28 June 2009

The Guitar by Kingwa Kamencu

“Anita will you quit going on and on with that thing, you’re driving us crazy down here,” Anita’s mother yelled from downstairs.

“It’s not ‘going on and on’ mum, I’m just practicing on my guitar,” Anita shot back.

“Well stop it, its driving us nuts with all that noise you’re making. Give it a rest and read a book or something.”

“And don’t talk back to mum,” her elder brother Mugo joined in.

Anita rolled her eyes in exasperation. Honestly! She never had any peace at home; her guitar was one of the main reasons. Anita was a second year music student at the local university, a subject and possible career choice her mother had never approved of. Her mother who had in her younger days had lacked fees to finish her high school education and become the doctor she had dreamed of being, had tried to transfer her aspirations to her daughter. Anita however had no inclinations towards that sort of thing. In high school she had tried to read, make good grades and please her mother but try as she might she never excelled in class and was something of an average student. In music however, she had always excelled and had won numerous trophies, awards and certificates from National School, Drama and Music festivals. Her results after high school had curiously coincided with her passion. She had been eligible to do nothing else but music, which she was now pursuing. Her mother had not been amused by this and up to now, hoped it was a passing fancy and that Anita would later see the wisdom of what she called a ‘serious profession’.

“You and that wood, you carry all over! Just where do you think it will take you? The only people I see with guitars are beggars on the streets singing for money. Is that how you want to end up? Why cant you be a nice normal girl like everyone else and move to something serious like medicine, law or accounts?” she’d often ask, genuinely puzzled.

“I’m not everyone else mum,” Anita would invariably reply, “I like my guitar just fine.”

Her brother Mugo would also join in the fray, “Anita, you waste so much time on music and your instruments. Don’t you get it? Music is dead end in this country. You should change to something more stable and professional, there’s still time.”

And what; become like you? Anita would think acidly. Mugo was 10 years older than her, had a Bachelors of commerce and an M.B.A to his name but no job to show for it. He stayed at home all day reading fat Sidney Sheldon novels. Anita thought he had gotten too used to toeing the line and following the orders their bossy mother set that when left alone he was lost and lacking in initiative.
He’ll only get a job if his mother orders him to, Anita thought morosely; No way am I ending up like that!

Anita on the other hand considered herself something of a rebel, the black sheep in the house. Her mother by know had gotten used to the fact that she did as she pleased, though it irked her to no end.

“I’ll never understand you Anita, you are too stubborn, hard hearted and self-centred, and you never listen to anyone. God only knows what will become of you.

These barbs fortunately never got to Anita’s thick skin. Whatever! She’d think and turn back to her guitar.

Mother and son ganged up against her on occasion but on her side there was always her father. She smiled to think of him. He was the only one who did not pester her about her career choice and her future plans. If anything he took an avid interest in her music and encouraged her to go farther.

“And how’s my little songbird today?” he’d usually say smiling, when he got home and found her in. This was before he had been laid off his job as a sales representative at a publishing house.

Anita now picked up her guitar, carefully placed it in its case, slung it over her shoulder and trooped out, headed for the local theatre grounds where she could play and sing in peace.

“Gone to the theatre,” she yelled as she slammed the door.


At the theatre was the usual crowd; the dreadlocked acrobats limbering up in one corner, the traditional drummers energetically pounding on their Isukuti drums, a motley of actors rehearsing their lines and a small accapella group doing a ‘Malaika’ rendition.

Must be a show going on inside, she thought noting the banners draped at the entrance of the theatre hall and the closed doors.

She sat under a tree shade, unpacked her guitar and began strumming a few chords.

“I wanna be free, free to be me

I wanna be free, to do what I see

I wanna be free and be the best I can be,

While I’m free being me...”

She sang, the words coming out unbidden. Hey that’s a good tune, she thought, grabbing a notebook and pen, jotting the words and tune down. She tried out a few more notes and added words to the tune which she again noted down. She liked to strum and come up with words along the way, composing little tunes just for fun. She now played out the whole song, shutting her eyes and moving her body to the tune. She was surprised to hear a patter of handclaps when she had ended and quickly opened her eyes to look round. It was the rehearsing actors group that had joined her under the shade.

