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Smoking costs ‘Dereva Chunga Maisha’ hit singer a foot

Health & Science
 Musician Sam Muthee, now confined to a wheelchair.

More than two-and-a-half decades ago, his authoritative voice ruled the airwaves. His hit single was inescapable in a majority of Kenyan households that had radio sets. It was the voice of reason, which scolded and cajoled drivers on the road to be vigilant.

Appropriately titled “Dereva Chunga Maisha” (Driver preserve life), Sam Muthee’s most popular hit became like the national anthem for road safety campaigners.

Twenty-seven years later, fate has played a cruel joke on Mr Muthee and he regrets not heeding his own counsel. Muthee, who composed the song back in 1988 after watching what he terms as “horrendous road carnage that was taking away the most productive members of the society”, has become a victim.

He explains: “I have been a smoker since I was in Form Three at Starehe Boys Centre, mainly due to peer pressure. It all started with a boy urging me to take just one puff.”

What I did not know is that a single puff was pushing over 4,000 different poisons into my body. At my peak, I was smoking two packets – all 40 sticks – in a day.

In 2007, while in England, Muthee suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed on his left side and has to get around on a wheelchair.

“As a result, I developed gangrene in my left foot that started to rot right in front of my eyes. The result was the stroke and diabetes that led to my left foot amputation in February 2008.”

Today, the 65-year-old road safety advocate, and father of four, faces the greatest battle of his life. His life has become a nightmare.

The cause of the stroke, he believes, could also have been avoided.

“When all limbs are working, when everything is going well for you, it is only easy to take life for granted,” he says during the interview. “You are not aware of what those living with disabilities go through.”

He talks of the agony of not being able to access buildings that were made without consideration for those with disabilities, while a simple task such as taking a bath has to involve other people.

But it is the loss of musical skills that distresses him most. After the hit song, Dereva Chunga Maisha, Muthee composed 14 other songs under the album, You are so Beautiful and It Hurts My Eyes. His desire to continue composing was nipped in the bud when he suffered the stroke.

“I can no longer use my left hand to play the guitar. Do you know how that feels? I can only use the mind now, not the limbs. We must address the needs of those with disabilities,” he says.

Muthee has so much disdain for cigarettes that he wants them banned.

It was not only cigarettes that the street-smart Muthee experimented with. As a student at the University of Nairobi, where he studied both Zoology and Botany, Muthee became a habitual drunk who could not pass an opportunity to hit the bottle. He would “go crazy” at the mere sight of a beer truck passing near the campus. Fortunately, he kicked the habit before it got the better of him.

Love affair

His ‘love affair’ with the bottle ended abruptly after his graduation in 1977, when he was posted to his former alma mater, Starehe Boys Centre, where taught for a year and a half.

One morning, after a night of hard drinking, Muthee staggered to class after catching about an hour of sleep.

“Imagine the shame and humiliation as the students laughed their heads off, and the attendant wrath from the then school director and disciplinarian, the late Geoffrey Griffins. I decided to quit drinking there and then.”

He pauses dramatically and wistfully adds: “I wish I had done the same with cigarettes.”

After Starehe, he went to Oxford University Press where he sold books, criss-crossing the length and breadth of this country. These are the journeys that exposed him to the horrors of road carnage.

“I came across numerous serious accidents that claimed the lives of many Kenyans. I asked myself what I could do to sensitise our drivers on the need to be careful on our roads since they had the power to  avoid accidents,” he states.

Having learnt to play the guitar during his university days, the answer came through the composition of Dereva Chunga Maisha song that got a lot of airtime on radio back then.

The success of the song was the turning point in the life of the teacher-turned book salesperson.

In 1990, he quit employment to focus on music, which was then paying what can only be described as peanuts. Together with his friend Kafel Maina, Muthee was invited to perform at Pizza Garden, Westlands, for a modest fee of Sh250. Their equipment was as rudimentary as any could get. The duo had only one microphone and they made use of Muthee’s home amplifier.

“The people liked our country music, going by the ensuing attendance. However, one Professor Kimura asked me why I could not play some local music rather than just aping what the West had to offer. Despite my poor Kikuyu pronunciation, we were able to come up with our rendition of the then popular Kikuyu hits such as Mariru by Albert Gacheru. From then on, Pizza Garden was always full house whenever we performed the local jigs,” he says.

Yet another friend, Joe Mwenda, who had just returned from Europe, later joined the two and this marked the birth of what is today popularly known as the one-man guitar.

His life took yet another turn in 2002 when the family relocated to the UK after his wife, Jane, secured a job there as a nurse. Prior to this, she had worked at Kenyatta National Hospital for close to 20 years. In fact, it was through her profession that the two met in 1979.

In the UK, Muthee was employed as a high school Science teacher. The job presented yet another test for a man who was born and raised in Majengo, one of Nairobi’s slums where life was not for the faint-hearted.

Muthee may have gone through some of life’s most painful moments. However, music, his first love, lives on in his heart. With the help of local DJs, he intends to redo the song Dereva Chunga Maisha. Road safety, he says, should be a concern to all.

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