Jemimah Thiong'o
Caption for the landscape image:

Jemmimah Thiong'o: How simple hospital visit turned into ICU admission for my husband

Scroll down to read the article

Gospel artiste Jemimah Thiong'o at Nation Center on June 28, 2024.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

This version of Jemmimah Thiong’o isn’t what the public is used to. The voice that so unmistakably commanded the airwaves through her songs is still there, but the troubles she is facing steal its piercing decibels. She hesitates at times, not sure whether she is pursuing the right train of thought.

The past 14 years have been a trying period for the mellow-voiced singer, which is why she has not released an album since she released her third in 2010. But she pushes out an occasional single once in a while.

She has watched a number of her siblings ail and die, one after another. She comes from a family of five girls and six boys. She is the 10th born, and all her four sisters are now dead. Over the years, she has had to contend with the demise of her siblings, some of whom she nursed to the final minute.

And currently, her husband of 42 years, Francis Thiong’o, is under intensive care at the private wing of the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH).

He has been bedridden since early June, when he took himself to a private hospital in Nairobi for a minor operation that was supposed to last only a few hours but went awfully wrong.

Now, she is the quintessential loving wife, pulling all stops to find money for his treatment (they need at least Sh4.5 million currently, and the bill keeps growing) and to provide everything that is needed to nurse him back to health.

Debt of Sh1.2 million

The family had to part with their car logbooks, two, hers and her son's, to secure her husband’s discharge from a private facility (with a debt of Sh1.2 million on the books) before Mr Thiong'o was transferred to KNH.

“The surgery was meant to be done on a Saturday (April 6) and then he would be observed overnight and released that Sunday. But that was not to happen,” says Jemmimah. “He walked into that hospital, but by the time we were asking them to have him transferred to KNH, he was immobile, being fed through a pipe, and could not talk.”

Her husband had chosen that date because he wanted to be fit as a fiddle when he attended the first birthday of one of his grandsons.

“For the 13th, we had plans. We had invited friends,” says Jemmimah.

However, that birthday was foregone, as the agenda abruptly turned into visiting the 66-year-old in hospital. On Jemmimah’s request, Lifestyle will not publish finer details of Mr Thiong’o’s illness due to ongoing medical processes.

One sure thing, though, is that Jemmimah sticks to God. She cites scriptures and preaches about God at every opportunity during our interview. “Do you question God?” we ask her.

She says no.

“I’ve gone through many things. Many things. And in all that, I have learned to trust in Jesus; trust in God in everything,” she says. “But when you call on God, he helps. And then I thank God that I’m surrounded by good people who are in fellowship and the church, and they have stood with me. They have walked with me, and that is where I get my strength from. And then also, the word of God comforts a lot. Psalms 23 says it very well: Even though I pass through the valley of the shadow of death, His rod and his staff are still with me; so He shall comfort me. And He has comforted me.”

Akisema utapona, hakuna atakayezuia, mama aliyetokwa na damu aliponywa na kazi yake (If He says you will recover, no one will block that as the woman who was bleeding was cured through his work),” says part of Mwenye Baraka, the song that made her a household name in the early 2000s.

Obvious gift

In the true spirit of that message, she is waiting on God to cure her husband, and she exudes confidence that he will be back to his radiant self one day and that they can even write a book about the experience.

Jemmimah became a celebrity at 40, though she had been singing from a very young age.

“I wrote my first song when I was in Class Five, which I gave to one of the churches, and we were singing it in the choir. I sang in the church for many years until I was 40,” she says, noting that she inherited the music gene from her father.

“My father would sing everywhere. He had a really good voice and I was wondering why he was not singing. The rest of my sisters were members of different choirs, but they never recorded. And right now, my son and my daughter sing. My daughter is a worship leader in one of the churches – Citam Thika Road. My son is an instrumentalist,” says Jemmimah.

She could have recorded songs earlier, but she remembers being told by producers that the market for Kiswahili songs did not bring the best returns. However, because of the obvious gift she had, she was encouraged by her church to go into recording.

Anglican clerics, among them the late Archbishop Manasses Kuria and Bishop Peter Njenga, also gave her encouragement, and another member of her church took her to River, where she met R Kay, the music producer, and artistes Mary Githinji and Sarah Kiarie. This was in 2002. She recorded her songs, and the album was released in 2003.

In her opinion, the song Alinitua would be the most powerful on the album. It is because she wrote it after recovering from a slipped disc: “and then God healed me miraculously.”.

However, as it quickly turned out, Mwenye Baraka became a darling of the masses.

“That’s the song that, now I can say, many people resonated with. Reason? I can’t tell,” says Jemmimah, who considers Alinitua her favourite song.

So far, she has recorded “almost 50-something songs,"  which are in three albums, while others were released in the form of singles.

“I recorded the last album in 2010,” she says. “In between, I have released singles.”

This year, she planned to release live renditions of some of her songs, but that project is now on ice.

“I had to stop,” she says, adding that her husband’s illness forced her to drop everything.

Having ruled the airwaves with her songs, we ask her whether music pays.

“Music can pay, but music has a lot of loopholes,” she says. “I am yet to meet a musician who does not have a side hustle—something that you’re doing to boost your ministry; because it’s ministry.”

“We would be lying if we say that we did not have a time when we earned from music; we had. But we really had to work very hard. You are always on your toes, going to do crusades and other things,” she adds.

She has witnessed the industry fast-forward from tape cassettes to compact discs to digital versatile discs to USB devices and now streaming services and on-demand video platforms. From cassettes to YouTube, it has been a steep learning curve for her.

“Sometimes I think for most of us it (technological advancement) was like a setback because we had to learn how to do these things for ourselves,” says Jemmimah.

Asked about the younger gospel artistes, she believes they are doing well enough.

“They’re doing well. It’s good to accept when people do well. The younger people are doing well. We have people like Eunice Njeri, Evelyn Wanjiru, many sing now. You know, we are diverse,” she says. “They brought music to another level from what we were doing.”

Jemmimah’s inspirations for writing songs come from the Bible and sometimes sermons. Sometimes it is pure inspiration.

“You just wake up one morning and you start writing, and you don’t even know why you’re writing, and it becomes a song,” she says.

In the same vein, she has a problem with gospel artistes who do not go to church.

“They don’t want to be in church, but they want to sing gospel. They don’t want to be in fellowships, but they want to sing gospel. Gospel is a result of what you learn from the word of God, and what you learn,” says the musician.

As she ages in the music industry, justifying every day why she deserves to be in the local gospel industry’s hall of fame, she also has to reflect on the family tribulations she has faced. She lost one of her sisters, Grace, in 2010 after nursing her for a while. Grace had a heart problem.

“After a long illness, she died after surgery,” says Jemmimah. “I was really crying because I could not understand why. That was 2010, and that’s when I stopped singing.”

She lost a brother in 2011, a sister in 2012, another sister in 2018, then another brother in 2021.

“I won’t lie, there are times that you lock yourself in the bedroom and you feel as though you want to scream; you don’t know what to say. But I think God prepared me painfully. Painfully, yeah, and that same God is the one who’s giving me this grace to move on,” says Jemmimah.

Her husband can now talk again, though not clearly.

“He is getting better, and we thank God,” says Jemmimah.

To contribute to Mr Thiong’o’s hospital bill, you can use the M-Pesa PayBill number 8056821, bill name "Francis Thiong’o Medical Fund”.

The account number is the sender’s name.