My land is Kenya: Roger Whittaker and the literature in lyrics

Kenyan-born musician Roger Whittaker, who died on September 13, 2023

Kenyan-born musician Roger Whittaker, who died on September 13, 2023

Photo credit: Pool

“He always had to fight the residual sadness of the driven man, the unspoken melancholy of the prodigy (genius)," so Ron Chernow Chernow in his biography about Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America.

Great men and women, artists and geniuses of all kinds have had to deal with this “residual sadness”. “For with much wisdom is much grief,” said King Solomon in the biblical book of Proverbs.

Kenya can be vexing and the more one knows the negatives, the more desperation sets in. However, one can also dwell on the positives.

And one man who dwelt on the positives of Kenya (though he must have sometimes been vexed by it) was Roger Whittaker, the Kenyan-born British singer who passed away on September 13, 2023. He is known for the signature tune, My Land is Kenya.

“My Land Is Kenya/ So warm and wild and free/ You'll always stay with me/ Here in my heart,” so goes a stanza. Most of us still get a quiet, joyful thrill when we hear this song. After hearing so many bad things about our motherland, it never stops feeling a little miraculous that we have so much to celebrate.

It has been said that a song is “a lyrical poem which is sung with the playing of some musical instrument. Songs are a very old form of literature that can be passed orally or written down”. And like any piece of literature, a song can tell a story.

“Telling a story is a sacred act… A people is bound together in narrative — survival and redemption,” so wrote the Israeli novelist Rebecca Sacks. And Whittaker’s song tells the beautiful story of Kenya though like all great artists, he sung of that delirious, pleasurable elsewhere — an elusive Kenya of our dreams; attainable yes, but always, somehow, out of reach.

He sings of his childhood, his life blending with Kenya: “You only got one childhood/And the memory it springs…”. Singing far away from Kenya, maybe Kenya becomes a misremembered Jerusalem, he probably misses the countryside that shines with a tapestry of different greens, spotted generously with yellow and pink flowers, and the mist spiralling like white smoke.

The flowers shimmering, the hint of blossom on the trees and the scent of new growth after the rains. The compounds always warming to the echoes of children’s noises in the rambling expanses in the thrill of the search for things that only children look for. Or maybe he missed his friends and other relatives in Kenya whose presence blazed through the morning dawn as he smelt rosemary in the air.

Whittaker’s song is therefore one haunted by nostalgia; invaded by waves of memories — but with an absence of traces of distress and sorrow — so constantly present in many other songs. We can feel, in a kind of lazy play of sentiment, the sunny atmosphere of the song and how its melody fits. It’s the kind of song one listens to and something in them shifts. One can feel a click. Like something snapping into place — a certain recognition.

Though released on March 18, 2002, it is possible that the idea came to him much earlier especially because of the predominant tone of hopefulness, as possibly favouring the supposition of an early time when Kenya was a more hopeful country. But it matters little whether if the song was conceived by a young heart looking courageously into the unknown future of Kenya — or whether it was a heart more solemn and weighed down by age, which can have few hopes at all, especially as the country took a dystopian path — the fact is that Whittaker gave us a song for all generations.

Whittaker was no impostor. Known for his eclectic mix of folk music and popular songs, his deep baritone and trademark whistling ability as well as his guitar skills, Whittaker was born in Nairobi during the days of colonial Kenya. He first lived in Nairobi and then later in Thika. After primary school, he was admitted to the Prince of Wales School (now Nairobi School). Later, he joined the Kenya Regiment and spent two years fighting the Mau Mau in the Aberdare Forest. He moved to Britain in September 1959.

Whittaker luxuriated in his signature song on Kenya, sometimes even whistling — like a creature of comfort, at home in the world — probably showing us how we can also enjoy Kenya and be grateful with what we have, despite our challenges. Our current reality is starkly different from the one in Whittaker’s song. We almost feel as if we are in a strange land like the biblical Israelites felt when they were captives in Babylon (a strange land away from their homeland). “By the rivers of Babylon,” they cried out in Psalm 137, “we sat down, yea we wept, when we remembered Zion… for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”. Likewise, we weep, when we remember the beautiful land Whittaker sang about. No, this is not it. There is a better Kenya.

- The writer is a book publisher based in Nairobi. [email protected]