Gospel singer Janet Otieno suffered from a complex health disorder that nearly ruined her life and career but she managed to overcome it.
“When I sit down and think about how far I have come, tears flow from my eyes. I don’t know how to say how good You have been to me. You have been my pillar of strength. You have taught me patience and you have protected me all through. Receive my gratitude.”
This is the translation for the lyrics to “Pokea”, one of Janet Otieno’s latest gospel songs, released to YouTube viewers last month.
According to Janet, the lyrics are a true reflection of her life’s journey, having overcome depression to be where she is today.
The singer, known to most for her 2013 hit single “Napokea Kwako” featuring Tanzanian singer Christina Shusho, says she is coming out to share her life story to encourage someone in the same situation.
Janet describes herself as a singer, songwriter, philanthropist, mother, wife, businesswoman and a minister of God.
The second of three children born to William Ochieng, a lawyer, and Pamela Ochieng, a business woman, Janet grew up in Kisumu County’s Nyakach constituency. She attended Onyuongo RC Primary School and Ahero High School, both in Kisumu.
Growing up, music was a big part of Janet’s life. She dreamed of becoming a singer but her parents, especially her father, would hear none of it. They believed gospel music had no future and associated it with retrogression. They had a different idea for her; to pursue a more respectable career in engineering.
“Each time I brought up the topic, my parents would strongly object to it and insist I understand and respect their right or face their wrath,” says Janet.
Ever the obedient child, she did as her parents wished and joined New George’s College in Nairobi for a diploma in Civil Engineering, yet her heart was not in it.
“I needed to act fast knowing too well I was not comfortable with my parent’s choice of career which would end up shattering my dreams,” says Janet.
She tried her best to stay in school but after only five months, she couldn’t take it anymore. She quit college, defying her family wishes, and pursued her dream of becoming a gospel singer.
Her parents were crest-fallen. “I recall them disassociating themselves from me for close to a year,” Janet says.
She says it later took the intervention of her elder brother and uncle for her parents to understand her actions and start to speak to her again.
Moving to Nairobi
Janet moved to Nairobi’s Embakasi estate, where she lived with her uncle and secured a part time job at Oriental company within Embakasi – that specialised in making zips, belts and peanuts. The money she earned was just enough to meet her basic needs.
When she wasn’t working, Janet began her quest for a career in music. She started attending churches and crusades where famous gospel musicians performed.
Later in 1991, she joined the church choir at Redeemed Gospel Church, Embakasi. She soon became the lead singer and guided the congregation through powerful praise and worship sessions with her magnificent voice.
After the Sunday church services Janet would retreat to the solitude of her home and compose songs.
Due to her achievements the lady with a strong social media presence been busy doing interviews in various media platforms.
It was there that she met a man by the name Alfred Otieno who later turned out to be the love of her life – the husband and the father of her children.
Janet describes her proposal as different; beautiful and without a doubt the best moment of her life.
“Alfred proposed to me one day after he invited me for an evening coffee in a popular café in town. It felt absolutely wonderful; I don’t think there are actually words to convey how wonderful it felt. Finding someone so completely accepting of you can be a struggle. I feel incredibly lucky to have found him -- to know that he loved and accepted me completely,” she says.
In 1996, the couple wedded with the blessings of their parents. The couple has two daughters -- Ivy Mich and Pridence Bushness -- and a son Travis Gueth.
A strong believer of respect, communication, love and trust in any relationship, Janet has advice for couples struggling with marital challenges.
“Marriage is all about getting to understand your partner. Another crucial thing is communication. We all have different understanding and, in most cases, that’s where many arguments are brewed. Nothing beats the power of communication in marriage since it carries love and understanding,” she says.
Even with a happy marriage, Janet says she faced many personal challenges, especially after becoming a mother.
After giving birth to her second child in 2001, Janet faced health issues that led to further distress. Weighing 136kg, she ended up with metabolic syndrome (an increased level of glucose, sugar in the blood) and pre-diabetes (risk of developing full-blown diabetes, heart disease and stroke). She also had cardiovascular and thyroid problems.
