Stardom in the Dark

Dennis Karanja’s voice is nothing short of melodious, a voice resonating of hope, encouragement and vision. I met with Dennis, of the 'Mbona' fame, on a cold morning in Nairobi along Moi Avenue, and the talk that followed left me inspired in spite of the tussle of setting up the meeting.

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Denis Karanja was born in Rongai-one of Nairobi’s suburbs in a family of three, with a condition known as congenital blindness in the medical world.  In a lay man’s language Denis was partially blind. Being the second born in the family and the only member with a disability, Denis was shielded from the harsh realities of his disability by immense parental love and warmth of the family. At the age of five he found himself in Thika Primary School for the Blind and it’s at this stage that the harsh reality of his disability hit him. The silent question that lingered at the back of his mind about his variance from the other children was quietly being unraveled. On admission, he was classified as completely blind and immediately enrolled in braille classes.

“Learning Braille was not easy,” a thoughtful Denis told me. He took me through his triumphs and struggles in his younger days and basically his genesis to stardom. In those days, children who took long in grasping braille were taken to a special class.  This special class was where students who couldn’t fit in the regular curriculum or were basically slow learners were trained on orientation and mobility skills to help them navigate their environment. They were taught on the basic activities of daily living such as personal grooming, cleaning the environment around them and a few other skills like weaving, knitting and rearing small domestic animals, such as chicken and rabbits.  These children would spend years in that class away from the regular curriculum until they were fully grown. From time to time, they would be taught on braille and assessed to see if they would fit in the regular class. The ones who were unable to grasp the reading and writing skills in braille were sent home with the few other skills they learnt.

Denis spent three whole years in special class. It took a lot of effort to overcome this and after around three reviews, he was able to read Braille, and consecutively taken to class two where regular curriculum was being taught. “I first discovered that I had a talent in music when I joined the junior choir in class five,” Denis told me smiling. Later on, with a few of his friends, they formed a group which composed songs and sung them during the church services in school. After doing well in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education, Denis joined Thika High School for the Blind.

“I was happy to learn music as a subject since it was not being taught in primary school,” Denis said full of joy. In the year 2010 when he was in form four, Denis was invited to participate in a back-to-school show that aired on Citizen Television by one of his friend who goes by the name Njugush. It is at this show that he met Daddy Owen, a popular gospel artist in Kenya and this marked his first step to greatness and opened a door to achieving his childhood dream. “Everyone in the entire world is born a grade A dreamer but most of us end up being grade E implementers,” a relaxed and happy Denis told me. One of his dreams was to actually compose a song and record it in collaboration with Daddy Owen and the opportunity had just presented itself. After a chat with Daddy Owen, they exchanged contacts and each of them went their separate ways. Denis went ahead and composed a song for the collabo but the song never saw the light of day.

A year later, Denis received a call from Daddy Owen, with a grand plan. He had a written a song that he wished to perform and record in collaboration with Dennis. “The message in the song moved me to tears,” Denis told me. He had always wanted to communicate to the society on the tribulations of persons with disabilities but had never found the right words or platform to do so. RKay music   in Kenya recorded the song and the video was shot by the famous Ogopa Deejays. “Thanks to Mbona I have been able to reach so many hearts in our society. I have had the chance to perform before different people, from all walks of life.” Denis says.

The song Mbona, derived from a Swahili word meaning “Why,” is a song questioning the society. It questions the indifferences and discrimination of the society towards people with disabilities yet it is not their fault. The song went ahead to win different accolades including the prestigious Kisima award and of course fame and financial benefits. ”I thank God for making me a vessel to communicate to our society.” said Dennis. “The essence of singing is not necessarily to make money but to pass the message in you to the society. Money is a result of the message reaching home but not the root reason,” he said.

Apart from Mbona, Denis has composed, sang and recorded other songs like Naona Mbali, (I’m able to see far) Ebenezer, Safari; a song he sang in collaboration with the singer Eunice Njeri, among others. “The path to musical fame has not been easy,” he told me. Though he had not suffered any direct discrimination, Denis told me that he had missed out on many performances opportunities for reasons which he later found out to be the fact that he is a person with a disability. Denis believes that no one in this world is useless, even though some parts of the body may not be functioning normally, it doesn’t justify writing off any person to that regard. “God is able to turn a mess into a powerful message of success,” he said. It is in this respect that he plans to start a studio where he will be helping young and talented persons with disabilities realize their dreams in the music industry.

He was able to help, with the help of a few friends, one visually impaired talented young man named COG record an album. He also plans to get married to a lady who he told me does not despise him for his disability adding that the lady knew and loved him even before he rose to fame. “A long journey starts with only a single step. I do not know how long it will take for this dream to reach its realization but what I am sure is that one day, it will come true.”  He said. “It is the high time  for us; persons with disabilities to stand up to give a helping hand to our fellow brothers and sisters to realize their  dream in whichever field they are in or posterity will judge us harshly,” he told me as we concluded our talk. Dennis’ parting shot was simple, never look down on somebody unless you are giving a helping hand.