Composer annoyed that Kenyans cannot sing the national anthem

Prof Washington Omondi, one of the composers of the national anthem

Washington Omondi, one of the composers of the national anthem, could not hide his disappointment as he followed the events of a meeting that preceded the recent National Prayer Breakfast.

Prof Omondi, 76, says he could not believe it when former Cabinet minister Samuel Poghisio, who moderated the meeting at a Nairobi hotel, asked those who could sing at least the first stanza of the anthem to stand up.

“A good number did not stand up. Some only murmured; they don’t know the words of the anthem,” he says.

Omondi, who was part of the five-man team that composed the patriotic song ahead of Kenya’s independence in 1963, says he cannot understand why many Kenyans still cannot sing the anthem, 50 years later.

And when he took to the podium, Omondi shared the challenges the team faced while composing the anthem.

The anthem was to be played as the Kenyan flag was raised and the Union Jack – the colonial masters’ flag – came down, to signify Kenya had been granted independence.

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“Before our anthem was composed, we knew the words of the British national anthem. It was played, even in schools, as the Union Jack was raised and we all sang along; God save our gracious Queen, Long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen! Send her victorious…,” says Omondi.

He recalls how he, together with other members of what would become the Anthem Commission, was summoned to Nairobi in May 1963 by pioneer Education minister Joseph Otiende.

Studied music

Omondi says he had just completed his secondary school education where he studied music.

It was then that Mr Otiende mandated him, Graham Hyslop, George Senoga-Zake, Peter Kibukosya and Thomas Kalume to compose a national anthem.

A decision had been made, during a ministers’ meeting chaired by Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta, that a team should be set up to come up with an anthem.

“The minister hosted us at his Gill House office and told us the Cabinet had agreed that we should compose what would be the national anthem. We were all in shock. I had just won a scholarship to study music in the US,” he says.

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“We had to keep briefing the minister on the progress and he in turn kept the Cabinet updated. Feeling the burden of duty, we got down to work. We started by coming up with words we felt would rally Kenyans to patriotism and national unity.”

Omondi says Kalume, then an Anglican Church of Kenya cleric and an education officer in Taita Taveta, was key in composing the Kiswahili version.

Kalume, who later worked at St Paul’s Theological College (now St Paul’s University), settled on the word “udugu”, meaning bond, as the fulcrum on which the anthem should revolve.

“I have realised the original word, ‘udugu’, has since been replaced with ‘undugu’, which would mean brotherhood. That is not what the composers intended. I am asking those responsible to ensure that it is changed and the original word is reinstated, otherwise this is tantamount to changing the Constitution without involving the people,” he says.

Omondi dismisses the contention that the translation of the national anthem from English to Kiswahili was not well done. He says contrary to what many think, these are two different anthems.

Two anthems

“Works on the two anthems were independent but concurrent. The Kiswahili version is not a translation of the English one or vice versa. Those who have been criticising us, saying we did not do proper translation, should know that was not the idea. We were coming up with two anthems that would carry the spirit of the nation.”

After the lyrics, they borrowed a tune from a Mijikenda lullaby before presenting the anthem to Kenyatta in Gatundu in August 1963. It was then that they found out two other anthems had been composed.

He said those present unanimously voted for their anthem after which it was recorded.

Omondi still has the original piece as sung on December 12, 1963, as Kenya ushered in independence, alongside the day’s programme in which only 15 names are mentioned.

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