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Budget still high for Baba Otonglo

By | June 12th 2009

Mike Owuor

Baba Otonglo aka Baba Penny, an erstwhile rich man who has hit upon hard times, clears his throat and gathers a sheaf of papers ready to deliver his anticipated domestic budget. As his large polygamous family listens attentively, Baba Otonglo points out that since the previous financial year had put a squeeze on the shilling, there was need for austerity measures to survive the slump during the next year.

He, therefore, proposes that from then on meals like beef, chicken and fish would only be eaten twice in 30 days — mid month and end month. Breakfast would invariably consist of ‘strong’ (black) tea with one spoonful of sugar or uji, without luxuries like milk, bread and eggs. After all, Baba Otonglo emphasises with a tinge of sarcasm, even the neighbour is still alive despite not eating such foods. As for chapati and rice, these would be reserved for Easter and Christmas. Boiled sukuma wiki from Soko Mjinga would be the meal of choice. More importantly, everybody would be expected to eat meals at the same time, as it is expensive to keep food for those who come late. And only bar soaps would be used for bathing, not the many luxury brands hitherto at the family’s disposal.

Odhiambo Osumba

There would also be reforms in the management of visitors. Ideally visitors are officially banned from the house. But should any turn up without notice, they would be expected to carry their own bus fare and bedding. Also prohibited would be neighbours who have formed the habit of asking for small quantities of items like flour, cooking oil and matchsticks, with false promises that they would replenish the supplies.

Thus goes the story of Odhiambo Osumba Rateng’s 1984 song, Baba Otonglo (Budget Iko High), a lament over the rising cost of living. The Kiswahili lyrics interspersed with English words, accompanied by intricate guitar work, captured the collective imagination of the nation in the face of famine and tough economic times.

Rising cost of living

"Budget Iko High is as relevant today as it was in the 1980s because of the rising cost of living," says Osumba.

The song starts with a visit to Baba Otonglo’s city home by his long-lost friend from the village, whose first encounter is with his host’s dog, Vodka. Indeed, this is the subject of the refrain: "Vodka unisamehe, budget iko high". (Forgive me Vodka, times are tough). But it is Baba Otonglo’s budget that takes the cake for its humorous delivery.

"I was inspired by the parliamentary tradition of Budget-reading by the Finance Minister and the difficult times wananchi were going through. When it was released, it was considered to have political undertones," says Osumba, adding that the minister then was Arthur Magugu.

It was a song that brought him and his Sega Sega Band fame, fortune and, inevitably, trouble. Initially, says Osumba, it received sufficient airplay on the Voice of Kenya (VoK) radio. But things soon turned sour and the political class, sensitive to any form of criticism and ready to censure artistic expression at the slightest excuse, apparently ordered the national broadcaster to stop playing the song.


Osumba then got into more trouble when in the flurry of media attention, a journalist convinced him to pose with a briefcase, in the manner of the Finance Minister’s pre-Budget posture. When the photograph was published it rubbed some powerful people the wrong way.

"Four policemen came to my house in Baba Dogo Estate, Nairobi, and arrested me. They accused me of criticising the Government and composing a song that incited people," he says.

Osumba claims that although the officers insisted the song had a hidden meaning, he convinced them he was just being creative by giving somebody’s domestic budget. He was released without charge.

"The song was actually political. Vodka, the dog, referred to the police and Baba Otonglo’s budget was basically a jab at the Government for letting wananchi suffer," admits Osumba who, like the protagonist of his song, has a large family of 13 children.


Osumba — who is a lead guitarist, vocalist and composer — formed his own band, Sega Sega, in 1971. Although he no longer performs with them, the band still plays at a Nairobi restaurant under the leadership of Alego Ogwanjo and Lawi Jakambare. Osumba is only involved in recording.

Nonetheless, the musician has good news for his fans: Kakamega-based Zamaleck Music Shop recently released a video of Baba Otonglo, and a remix of the song is on the way this month.

The musician, whose other popular song in 1994, Loan Bila Plan (ni adui ya maendeleo), advised people not to take bank loans on a whim.

Some of his other songs include Tuishi Pamoja, Maisha Magumu, Masomo ni Maisha, Sherehe ya Baba Otonglo, Mtu ni Mtu, Dala Ber Moloyo and Kong’o Wang’e Tek.

And with the tough financial times, it seems some may yet turn to Baba Otonglo for inspiration on their household budgets.

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