“Too deadly,” one of them pronounced. He was leaning against the tree smoking a joint of sickly smelling marijuana.

“Yeah, super,” one of the girls agreed, “I wish I could sing like that,”

“I wish I could play like that,” one of the guys chimed in. “Where did you learn?”

Anita glowed in pleasure. She’d played around the theatre before and been applauded but it still felt great to hear the praise. She rarely got it from home anyway.

“Whiskey taught me,” she told them. “I heard him play once, about last year and thought I could learn too.”

“Well you’re good,” one of them said. “Perhaps you should enter the Beats of the Times competition. You just might do well and even get recorded.”

Anita basked in the praise.

“Yeah maybe I will,” she said, she had seen the posters announcing it. “But registration is rather expensive and I don’t know if I can afford it right now.” She changed the subject. “Have you seen Whiskey around?”

They guffawed. “Not today, he’s probably nursing yesterday’s hangover at home.”

Anita smiled. She knew Whiskey well enough to know that it could be true. He loved drinking spirits and she suspected he was an incorrigible alcoholic although he always swore he could quit any time he wanted to. Out of his love especially for whisky, the theatre fraternity had nicknamed him Whiskey. She had met him at the theatre a year back when she was in her first year. A group of friends and she had come to audition at the theatre. She had been auditioning as a singer for a musical play. Whisky had been the guitarist accompanying the singers. She remembered how he’d strummed expertly along as she sang Brenda Fassie’s ‘Thola Amadlozi’. It had sounded good even to her ears; she’d been picked as a singer for the play automatically. From then on she’d taken a keen interest in learning to play the guitar.

She’d scrimped and saved all her pocket money the first semester at college, even working nights at a fast food restaurant to buy the guitar. New, good quality guitars did not come cheap. At the time her father had been retrenched from a governmental job and had not yet gotten his recent one. She knew he was cash strapped and had chosen not to broach the subject of her needing a guitar. He would have felt worse knowing that he couldn’t afford it.

“Speaking of whiskey, we’re going to the Sunset Grill for a drink, want to join us?”

The marijuana smoking guy now invited.

“No, I’m waiting for someone here, thanks.”

“Well good luck and get yourself money and register for that contest, ok? It could take you places, there’s not much openings for musicians like you; you’ve gotta grab at your chances.”

As they left, she remained seated, mulling at the actors words. It was true that pursuing music as she was, there were very few openings in the job market. Her mother constantly reminded her of this. But she had no other option, music was like her life. She knew she’d feel like a fish out of water doing anything else. Time was ticking. In less than two years, she’d be out of school and would have to begin to fend for herself. She did not want to become like her brother Mugo and become dependent on her parents. Besides of which she knew she’d never hear the last of it from her mother.

“I’m going to get that money and register, and I’m going to practice like mad and win me that competition.” She suddenly said resolutely and jumped to her feet. She approached the notice board and keenly studied the poster on it.

The registration fee was rather high she thought, her confidence beginning to seep out of her. But wait, if I bought myself this guitar, I’ll get this money too.
She suddenly noticed someone behind her. It was Whiskey.

“Niaje, mrembo,” he greeted her.

His eyes were bloodshot; he had the same scruffy yet strangely dignified air about him. Whiskey was tall and emaciated. His drinking habit and less obvious drug habit had wasted him and his talent, just as it had done many other promising artists at the theatre. He was 35 years old and survived on tips he got from patrons at a local bar where he performed when he was sober. Anita considered him her mentor. Despite his drug and drink habit, he was a kind person at heart.

“Hi Whiskey, things are thick. I need to come up with this money within 5 weeks to register and perform,” the words rolled out of her mouth.

“Tell your dad or your mum,” he said nonchalantly.

She made a face. “Dad can not afford this kind of thing. I don’t think he’d be able to come up with this much. And I don’t want to get him stressed and feeling bad about it if I ask him and he can’t help. Asking mum is so out of the question. You know how she feels about my music. In fact she’d only start to remind me how I’ll be a burden to them and how I’ll go nowhere with my life,”

Whiskey nodded. He knew about the situation.

