With 19,000 friends on Facebook, Kambua Manundu is going places. The gospel artist and TV talk show host tells Enid Mukiri about her love for family, music and God, and why the darkest days in her life just made her stronger.
It’s no coincidence that Kambua Manundu works for Rauka, a gospel music show on Citizen TV. Rauka is Kiswahili for “wake up” – and Kambua has been waking up audiences wherever she goes with her drop-dead gorgeous looks and beautiful, soaring voice.
And this is no recent phenomenon; she was opening eyes back in high school, when her hymn singing in the shower
instantly stopped the chattering of fellow pupils.
“I had just joined Lukenya High School,” she laughingly recalls. “I was in the shower one morning and, forgetting that there were other people in the surrounding stalls, began singing loudly. In the middle of the song, I realised that the bathroom had suddenly gone quiet. So I stopped singing and wondered what was wrong. That’s when everyone who had heard me told me I should carry on, ‘sing again’.”
Singing is clearly in Kambua’s blood. “I was very young when I started singing in my local church and in school,” she says. “Whenever there was something I could get involved in, like music and drama festivals or Christmas plays, I was always there. I went to Kianda for primary school and sang a lot during mass, but it was in high school that I really stepped up and began to sing alone.”
But it’s not just singing that Kambua loves. She has a keen eye for fashion. For this interview, she arrives dressed in a flowing dress and her trademark flower in the hair. The dress and the flower are both a bright lime green, the perfect colour on her delicious caramel skin. The TRUE LOVE photo shoot for this story is also an enjoyable affair for Kambua, and in typical girly mode, she is excited about all the clothes the fashion editor has picked out for her.
“I love to wear dresses and that is what I wear most,” she says between trying on one of the outfits and explaining that fashion design is one of the “to do’s” on her bucket list. “People tend to think I am trying to make a statement, but really, I just love dresses.”
And her audience seems to feel the same way. “I catch flak from my viewers whenever I deviate from dresses to trousers,” she laughs.
Kambua, 26, has been making her mark on the gospel music circuit for several years. She writes and sings her own material – a mellow mix of R&B, kwaito and pop she calls Afro-fusion – and Kenyans love it. She has 19,000 fans on Facebook, no mean feat for any musician, let alone a gospel artist. Posts on her Facebook page are overwhelmingly positive, with fans describing her singing as an “inspiration” and a “blessing”.
So what’s she like, up close and personal? Sweet, relaxed, down-to-earth, sunny – very likeable, in fact. “I am an easygoing girl passionate about God, life and music,” she states confidently. “I have set out to pursue my dreams and make them happen.” Her easygoing nature is certainly apparent in all that she does, from the way she communicates to the way she interacts with those around her.
Her background gives some insight into the woman she is today. “I grew up in Nairobi and have two brothers. Babu is five years older than me and Ndzomo is five years younger than me,” she says. Her sense of humour kicks in as she cracks a joke about not being sure if her parents planned this perfect spacing between the siblings. “Because I grew up with boys, I was very much a tomboy in my earlier years. I did not like girly things and chose to climb trees with my brothers instead, much to my mum’s frustration. I still have scars on my knees to show for it!”
But, she continues, “Something happened when I got to my teens. The super girl in me came out … even more so when I went to high school and met girls who really took care of themselves. My mom was definitely relieved.”
But as Kambua’s femininity and singing started to take off, a dark cloud arrived and hovered over her family. “In high school, my dad began to get sick, and was unable to work. Because he was unable to pay for my school fees, I was in and out of school. Thankfully, my headmistress at Lukenya was very gracious and allowed me to finish school with the understanding that my dad would settle the bill when he got back on his feet.”
Thanks to an understanding teacher, Kambua was able to finish her secondary education, but as her dad’s health continued to deteriorate, she was faced with yet more challenges in terms of a higher education.
“That was a tough period of my life,” she says. “All of my friends were leaving the country to pursue higher education overseas, and there I was with all these dreams and no way of realising them.” The family’s financial challenges were so strenuous that she was unable to attend even a local college.
“A friend of mine encouraged me to audition for a theatre role with Heartstrings Ensemble and although I had never thought of acting, I went out and auditioned. I got the role and was able to do a few shows (Family Business and Something’s Burning). I had not told my parents that I was involved in theatre; they only found out after reading a newspaper article I was featured in.”
In addition to theatre, Kambua was also able to keep busy through singing in church and getting involved in the youth ministry at her local church, Parklands Baptist Church. She also ventured into the gospel music industry by recording background vocals for various artists, including Mbuvi, Bahati and Kavutha (4 Winds).
