For a woman who commands huge admiration, Kenyan pioneer gospel singer Mary Atieno Ominde comes across as down to earth.
The gospel music singer displays lots of confidence but little sign of the hubris associated with artistes in the big league. Looking fit and relaxed, she has proved beyond reasonable doubt that disability is not inability.
The singer, who is blind, has weathered the gospel scene for over three decades. The wife, mother and pastor is credited for being among few artistes who have gradually redefined Kenya's gospel music scene at a time when many thought it was dead.
"Every time I come across my Kenyan fans, this question," she says. The question? What happened to Mary Atieno - the once popular gospel singer whose songs Adamu na Eva and Sodom na Gomora, among others, dominated the gospel music scene more than two decades ago?
Mary says it was not easy back then to succeed as a woman and as a blind person at a time when music was considered a male affair. "I did so through God's grace and still continue to do so," she says.
To date with more than 13 albums under her cap, she is busy working on her latest projects.
Unlike in the past when music production wasn't such a difficult task, considering the wide use of cassettes, today things seem to have changed to a complex situation with advanced technology involved, meaning one has to spend more money to come up with the right product.
But that is not the sole reason for her 'silence'. Those who have been keenly following her music will agree that she has continuously maintained her standards as far as gospel music goes.
"On the other hand, my husband and I have been busy touring local towns including other countries to evangelise, sing and preach the gospel," she says.
They also run a worship centre, Sanctuary of Hope, Kayole established in 2001 where many faithful go in for prayers, ministry, counselling and Bible study.
Mary says growing up in Kirengo village, Karungu in Nyatike District, Nyanza, life not easy. She is the first born in a family of nine. Her father Francis Yara worked as a headmaster in various schools in Nyanza. He had two wives - her biological mother Polina Ajwang, a housewife and a mother of nine having lost one child, and her step mother Rachael Akello, then a teacher also lost a child reducing the number to seven.
"When I was born, at first, 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. Like many concerned Kenyan parents, they did their best to ensure that I would be able to see again by taking me to various medical institutions, including the then famous King George VI Hospital (now Kenyatta National Hospital) in vain."
But, this did not mean the end of the road for the singer.
At the time schooling for girls was not taken seriously by the society who believed that educating a girl was like watering someone else's field. Unlike many girls who never went to school, she had the opportunity to attend Asumbi Mission School, sponsored by the Catholic Church, before moving to St Oda's Aluor Girls School for the Blind where she was part of a choir called Dodo.
She later moved to Thika Salvation Army High School for the Blind (currently integrated) that comprised the blind and normal students of both sexes.
In 1978, at the age of 17, she was diagnosed with heart disease. Although she was generally a strong and active child, several tests showed she would not live into adulthood. When doctors became sceptical about her chances of surviving the ailment, Atieno sought refuge in Jesus.
"I turned to prayer. I knew God created me and it was only him who could heal me," says Mary. "I prayed. I promised God that if I got healed, I would serve Him for the rest of my life. He answered my prayer. When I went for another test, there was no problem at all with my heart. Subsequent tests have shown my heart is healthy," she says. The then teenager got saved and started singing.
During her free time, away from school, she would venture into singing with renowned singer Reuben Kigame.
Back at school, she led the Starlight Choir (comprising 30 students from Form One to Six) in participating within and outside school during major events and State functions.
"One such major event is when the then President Daniel Arap Moi invited us to sing for him. Some of our self-composed patriotic songs like 'Kenya Twaipenda' and 'Furahini Wakenya' became instant hits among a large section of Kenyans besides being accorded immense airplay on radio and the main local television station (VOK ) now Kenya Broadcasting Corporation," she says.
She then joined Kenyatta University as a Bachelor of Education student and carried on with her passion for music.
"I would often compose patriotic songs, besides leading the campus choir into various public and state functions. At some point, Moi bought us uniforms having been impressed with our performance," Mary narrates.
But despite her success, all was not well with her social life. Unlike other lower education institutions where students readily assisted her, on campus she lacked a true companion.
The fact that she had her own room made matters worse. This meant that most times she would end up knocking at her fellow students' doors whenever she needed their assistance, which came sooner or later depending on nature of the problem.
Upon graduation, she joined the International Fellowship of Christ ( IFC) choir that saw her release the evergreen gospel chart-busters like 'Adamu na Eva', 'Sodoma na Gomora' and 'Hakuna Mungu Mwingine' that held top positions for a period of two years in a row.
In 2004, she dropped another album 'Njooni Tumsifu' that was equally well-received propelling her to a higher level in her music career.
She says the secret of her music lies in having a good and right plan before releasing a song besides taking time to read the Bible for more wisdom. "This enables me to minister to people through my songs hence reaching out to the unreachable out there."
Unlike most fellow musicians whose songs tend to excite people emotionally, she has maintained her style of music which is scriptural and aims at touching the soul with its lasting messages.
"I produce and record my own songs at various studios. This is a plus for me," she says.
Unlike fellow gospel artistes known to work with secular artistes, she hardly does so considering the nature and style of her songs which many of them may find difficult to adjust to.
"Nevertheless, I always remind them the importance of accepting Christ as their personal saviour if they hope to prosper spiritually, physically and emotionally," she says.
Mary began her teaching career in 1998 at Buruburu Girls Secondary School. As an English and Literature teacher she taught Form Three and Four students.
"I recall being too conscious and afraid on my first day at the school."
She says the fact that she had to be assisted in many ways, including going to the toilet, did not make it easier. Being led to the staffroom, among other things, made her feel like a burden to fellow teachers.
On the other hand, she wasn't too sure how the students (boys and girls) would react to being taught by a blind person.
"Would they make fun of me or concentrate on doing other things during my lesson since I would not see them?"
However, to her surprise, everything worked out well – both the students and teachers were very friendly and supportive making her work much easier than she had imagined.
The only challenge though was that she had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was good at her work. "This meant that I had to work harder than the average person in order to avoid perceived as inferior - or unable. The fact that I hated sympathy made me a stronger human being with a mission to encourage the visually impaired lot by letting them know that they are no lesser human beings: Job 39:13-18 (talks about the eagle and its capabilities.)"
Mary's principle has always been to live life to the fullest. According to her, one should not lose hope in life simply because he or she is disabled or when they are going through a difficult the situation. For with God nothing is impossible so long as one has got faith.
Her music has seen her tour the world. Some of the countries include Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, Britain, including various states in the US.
Some of my albums include 'Sodom na Gomora', 'Jerusalem Mpya', 'Nirudieni', 'Hakuna Mungu Kama Wewe', 'Usiogope', 'Yesu ni Jawabu', 'Nimeokoka', 'Nani kama Yesu', 'Usife Moyo', among others.
"I have finished writing ten songs and I am ready to go to the studio any time. Two songs are in Luo, seven in Kiswahili and one in English," says Mary, who won the 2012 Groove Award for Oustanding Contributor.
Her latest album, 'Njooni Tumsifu', confirmed to her many fans that her magnificent voice still rings as clear as it did when they first heard it.