“Don’t worry, it’ll work out,” he said.

Anita nodded morosely and left the theatre, her mind on the huge task ahead of her.


By a week to the registrations deadline, Anita had only come up with slightly over half the amount that was required. She had gone back to her job at the fast food restaurant where she waited on tables.

Thank God I’m on holiday, she thought. If it was in school term I’d definitely be in a fix.

She worked long hours, sometimes doing double shifts and only having a few hours to rush to the theatre daily for practice with Whiskey.

On the very last day to the event, she stood in her bedroom counting up the money she’d managed to get together. She held her breathe as she counted. Rats! It didn’t add up. She was still a couple of thousand shillings short. Mugo peered into the room.

“Hey, been robbing a bank?” he asked, watching her count the notes on the table.

“No, this is what I’ve been saving to register for the Beats of the Times competition and it’s nowhere near what I need. The performance day is tomorrow, I don’t have the money and I’ve been practicing so hard!” she wailed.

Ordinarily she would have ignored him and wouldn’t have let him in on what she was doing but she was now at a point of desperation. It wouldn’t hurt anyway, she was sure she had no chance now.

“So you really were serious then? I almost didn’t believe you the first time you said it.”

She glared at him balefully.

“So how much more do you need?”

“Not that it’s any of your business but I’m short of 5,000 bob.”

“Don’t worry you’ll get it,” he said comfortingly as he left the room.

Smart ass! She thought her eyes following him. She pushed thoughts of him out of her head and flopped face down on her bed; she wanted to wallow in her misery the rest of the evening. It seemed she would have to forego the event and wait for the next three years to enter it again and endure her mother’s barbs and snide remarks till then. By then she would have been through with college and it was uncertain if she would get a professional job in the music industry. Such were rare to come by.


The next morning she woke up at mid day. She was usually up by 8am but on that day had thought it useless to get up. She needn’t do any practice on her guitar seeing as she wouldn’t be entering the competition. She shuffled sleepily towards the door, still in her pyjamas. As she opened her door, she noticed that she had to give it a harder tug than usual to open. She looked down and at her feet lay a white envelope which had been slipped under the door. Anita picked it up curiously and opened it. Inside were crisp new notes. She looked at envelope again, rubbing her eyes to be sure what she was seeing was real. She carefully counted the notes inside, not daring to breathe. It was 5,000 shillings, she realised with a jolt. Just what I need to get through registration! She guessed who it was; it was rather obvious. She had told no one else but Mugo about it. Idly she wondered where he’d gotten the money from, he not working and all but her thoughts raced on to more important things. She let out an excited yelp and raced to her wardrobe, throwing on jeans and a t-shirt as she slung her guitar over her shoulder and tore out of the house. She had the event of her life to arrive at.


The Carnivore grounds were brimming with activity. Aspiring musicians, already established ones, fans, and interested observers thronged the concert hall. The panel of judges at the front consisted of people from the ministry of culture and some of the few prominent local musicians in the country. It was now 3pm in the afternoon. Anita sat huddled in the audience among Whiskey and a couple of people she knew from the theatre. They had cheered when she had raced in two hours ago, just in time to register. On stage now was an accapella group; they were singing ‘Tausi’ a local song and had powerful voices that blended together well. Everyone who had been on stage had been superb according to Anita.

She nervously bit her lip.

“Maybe I should wait till the next time, right Whis? Maybe I haven’t practiced as hard as I could. I’ll just go down there and ask them to give me my money back and…” she was saying as she rose, only to be pulled back to her seat.

“Don’t be silly. These people are good but they shouldn’t scare you. Don’t be a wimp, just try and give it your best. You’re a marvel with your guitar.” Whiskey told her.

The crowd was now enthusiastically clapping at the departing group and Anita realised with a sinking feeling that it was her turn.

“Oh my God, I can’t do this, I can’t,” she whispered to Whiskey terrified, her feet were jelly, they wouldn’t support her.

“Go, they’re waiting for you,” one of the actors said, shoving her to her feet and towards the stage. “Break a leg!”

