A simple woman from the village! That is all the definition Jemimah Thiong’o will agree to when asked to describe herself in a sentence – never mind that her bag of achievements includes a Kora award nomination, a double nomination for the 2007 Kisima Awards, and sales figures that anyone would envy. Mwenye Baraka, the hit that catapulted her to national fame is sung all over Kenya, in homes and bars alike. Among the younger generation of artists, she has gained the fond title of ‘mum’. She’s easily one of the most respected Gospel acts this side of the Sahara and boasts a major cross-over appeal. Refreshingly sincere and down to earth, Jemimah leaves one with a lasting impression, and exudes the simplicity of one who knows who they are – an incredible woman of God. Like many people that have a great life today, her journey has been fraught with odds that seemed almost insurmountable. From these experiences, she brings forth a testimony of triumph and a true ‘rags to riches’ journey. Born in a Christian family, the mother of three always knew she wanted to be a singer.
While in primary school, she joined the choir and fondly recalls traveling to Juja to sing for the late president Kenyatta. But her ambitions were not meant to head anywhere – despite being a musician himself, her dad would not hear of his daughter singing! In fact, one afternoon when he found her busy exercising her vocals, he emphatically exclaimed “I can see why you dropped from number two to nine!!” That about marked the end of any further musical ambitions, at least for the while. She would pick up this passion again in high school and keep it through her adult life. After high school, she continued to minister in the local church. A few years into her marriage though, she had to relocate to the ‘village’ when her husband got a job transfer. Ever resilient, Jemimah soon picked up the pieces and organized her life around her new home. She began a fellowship for the local women (the nearest church was five kilometers away!), teaching them her songs and leading them in worship. Within three months, her congregation was so big that they had to build a church for them, today known as ACK Kagwe. She continued to serve this church for many years, and indeed still does. Her songs, almost all of them in Kiswahili, soon spread through the Anglican Church as she was called to minister to various congregations. It was during one of these excursions that she got the attention of Bishop Njuguna, who advised her to try making a cassette because people were asking for her music. She started compiling her songs with the aim of getting them recorded.
Three years later, a friend introduced her to producer Robert “RKay” Kamanzi, who agreed to record her music for her, despite the fact that she didn’t have enough money to pay him. With her debut album’s masters firmly in her hand, the next challenge was reproduction. With limited resources, she could only make forty cassettes first. By the time she got home, she had sold all of them! Her husband took the next fifty to Naivasha with him, and before the day was over, he was already sending for two hundred more. “We came face to face with God’s faithfulness”, says Jemimah of the experience. Later in the year, the CD version of Alinitua was released to enthusiastic reception. Selling over 150,000 copies, this album became Kenya’s best selling release, and continues to do well in the region. The album contains such memorable hits as Mwenye Baraka and Pendo La Ajabu. All the tracks seem to be a summary of her life’s story. “Mwenye Baraka was the best song I ever wrote. It was my own testimony – in those days in the village, I knew that God would make a way for me. And it has turned out to be a blessing to many!” she explains moist-eyed. Testimonies abound – Jemimah shared one of a woman who called her from Kericho. This lady’s husband was in the process of taking another wife, as she was barren. She was in tears as she called Jemimah and told her how she’d listened to the words of the song (Akisema atakupa mtoto, katika umri wowote, aliwapa Sarah na Hannah, vipi asiloweza?) and believed. The day before her husband was to get another wife, she was confirmed pregnant! Her sophomore album, Imani, was dropped in early 2007, again produced by Rkay. The album’s title track has already jemimah thiongoearned her a double Kisima Award nomination for Best Female Artist, and Gospel Ensemble. More accolades are likely to follow, as its content is incredible. One might be surprised to learn that this homegrown diva does not write down songs – she just sings them as they come to her! Despite her enormous success both in Kenya and regionally, Jemimah is simply unfazed. She insists that she is not a star, but a minister of the Word of God. Although she is in demand across East Africa as a performer, her speaking engagements mean more to her and she will rarely accept invitations to just ‘appear’. She is also an avid businesswoman and farmer, and has kept her agricultural endeavors running. She says of the reason for this, and her experiences: “I have to keep farming. I want that woman in the village who’s faithfully looking after her cow and depending on it for sustenance to know that it works. To be encouraged to hold on…I believe God had me go and live in the village for most of my life so that I could identify with that village woman…identify with her problems, her concerns, and be able to talk about His faithfulness.”