“Whenever I got the opportunity to sing I would be there. Although most were not paying jobs, they were a lot of fun and also kept me busy and prevented me from feeling sorry for myself that things were not working out the way I had thought they would.” These opportunities also helped her build her music portfolio and overcome her shyness about performing in public.
About two years after completing high school, the dark cloud that was hovering over her family lifted. Her father got well. This enabled Kambua to pursue her dream of embarking on a university degree overseas, and when an opportunity presented itself, she opted to study music.
“Having been an economist, my dad wasn’t completely sold on my choice to study music, and rightfully so,” she says.
“At the time, music was not a good source of income.”
But despite their misgivings, her parents graciously encouraged her to follow her dream.
In 2005, Kambua applied to several universities, and was accepted by Ambrose University College, a Christian university in Calgary in Canada. “I had never heard of Calgary, and did not know anyone there. I went to school in the winter, which was a rude shock. If you have never experienced winter, especially a Canadian one, you don’t know what cold really means.”
Her first semester was difficult as, in addition to the harsh climate, she had to contend with culture shock. “It was hard being in a foreign country where I knew no one; it was also hard because I had opted to study classical music which was new to me and made very little sense.” But she didn’t remain gloomy for long. “My dad had taught us to never be afraid to ask for help. I learnt to ask my professors, fellow students and the friends that I made for assistance whenever I couldn’t figure things out.”
By her second year, she had figured things out just fine and really started enjoying her university experience. “I joined the school and church choirs. I also joined the school band and participated in school marketing and recruitment.” One of the highlights of her time in Canada was being selected to sing with Angelique Kidjo in concert.
After graduation, she returned home temporarily – and ended up staying for good. “I intended to stay for one month, but the month turned into two months, then three. It has now been two years.” She laughs as she talks about the disruption this caused. “I had paid rent for the month and left all my belongings in Canada, thinking I was going back. I had to go back to sort things out and officially ‘move’.”
So what brought on this change of heart?
Before Kambua had left for Canada, she had recorded an album, ‘Nishikilie’. “I had taken it around to radio stations, but when I moved to Canada, I never quite followed up on it.” When she got back in 2008, she discovered that the title track of her album had been getting lots of airplay. People knew the song, but had no clue as to who was behind it.
Kambua decided she needed to launch the song properly, do a few live performances for her growing fan base, get her name out … all of which meant she couldn’t return to Canada.
“I received such a fantastic response to my first album that I figured there was something for me here, so I decided to pursue it and have some fun in the process.” She not only had fun with her music; she won awards. In 2008, she won a Kisima for female artist of the year in the Afro-fusion category, and in 2009 she was crowned female artist of the year at the Groove Awards. She also launched her second album, Nyumbani, which propelled her into the A-list of gospel artists. Last year, she curtain-raised for Cece Winans, one of her favourite musicians, during her Nairobi concert. “It was an honour participating in her concert.”
Kambua is currently working on a third album she hopes to release sometime this year. She is also honing her songwriting abilities – and wrote almost all of the songs on this yet untitled album.
Her success has not come without its challenges. Getting a foot in the industry was the hardest part. “I’d take my music to stations and they wouldn’t play it because they had no clue who I was. I also did many press interviews that were never published, and would get allotted last in concerts just when people were walking out. It was very frustrating, but my parents kept affirming me that things would work out in God’s perfect time.”
Winning two music awards changed everything. Suddenly, radio stations were clamouring to play her music, and Kambua had a real future. “What my success means to me is that I am on the right path, and I will keep at it.”
As someone who’s been there, done that, she encourages music enthusiasts to not give up hope easily. “Music doesn’t pay off immediately,” she says. “I have definitely had my broke days, but persistence and hard work do pay off.” It was the most natural thing to choose gospel over any other genre of music.
“I grew up in a Christian home. Also, my mother, Lois, is a pastor.” Like most young people, she experienced a time of questioning during her high school and college years. “This was a period of really searching myself and learning His word, and it made me a stronger Christian,” she says.
Last year, Kambua ventured into television. She, along with co-host Njugush, presents Citizen TV’s Sunday morning show, Rauka. The highly rated programme features gospel music that gets viewers up and ready for church. “I love my role in the show as I am able to share both my passion for Christ and for music with our viewers.”