The master of ceremony was winding his long drawn out speech and was now coming to announcing the winners. Anita sat still; number 3 was called out, number 2, number 1 but she didn’t hear her name mentioned. Whiskey patted her arm in consolation as she smiled wryly.

Who was I kidding anyway? I shouldn’t have convinced myself I was so hot, she thought. Now mum will have the last laugh and I’ll have to agree to do something else after college, probably accounting and I’ll end up...

The master of ceremony spoke up again intruding on her thoughts.

“But that is not all ladies and gentlemen. Our last category is that of ‘Most Promising Artist of the Times’. It’s a prize of 100,000 shillings and an opportunity to get recorded by Sauti Shwari recording studio’s. And the winner is Anita Macharia!”

The crowd roared its approval in the thunderous handclaps that followed.

“It’s you silly,” Whiskey elbowed her, her actor friend standing up to pull her to her feet for the second time that night.

Dazed, Anita stood up and walked towards the podium, oblivious to the dazzling lights and the roar of the crowd as she received her award. She was only aware of a warm feeling that reverberated from within her and spread all round her body.


Whiskey and their theatre friends hugged her enthusiastically when she joined them and they trooped out of the concert hall in high spirits after Anita had been directed where she would get more information about her prize.

“Let’s go have a drink and celebrate! We have with us the next big thing in Africa man. Anita Macharia!”

“Thanks guys, thank you so much. But not right now. I have to go and tell my brother and my folks about all this.” She stopped short, swinging the guitar to her front and stroking it lovingly.

“Oh man, this baby and I are going places!”



The Guitar was written by Kingwa Kamencu.

Copyright Kingwa Kamencu 2009.



Kingwa is a creative writer, journalist, scholar and poet based in Kenya. She believes in the power of words and expression to bring down the barriers of middle class insensibilities and phoniness, to break out of boxed conformity and for groups to collectively reach to a higher calling. Currently she is thinking about how literature can be used to bring revolutions in Africa where new ways of thinking are sorely needed.

In 2007 she won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature (Youth fiction category) for her book To Grasp at a Star which was also second runners up for the 2006 Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize and first runners up in the 2003 National Book Development Council of Kenya Literary Award. She has also published a short story 'The Cost' in the 2008 Caine Prize anthology The Jambula Tree and others online such as on storymoja. She has read and performed her poetry at Kwani Open Mic, Makerere university, University of Nairobi, AMKA and Utenzi among other places.

Her road to writing has been smooth and without fuss, she discovered early in life that there she would rather do nothing but write. And think. And help create revolutions. She has written numerous short stories and poems and performed them in Kenya and Uganda. She is currently completing a novel which she has been lucky to do as her M.A project. She is deputy secretary general of International PEN- Kenya Chapter and a board member of Wajibu social journal. She has written short stories, literary reviews and feature articles for The Standard, The People, and The Nation newspapers as well as African Women and Child Feature Sevices, Expression Today (ET) and Storymoja Africa. Her work is also featured in upcoming publications of Sable Lit mag (UK) and FEMRITE (Uganda). She was a writer in residence in the 2008 Femrite Regional Women Writers Residence in Uganda and a participant of the 2008 Caine Prize writers workshop in South Africa. She is a nominee of the Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford university where she will be going to pursue an MSc.in African Studies from October 2009. She is currently completing an M.A in Literature from the University of Nairobi.







10 comments:

Nana Awere Damoah said...

An engaging story, Kingwa, one that most of us creative artists can identify with. The inner appreciation of your talent vs the lingering doubts as you see other talented people; the tendency to, like the spies who went ahead to assess the land of Canaan in the Bible, see oneself like a grasshopper infront of giants; the tenacity to keep at what you love doing, in the face of push-back from well-wishers to do something 'better' with your life; and more importantly, the encouragement of friends and even strangers who just can see what those closest to you may not see. I loved the story, well written, the emotions well articulated. Thanks for sharing this - looking fwd to more!

Sarudzai Mubvakure said...

Thanks Kingwa for this thought provoking story. It takes someone with a powerful spirit to go ahead and do what their heart tells them to do, even in the midst of opposing forces. The opposing forces are those people that tell you that you can't do it or it's not possible or you are not good enough. It takes a lot of beleiving in yourself.

