By John Kariuki
It is occasion again for the all predictable crocodile tears as politicians eulogize departed comedian Benson Wanjau aka Mzee Ojwang of Vitimbi who passed on last weekend. If one were to believe the words now being said about him, Ojwang, as he was known to millions in East Africa, would be the most beloved personality in Kenya who shall be missed dearly.
He was undoubtedly the greatest in his generation and can only be compared to Kipanga Athumani, who is the undisputed father of Kenya TV comedy.
But certainly Ojwang did not enjoy support or patronage from the people speaking so admirably about him, otherwise they would have been there for him when he needed them to fight for a shamba that is said to have been lost to con men or women.
The loss of the land might have contributed to his death, a heartbroken man whose lost his dream to give his family a home. He is example of the abject poverty that has dogged the country’s artistes even when their talents made a great impact to the country.
Like many others, Ojwang was a victim of exploitation who never got value for his work and the services he rendered to the country that he kept laughing even in its darkest moments.
The story of Ojwang is one about how Kenya — government, corporate and public — has treated its social heroes and the list is long and goes back in time.
There is the story about the late Daudi Kabaka, who is arguably one of the greatest musicians from Africa and drew glowing tribute from giants like the late Lwambo Lwanzo Makiadi and Sale John.
His defining hit Helule Lule was covered by the Tremeloes who were among the top UK rock n roll bands in the 1960s and climbed to the top 30 charts in the UK.
For nearly two decades, his song Harambee Harambee was the signature tune for all the news bulletins on the national broadcasting station when it was a monopoly.
He died at the queue at the casualty at the Kenyatta National Hospital without a doctor to attend to him.
Others like Kakai Kilonzo died in squalor and so did Fundi Konde. Even Collela Maze was not particularly rich when he passed away despite his wide acclaim as a premiere musician.
The tragic trend continues and Wicky Mosh who penned the classic Atoti — which is arguably one of the most potent hip hops composition yet — died on the roadside, a hit-and-run victim along Langata road as he walked home from a popular night spot.
Obviously, artistes have been ignorant of their rights but they have also been ruthlessly exploited at all levels due to poor enforcement of copyright laws and the greed among promoters and music producers.
There is the blame game but there is also a reality about the indifference in government, corporations and promoters who could do more to alleviate the misery suffered by our artistes and help to keep the artists’ memory after their passing but do not and promoters would rather extend that benefit to foreigners.
The Bob Marley and Lwambo Makiadi anniversaries are marked without fail but the likes of the late Daudi Kabaka, Kakai Kilonzo and others who are more relevant to us are long forgotten.
The notion that Kenya does not support its own replays out over and over and the culture of spiting our own is well embedded in the national psyche.
There are exceptions though and here one commends the Moi regime for the efforts to keep the memory of the late Kipanga Athumani when it named Jam Street in Eastleigh in his honour.
However, this is not enough to keep his memory and commonly the hall of fame concept has been adapted as a museum for departed artists.
This is supported by collection of music, biographies, monuments, lectures and awareness initiatives to inform and keep the memories alive.
But over the decades, the Kenya governments have adapted a crude concept of heroism that is centred on politicians with social heroes being a mere sideshow for the occasion.
On the Ojwang case, talk of a fitting send-off are afoot but this does not address the disease that has caused neglect of our great artists and the disrespectful treatment extended to them by all concerned.
Indeed, the real important issue, relates to the work and rights so that they may earn the due fruits of their labour.
Without that an elaborate send-off only serves those that were responsible for the misery of artists.