Landing the TV job came as a surprise to Kambua as she had auditioned for many TV shows, without success. She says the audition was intimidating, especially as “there were a ton of other contenders”, some of whom are well known. But, as always, she “set out to have fun” during her audition. “I was surprised when they called me and offered me the job. I am really thankful for this role in media, especially when I get feedback that I have been able to positively impact someone’s life.”
Kambua gets thoughtful. “We easily forget where we have come from,” she says. “I am thankful for my struggles and challenges as they have made me a very tough person who can hopefully have a positive impact on the lives of others.”
But being a popular face on TV isn’t always easy. “I have to be open to criticism both negative and positive. By nature I like to be on the right side of the road, so I have had to develop some tough skin for the negative feedback.”
The notoriety that comes with TV also means that she now can’t walk around incognito, which has been difficult as she is naturally introverted. “I now consciously have to ‘extrovert’ myself,” she laughs.
As for balance between her work and personal life, she says: “I purposefully plan for and always take some ‘me time’ which I spend alone at home. I am also again very thankful for my family who are at the core of my support system.”
Surely it’s not all work, work and more work for Kambua? “I love to sit in coffee shops and read.” She does, indeed, seem to be in her element on this afternoon at the Art Cafe in Westlands, armed with a magazine, her iPod and a cup of coffee.
She says she also likes to travel, watch movies and hang out with family and friends, but “regular quality alone time” tops her list.
We point out that this story will appear in TRUE LOVE’s February issue, and as February is known as the month of love … what’s the gist on her love life? Last we heard, Kambua had split up with her fiance, gospel musician Mbuvi.
Kambua is reluctant to talk about her ex, or even mention his name. However, she is prepared to talk about the things she learned from the relationship.
“I met him when I was very young, right out of high school, and we dated on and off for about six years. It was one of those relationships that we knew sooner or later would lead to marriage, and we got engaged when I came back home from Canada. But it was very hard for me when I got back because I was barely in my teens when I left for college, and here I was coming back as an adult. I had definitely changed and so had he – and comprehending the changes was difficult and a strain on our relationship.”
Having matured, Kambua was more vocal about many things in the relationship, she says. Things got “very rocky”.
What’s more, her parents had some reservations about the relationship.
“Eventually, the strife between us became too much. It did not help that people pressured us to get married. Everyone would ask when the big day was. It was hard to let people know that we needed some time to figure things out.”
Kambua finally reached a point when she knew that things could not go on. “This was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make. I knew it would be the unpopular decision and wondered what people would say. I dragged my feet, but finally realised that what was important for me and him was the state of our relationship, not what people thought.”
Understanding that it was natural for people to change and that they had both drifted apart gave her the strength to end things when she did. Still, it was hard. Very hard.
“We had been dating for a long time. After we broke up, I was very lonely and suffered the stigma of a broken engagement. There was lots of speculation as to why I had ended things. I lost a lot of acquaintances, and many people talked.
“But I learnt to hold my tongue rather than defend myself while I weathered the storm. I have been able to get over this with the support of my family, and today my ex and I have a cordial relationship.”
This broken engagement has taught the songstress a lot about love. Today, her ideal man is one who will complement her in many ways. “He should be fun loving, funny, and easygoing in nature. He should also share the same values that I have as far as God, family and music are concerned. He should accept Kambua as a whole package.”
She says she is currently dating someone, but prefers to keep his identity a secret. But she does let this slip: “He’s not in the industry!”
As for the future, Kambua’s looks bright. She will soon release a new single, ‘Again’. This song was birthed during the low moments of her broken engagement, and with it she hopes to inspire everyone who has loved and lost to dream and believe again.
Another cause dear to her heart is philanthropic work. She has been involved in a lot of charity work through various church youth ministries, such as Passports Incorporated, a US-based Christian organisation where she volunteered with youth for four years. She also does mission work locally with K-Crew, the outfit behind the Rauka show.
“My passion is to work with young women,” she says. “Participating in a prison mission at Langata Women’s Prison taught me that you can never exhaust the possibilities with young women, especially if you remind them of their self-worth and their potential.”
As for the words she lives by, this is what she told one reporter last year: “There are no limits to what you can do when you are set free. Many times we are held back not by our limitations, but mostly for fear of daring to be the best that we can. Marianne Williamson best said it, that ‘our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure’. I’ve learned to not limit myself because I serve a God who knows no bounds.”
Kambua is fulfilling her mission to wake up the world in word, song and deed.
Kambua – Nishikilie
Kambua – Nyumbani
Kambua – Watu Wote
Kambua – Tembea na Yesu
Kambua – Nisikie