I must say that Anita's family did love her and they wanted the best for her. However, they just did not believe that Anita's way of doing things was the best. I suppose the competition result will help them to see that their daughter/ Sister is truly talented and she can take care of herself using her craft. I was surprised by her brother Mugo giving her the 5000 shillings. His behaviour earlier in the story did'nt reflect the faith he had in his sister. Secretly i was hoping that it was Whiskey that came up with the money - however, this was not meant to be!!.

Another aspect of your story that struck a chord was when Anita was outside the theatre composing her new song. People came around her and encouraged her. These people gave Anita the courage to go ahead and realise her dream. I suppose she will never forget them.

The Guitar - a truly enjoyable read

MaHiMa said...

Simple, yet effective...lovely.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

This piece of story tells us a lot in life. Do what you do best and don't give up when people around you discourages you. They don't see what you are seeing. At times they wish the best for you but they are stuck in their world of 'what ifs' to such an extent that they are afraid you would fail--what if it doesn't work; what if you fail. They always mean good but in their goodness they prescribe their drug that would save your life.

Another lesson to be drawn from this piece is being in circles of like-minded people. If you are a poet you would grow in the midst of poets. A poet in the midst of accountants (except when they harbour such interest) would receive little or no appreciation for his or her works.

As children my father made sure that my brother artist never developed his talent. He draws perfectly yet he was forced to read 'Business' in the secondary school and performed poorly. He was always beaten for drawing in his exercise book instead of being given a jotter of a drawing book with all the required pencils.

Lovely story

mutuiri said...

Kingwa! more is the word, its not each day one is fate has one stumble on a gem this story is a relish the exhilaration, the rush, the kick of YEAH!! dats a great one. More is the word from us that seek only the best for infoedutainment

Tabz for Christ said...

Well done Kingwa!! I love the story.....the theme is amazing! Keep it up girl!

Kingwa Kamencu said...

Thanks for your lovely comments guys, much appreciated. Sarudzai you're right, in this life you never know where an encouraging word comes from.
@Nana Fredua-Agyeman: That's true about the circles people choose to hang out in. I was reading somewhere that genius and talent are 'contagius' and you find exceptional people in the middle of others, like the Greek philosophers, the Roman orators and philosophers, the 19th century Russian group of writers among others.
@Nana Awere, Tabitha and Mutuiri- Thanks!

mutuiri said...

Kingwa! more is the word, its not each day one is fate has one stumble on a gem this story is a relish the exhilaration, the rush, the kick of YEAH!! dats a great one. More is the word from us that seek only the best for infoedutainment

Sarudzai Mubvakure said...

Thanks Kingwa for this thought provoking story. It takes someone with a powerful spirit to go ahead and do what their heart tells them to do, even in the midst of opposing forces. The opposing forces are those people that tell you that you can't do it or it's not possible or you are not good enough. It takes a lot of beleiving in yourself.

I must say that Anita's family did love her and they wanted the best for her. However, they just did not believe that Anita's way of doing things was the best. I suppose the competition result will help them to see that their daughter/ Sister is truly talented and she can take care of herself using her craft. I was surprised by her brother Mugo giving her the 5000 shillings. His behaviour earlier in the story did'nt reflect the faith he had in his sister. Secretly i was hoping that it was Whiskey that came up with the money - however, this was not meant to be!!.

Another aspect of your story that struck a chord was when Anita was outside the theatre composing her new song. People came around her and encouraged her. These people gave Anita the courage to go ahead and realise her dream. I suppose she will never forget them.

The Guitar - a truly enjoyable read

Kingwa Kamencu said...

Thanks for your lovely comments guys, much appreciated. Sarudzai you're right, in this life you never know where an encouraging word comes from.
@Nana Fredua-Agyeman: That's true about the circles people choose to hang out in. I was reading somewhere that genius and talent are 'contagius' and you find exceptional people in the middle of others, like the Greek philosophers, the Roman orators and philosophers, the 19th century Russian group of writers among others.
@Nana Awere, Tabitha and Mutuiri- Thanks!

 
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