango and Mkala Mwaghesha