BY JULIE MASIGA
I am running late and I am trying to read the directions from my cell phone and drive at the same time. The directions are as simple and straight forward as the woman who sent them. Almost too simple for my hyper creative thought process.
But I get there eventually. It is a beautiful town house, standing with simple majesty in a quiet residential area. I make a mad dash for the door, notebooks and pens falling every which way, my every step disturbing the peace, only to be informed that the lady of the manor is running late herself.
I sink into a comfortable brown leather couch and collect my thoughts, trying to string together a valid list of questions. My gaze goes to a photograph that takes pride of place in the foyer.
The man in the photograph is US President Barack Obama. My host is standing next to him, smiling broadly in characteristic fashion. My unease deepens. Obviously this woman rubs shoulders with the high and mighty.
But her house is warm and comfortable with a familiar neo-Afro edge. Orange curtains hang from wide French windows. A wicker inspired dining table exudes warmth as if it has been privy to many a family dinners. Behind me, through another large window there is a quaint little courtyard that opens into the garden. In the middle of it, standing out like a Christmas tree in January, is a black exercise bike.
I begin to get an insight into her well-spring of eternal youth. Later, she tells me that she either walks or jogs for 45 minutes every day and if she finds herself holed up in a hotel room, always has a skipping rope handy.
Back in the living room, I fumble with the remote for the DSTV PVR decoder, tempted to watch every channel in sequence just to enjoy the clarity of the plasma screen. With a cup of black coffee in hand and a platter of pancakes within reach, I am beginning to feel quite at home but just at that moment Suzanna Owiyo walks in, resplendent in her own skin. Her clothes are a little more than accessories to her natural African beauty.
“Hi girl. Sorry I am late! Have you been offered something?” Assured that I have been treated like a queen, she sits down and we launch into our conversation. Only thing is, I still do not know where to begin. So by a stroke of pure luck, I ask about her busy schedule.Turns out almost every minute of her days are spent in service to others.
“I have just come back from Nyeri with some artistes and personalities in the Kenyans for Change (2010) Initiative. Change is our philosophy and our work will continue even beyond the civic education we are carrying out in the run up to the Referendum.
“It is not about being in the Yes or No camps because a person’s vote is one’s own business. It has been more about urging women and the youth to read and understand the document”.
“Of course there are certain clauses that interest me as a woman. The document carries many gains for women. I am not afraid to say that I am voting Yes, because a new Constitution will create an environment where we will have equal access and equal rights.”
As the leader of a mostly male band, she is well acquainted with the power of a woman.
“Leadership takes skill and a certain level of understanding of human nature. It is also about the power of a team. But my dream is to play with an all female band because what a man can do a woman can do better.”
Suzanna understands that our potential as women is largely untapped and her challenge to the sorority is to take the initiative. “Female singers ask me if they can join the band but most of them cannot play an instrument. I encourage them to go the extra mile and learn how to play an instrument so that they can bring more than just a voice to the band.”
She knows what she is talking about. After all, she started out as a solo woman, with just her guitar – which she learned to play in record time without ever reading a sheet of music – for company.
“Back in 2002, with the help of one of my band mates, I learned to play by ear. Music comes naturally so if I hear something I can play it.”
Now Suzanna is learning to play the eight stringed nyatiti, the traditional Luo instrument.
“When I saw Anyango Nyar Alego, a young Japanese woman playing it, I decided that if she could do it, I can too. It was played by my grandfathers because it was a taboo for women to play it.”
But being the strong and independent woman that she is, and spurred on by a foreigner who had the nerve to dance where natives of the land feared to strum, Suzanna’s nyatiti has become a permanent companion. “Once I was performing in Spain and a player in Youssou N’dour’s band made me an offer for it but I declined. Where I go, my nyatiti goes.”
Suzanna is an arresting woman – tall, statuesque and regal. She carries herself with an air of absolute assurance and complete composure. So it is surprising when she admits that she gets the occasional bout of stage fright. “I do get butterflies in my stomach before I go on stage. I never know what to expect so I take a few minutes to say my last prayers.”
Over the years, she has mastered the art of performing for all manner of audiences, from international arenas to local hospital wards. “Twice a week for a year, I played for patients at the Mater Hospital as part of an Arts in Medicine programme which I trained for in Florida, US. It was challenging for me but it was therapy for them and I began to understand how music can heal.
“My presence in the wards made a difference. We even had incidences where patients who were very ill in the ICU opened their eyes when they heard me play. I was humbled when many of them thanked me for the music.”
She is almost saintly in her dedication to humanity. And it doesn’t stop there.
For years now, she has been a 46664 ambassador, endorsing the Nelson Mandela Global Campaign for HIV & Aids and human rights. “The thrust of the campaign is that we are all responsible and we all have a role to play whether or not we are affected by the issues.”
To further commemorate the day and the man whose own sense of sainthood has changed the world, she will soon be distributing sanitary pads in to girls and women in Kisumu. Usually, she would have performed at the annual Mandela Day concert which this year was scheduled to be held in Spain, but was postponed.
She holds Madiba close to her heart which is why when she heard news of the death of his great granddaughter in June, she sent word though his personal assistant. Before long, the great man -through his assistant – acknowledged her condolences and expressed his gratitude.
Behind the veil of super stardom, she is a woman and a mother first. Her music has travelled across the nations and brought her much success, and with it a complete invasion of her privacy but she has taken the good and the bad and pressed on towards even loftier goals. “I have been pushed to the edge trying to meet other people’s expectations but I have learned to keep my low moments to myself.”
And with the company of an eight year-old daughter, Nadia, she is keeping her head above water and working to create a lasting legacy for Nadia to aspire to. “Now I want to start my own initiative so that I can support the things I am passionate about directly.”
One thing that is completely within her own control is her career. Her third studio album will be released later this year and is aptly titled My Roots. The 12-track-album launches abroad in September and locally in November.
It is releasing under Kirkelig Kulterver-sted (KKV), one of Norway’s premier recording companies that offers a large catalogue of traditional and modern music. Through her London based manager, she signed with KKV several months ago.
Suzanna is changing the universal chorus one stanza at a time, but as she hits even higher notes, neither money nor fame is changing her. At the end of the day, she is simply a woman with a heart for her fellow man. “I am just a singer who is doing her thing. People can give me any label they like but I am just me.”