“On top of that, my knees hurt. I was easily out of breath and could hardly walk for more than five minutes,” Janet narrates. “I missed out on a happy, joyous motherhood. The fact that no one seemed to have a solution to my problem -- not even doctors who attributed my condition to pre-conception obesity and excessive weight gain during pregnancy. It made me depressed,” says Janet.
“My first memory of sensing that I was ‘different’ was three months after the birth of my second born child. One of my young friends and I sang at a church choir within the neighbourhood and as I stood on the stage singing my heart out, I sensed some people in the audience were laughing at me because I was fat,” Janet says adding that she was subjected to daily teasing, mocking, jokes and stares from people of all ages. She says she was excluded from ladies’ meetings and felt ostracised by her peers.
“With each passing fortnight, my weight increased by approximately 1.3 kg and my self-esteem and self-worth plummeted. The pain was too great for me to bear as a young mother and wife. I prayed many nights that I would die in my sleep. I hated myself and my life. But even so, I hated having to face yet another day with its painful repetition of the day before. I kept telling myself I needed to end it all,” Janet narrates.
With time, Janet found it harder and harder to leave her house. When she tried, she could hardly find the right size of dress to wear and her fear of being mocked grew. Eventually, her husband Alfred Otieno had to step in and take charge of some of her duties as a mother.
Tired of constant negative attention having been pushed to the wall, Janet found herself doing the unthinkable -- attempting suicide four times by taking extremely high doses of medicines she bought over the counter.
On her fifth attempt, Janet had a turnaround.
“My husband had been so supportive. One day, it hit me that I could lose him,” Janet says. “A friend from the US named Vanice paid us a visit and I was able to share my problems with her. She too had been a victim of obesity many years ago. She understood the pain I was going through and was willing to help,” she narrates.
Following Vanice’s advice, Janet enrolled at a local gym and embarked on proper dieting.
However, after seven months, Janet got big and painful blemishes that took a while to heal. The doctors attributed her skin condition to rampant burning of fats and advised her to stop aerobics for some time.
“I was depressed. My self-esteem was gone and there were times when I locked myself inside the house for days,” Janet says.
Not willing to give up Janet continued with her proper dieting with the hope that she would eventually be able to lose weight and her face would go back to normal.
Fortunately, after nine months, she was able to get back in shape and since then, there’s been no looking back.
“I am glad that despite the challenges I encountered deep inside of me, there was a little spark of hope that one day everything would fall back in place,” says.
Through the decade she battled depression, Janet says music was the only place she found solace.
“Music was part of the solution to my problem. It’s healing and soothing effect allowed me to see there was more to life than attempting suicide. Through my lyrics, I was able to voice out my problems,” Janet says.
In 2013, Janet says she got a vision from God.
“I was napping during the day. I saw myself singing in huge gatherings and people would be in a state of worship,” Janet says adding that she felt God was calling her into full time music ministry.
Carving a niche
“Later, when I went to a conference in South Africa, a pastor called me out, pointing at me, and said God was calling me into ministry,” Janet narrates.
With the help of producer Sam Lokwa, Janet recorded her first song, a version of “Napokea Kwako.”
Around the same time, Janet travelled to Tanzania, where she met Christina Shusho. “I asked her to advise me on the way forward regarding my song and she offered to work with me and Lokwa to reproduce it,” Janet says.
Janet says although she and Shusho had known each other through church circles long before she even thought of recording her music, it was her visit to Dar es Salaam that saw their friendship renewed, birthing their collaboration on the debut single.
“I knew it was God’s favour, being able to work with an award-winning artist was a plus on my side,” says Janet. “Indeed it was my time to shine.”
The song became a major hit in East and Central Africa, garnering millions of views on YouTube and becoming Janet’s launch pad into the Gospel music industry. It was also nominated for the Groove Award for Best Gospel Song of the Year in 2014.
“God planned it. The song was a good one and I’m grateful,” says Janet.
Janet went on to record a number of other songs as a solo artist, among them Uniongoze, Ni Wewe, Mtafute, Heshima, Tembea Nami, Roho Wako. She also recorded Nisamehe with Congolese musician Rigan Sarkozi.
“Many women out there suffer from depression but they choose not to talk about it. I hope my story will reach many out there and encourage them,” Janet concludes.