Eric Wainaina: My life, my mistakes, my truth

Eric Wainaina at a past concert. [File, Standard]
He first stepped on stage in 1992. And 27 years later, he is still at it. Cuddling the microphone, as he works up a sweat with his bandmates, one can clearly see the passion and work that goes into it.  Eric Wainaina and the band are gearing up for a gig later that evening.

He sounds great, and the band is equally good, and as he belts out the Ritwa Riaku oldie, I can’t help but be transported to the realms of unicorns and cupids.

 He soon spots me and saunters over. He is ready for the interview. He ties a bandana neatly around his short dreadlocks and lowers his slim frame into the seat.  He may be 45 but his youthful flair and the easy way he carries himself makes him seem much younger.

“I get very nervous before a gig. I get over it when I get on stage, but before that it’s nerve-racking.”

For a man who sings love so good, he caused some broken hearts years ago when the world found out that he had cheated on his beautiful wife Sheba Hirst. An affair that brought forth a child.

And as he settles in, I ask him how that notorious episode in his life has coloured his experiences since then.  Now, over a decade later, he wears the look of a man who has waded some thick waters and come out stronger and better. And if he could undo one thing in his life, he says, it would be the pain unfaithfulness caused his wife, Sheba Hirst, and their families.

The hurt he saw his wife go through was enough to inspire some changes in his life.

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 “I learnt a lot of lessons about faithfulness. We live in a society where men have been raised to imagine that it is OK to have multiple partners and that your friends will keep your secrets for you. You can dog your wife in the company of your best friend there.  And when your wife calls him when seated right there with you, he will for sure come up with an excuse for you. Something like… ‘Oh Eric just stepped out…’ I told my friends I don’t need that from them and I don’t want to be their excuse either. Don’t get your girlfriend to call me and ask whether we were with you. I will say nope, I was not,” he says.

Drawing back to this memory seems to still haunt him, and he pauses in reflection before he goes on.   

 “Of course this comes from having slipped up before and understanding how much it hurt my wife, and deciding I don’t ever want to do that again. The biggest accomplishment for me, in tandem with my wife, is having saved our relationship from imploding.

Does he mind that it was brought to the public?

“Of course I minded, but I owned it. I did not go to the press to start defending myself because that’s not the kind of person I am. Also, a thing like that, while I think it is right to suffer some degree of public shame, making it public is not the way to solve it because all you can do is defend yourself instead of fixing it. I expected it to get as bad as it got, and I was definitely not going to deny it but now it’s in my past,” he says.

NOT YOUR TYPICAL TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE

Eric Wainaina and his wife Sheba Hirst. [File, Standard]
Sheba and Eric have been together for 21 years and married about 10 now. They have two children together.

And theirs is what you would call a modern marriage.  

“I do not believe in gender-specific domestic roles. I don’t imagine that it is my wife’s job to wake up and make breakfast. Between my wife and I, we will make breakfast for the kids, get them showered and dressed, do their hair and send them off to school. I was raised to do the dishes and cook. My mum was very clear about things like that. Sundays and Decembers were house help-free. So we would have to cook, clean, do the laundry and iron too,” he says.

 And that kind of teamwork has brought his family closer.

“It helps us bond with the children. They have so much to say, so many interactions they want to share with you – if someone else is getting them ready for school, dropping them off in school, you will miss out on a lot of that,” he says.

 Even when they were little, Sheba and Eric would take turns to feed them at night.

“I couldn’t just be there and not participate. They even called out for me as often as they called out for their mother.  I have heard men say, ‘Ah, my work was done in bed!’ That’s…not true,” he says with a laugh.

And their offspring have also taken up some musical talent from their dad and artistic abilities from their actress and producer mum.

“Seben, who is 13, plays the guitar. She also dabbles on the piano and is always learning songs from YouTube and going to the tutorials to learn how to play them. She sings beautifully. The second-born, Neo, is 9. Whenever theme songs from TV shows start to play, she gets up and dances. That’s how she is. Music is in her blood. Then my boy is also musical too. ” he says.

He is proud of his children, and while his career takes him away from home a lot, he would like them to feel that they come first.  “I would like them to know that I loved them dearly and that I worked to maintain and grow my relationships with them. I never want them to feel like I sacrificed them for my career. At different points we have had to sort of structure ways and means to ensure we keep contact, make sure we are calling the children at a particular time every day, that Sheba and I are in constant contact – it hasn’t affected us too adversely, but I am prepared for what’s going to come next as my career grows,” he says.

He is bound to get even busier in the coming days, having just released a new album called Dreams in Stereo.

“It comes from a very personal place. It’s about love, passion, betrayal – it’s about coming back together. I think that sort of sums up what my last decade has been.”

What has the decade taught him? I prod.

“I will simplify it to three things:

One, Make sure you sign your own cheques. You should never hand that responsibility over to someone else because you won’t know where things are going. Even if that person has the best of intentions, their choice of expenditure might not be what you would have chosen.”

“Two, are you a musician? Play an instrument. And write. Being able to compose is what gives you control of your career.”

“Lastly, never take NO for an answer. Push, push, and push some more. The worst that someone can say is NO. You won’t die.”

I see him glance towards the direction of the stage and I realise that it may be time to get back to prepping for the show later on in the evening. He extends an invitation to stay on for the main show. And I am glad I do, because despite the chill, the beautiful sounds, the obvious passion on display and the electric feel in the air, reminds me that I had just experienced an evening with one of Kenya’s, if not Africa’s greats.

Eric Wainaina performs the Kenyan and American national anthems at Kasarani where former US President Barrack Obama held an address. [File, Standard]
ERIC’S MINUTIAE

The biggest lesson from my father is…

To never gang up on weaker people and that violence is never a solution.

My biggest influence is…

Besides my parents and wife, I have always named Mahatma Ghandi as one of my greatest influences. I have read a book of his non-violent revolution, and earlier today I watched the movie.  

If he was to make the last wish…

With any luck, other than dying in my wife’s arms, I would like to be playing concerts till I die.

I would like the world to remember me as…

Someone who tried really hard, who did their best, who did not accept barriers to stop me. I opened doors for myself and for others. I never want to pull anyone down. I have met a lot of people in my life who feel like the only way they can get ahead is by pulling people backwards. That is not my philosophy at all. My parents did not raise me like that.

The one thing I know for sure is that…

I know nothing. Coincidentally, I am currently reading Game of Thrones, the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. In it, one character’s most well-known statements to the main character is ‘You know nothing, Jon Snow,’ and every time that is said, I will quip, “You know nothing, Eric Wainaina.

One parenting rule I break is…

We argue in front of the children. This I know is contrary to popular advice. We are not averse to having conflict in front of the children. It is important for them to see that you can argue with a person that you love and you don’t have to worry that you are going to lose them,” he says. “We show conflict but we are also affectionate in front of the children, so they know how to be affectionate and how to argue if we need to argue.”

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