Pioneer gospel singer Mary Atieno has proved that disability is not inability. The singer who is a wife, mother and pastor is credited for being among the few artistes who have redefined Kenya’ gospel music scene. She spoke to CAROLINE NYANGA
I grew up in Kirengo Village, Karungu in Nyanza Province. Life was not easy and we had to strive hard to survive.
I come from a polygamous family and was the first born in a family of nine. My father Francis Yara, who was a headmaster in various schools within Nyanza Province, had two wives—my mother Polina Ajwang’, who was a housewife and my stepmother Rachael Akello who was also a teacher. Mary Atieno
When I was born, everything about me seemed normal. My parents had no idea what would befall me in the few months to come. It was not until I was five months old that they realised I was blind. They did their best to ensure I would be able to see again. They took me to medical institutions including the then famous King George Hospital (now Kenyatta National Hospital) in vain.
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At some point during my school days, I met a Kenyan of Asian origin who gave me hope of seeing again. He told me about his similar experience and the fact that he was able to see after an operation.
End of the road
But by that time, I was unable to convince my father as he had lost hope of me ever seeing again. But, this was not the end of the road for me.
Unlike many girls who never went to school, I had the opportunity to secure my education at Asumbi Mission sponsored by the Catholic Church before moving to St Oda’s Aluor Girls School for the Blind, where I was part of the school’s Dodo choir.
I later moved to Thika Salvation Army High School for the Blind (currently integrated) that comprised the blind and normal students of both sexes.
During my free time, I would sing with renowned singer Reuben Kigame. Within no time I had curved a niche for my gospel career propelling me to the next level.
At school, I led the Starlight Choir during major events and State functions. One such event was when former President Moi invited us to sing for him some of our self-composed patriotic songs like Kenya Twaipenda and Furahini Wakenya. They became instant hits among a large section of Kenyans besides being accorded immense airplay on radio and the main local television station VOK (Voice of Kenya), now KBC.
I continued singing upon joining Kenyatta University as a Bachelor of Education student. I often composed patriotic songs besides leading the campus choir. At some point, Moi bought our choir uniforms after one of our impressive performances.
Despite my success, all was not well judging from some of my experiences at the campus. Unlike previous institutions where students readily assisted me, here I lacked a true companion whom I could rely on. The fact that I had my own room made matters worse. Many times I would end up knocking at my fellow students doors whenever I needed their assistance.
Upon completing my education, I joined International Fellowship of Christ Choir that saw me release evergreen gospel chart busters like Adamu na Eva, Sodoma na Gomora and Hakuna Mungu Mwingine that held top positions two straight years.
In 2004, I released another album Njooni Tumsifu that was well received. No wonder upon completing university, I was summoned back to sing during the graduation ceremony.
Whenever I meet my fans, they ask; ‘what the happened to Mary Atieno the once popular gospel singer?’
Truth is that although it was not easy to succeed as a woman and a blind one for that matter at a time when music was considered a male affair, I managed through God’s grace and continues to do so. I have more than 12 albums under my cap. I am working on a project due for release between late October and early November.
Unlike in the past when music production was easy considering the wide use of cassettes, today, things have become complex with advanced technology: One has to spend more money to come up with the right product.
But that is not the reason for my ‘silence’. Those who have been keenly following my music will agree that I have maintained my standards.
On the other hand, my husband and I have been busy touring the US among other countries, to evangelise and sing.
Apart from that, we established a worship centre, the Sanctuary of Hope, in 2001. It is within Kayole Estate. Many faithful come in for prayers, ministry, counselling and Bible study.
The secret of my music lies in having a good and right plan before releasing a song besides taking time to read the Bible for wisdom. This enables me to minister in my songs, hence reaching out to many. Unlike most fellow musicians whose songs tend to excite people emotionally, I have maintained my style of music, which is Bible oriented and aims at touching the soul with its lasting messages.
The fact that my songs are self-produced and recorded at various studios is also a plus for me.
Ominde family. Photos: Maxwell Agwanda/Standard
However, we plan on initiating our own studio soon. Unlike fellow gospel artistes known to work with secular artistes, I hardly do so considering the nature of my songs, which many may find difficult to adjust to.
My music has seen me tour the world. Some of the countries I have visited include Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, Britain and the United States.
Some of my albums include Sodom na Gomora, Jerusalem Mpya, Nirudieni, Hakuna Mungu kama wewe, Osiogope, Yesu ni Jawabu, Nimeokoka, Nani kama Yesu and Usife Moyo among others.
Hope to prosper
Nevertheless, I always remind them the importance of accepting Christ as their personal saviour if they hope to prosper.
I began my teaching career in 1998 at Buruburu Girls’ Secondary School. As an English and Literature teacher, I taught Form Three and Four students. I recall being too conscious and having fear in me during my first day in school.
Also, the fact that I had to be assisted made me feel like a burden to colleagues. On the other hand, I wasn’t too sure how the students would react upon being taught by a blind person.
Surprisingly, everything worked out well, the students and teachers were very supportive. The only challenge was that I had to prove that I was good at my work.
I hate sympathy and this made me into a stronger person with a mission to encourage the blind by letting them know that they are no lesser human beings. My principle has always been to live life to the fullest.