Musings on 'Amazing Grace'
As I pen this story of mine, I am listening to the Amazing Grace hymn which I have played and recorded on my Yamaha piano keyboard (see photo above). I have played it using a harmony I was taught by my friend Francis Kariuki in December 2004 during our teenage days. Somehow, I have managed to remember the harmony over the years.
Allow me, my dear reader, to briefly tell you about me and Francis Kariuki and how we came to be friends.
I first started learning piano when I was 9 at Kiserian Catholic Parish way back in 1997. (That was the year when Mother Teresa - the much adored nun who helped the poor in Calcutta, India - passed on at a good old age of 87.) I continued honing my skills on the instrument at the parish over the next several years because we didn't own a piano at home or at school.
Then in the year 2000, Francis Kariuki joined me as part of the group of youngsters that were receiving Music lessons at the parish. That's when I met and befriended him. And by then, I had already had about three years of experience in playing the piano, or to be more precise, an electric keyboard.
I think Francis and I became good friends because we were pretty much on the same wavelength in that we both valued discipline and academic excellence. And as a buddy, I introduced him later on in the year to Prof. Charles Nyamiti, a talented priest then stationed at Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) in Lang'ata, Nairobi.
Some time beginning in 2002 when I was away at Starehe Boys' Centre for my high school education, Francis became a piano student of Prof. Charles Nyamiti. It was in some of those lessons that Prof. Nyamiti taught him how to play the Amazing Grace hymn on the piano.
Then on December 2004 when I was on a school holiday, Francis showed off to me how to play that hymn as Prof. Nyamiti had taught him. I instantly loved its harmony and pleaded with him to teach me as well. He obliged.
As you can see from my story so far, I introduced Francis to Prof. Nyamiti in the year 2000 and he in turn taught me later on in 2004 how to play the Amazing Grace hymn on the piano as he had been taught by Prof. Nyamiti. I think that was a good exchange.
Then in 2005 when I was in Fourth Form at Starehe Boys' Centre, I showed off the harmony of Amazing Grace that Francis had taught me to Mr. Matthew Brooks - a talented young man from England who was then volunteering as a Music teacher in the school. I lied to Mr. Brooks that I had come up with the harmony. And after he listened to it, he remarked, "That's a good harmony!"
Now, Amazing Grace is an old hymn. It was composed in 1779 by John Newton. A very old hymn indeed. Very old. Yet ever new.
Let's look at its first verse which goes as follows:
I came to like that verse when I was a young man of 20 years. That was a decade ago. I even quoted it in an essay I had been asked to write in an evangelism course I was pursuing then at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi - an excellent church I joined after I left Starehe in 2007.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
But imagine I have lately been realizing how lost I have been for the last ten years! For how else can you explain that I am still a foot-loose and fancy-free young man still living with his mother in Kiserian.
Yes, I have for the last ten years been lost for shizzle. Like I rebelled against my family when I was at the university in JKUAT where I ignominiously dropped out in 2008 in my second-year. I rebelled partly because the engineering course I was pursuing at the university turned out to be Greek to me. And as I pointed out in a previous story in this lovely blog of mine, that course was actually like learning Greek because it made extensive use of the Greek alphabets: from alpha to omega.
From that experience, I would advise any youngster out there about to matriculate at the university not to choose a degree course just because it is considered prestigious and marketable, but to instead select one they have a talent for. Why pursue Medicine & Surgery if the mere sight of blood makes you cringe in terror?
Coming back to my life story, I also rebelled again when I was a first-year student at the University of Nairobi (UoN) in 2011. But this time, I partly did so because of the frustrations I experienced while trying to fund-raise tuition fees since unlike when I was JKUAT a few years earlier, I wasn't on a government scholarship at UoN.
Besides becoming rebellious, there are several other ways I have been lost and wretched as the Amazing Grace hymn puts it. Like I have been timid on many occasions, hanged out with the wrong fellows as well as offered free services while languishing in want.
Can you now see why I am saying Amazing Grace is an old hymn yet ever new? I beseech you to also examine your life. And don't feel guilty and ashamed if you become thunderstruck by how lost and wretched you have been. Adieu!
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My Encounters With a Legend
I used to be a somewhat bright boy in the first years of my primary school education. Like I topped my class in the final term of Standard Four. But it's like someone bewitched me when I transited to Standard Five because my rankings in class dropped.
Although I did put in great effort in improving my performance by reading a lot, my efforts were not fully reflected in school because I didn't score stellar marks even in my Standard Eight continuous assessment tests.
But when the KCPE results were released in late December 2001 by the then Kenya's Minister of Education, what those who knew me thought impossible happened. I scored an impressive 421 marks out of 500 which led me to be admitted at the prestigious Starehe Boys' Centre where, as I have told you, I had my high school as well as college education.
I reported at Starehe on a sunny afternoon on January 17th of 2002. And as I walked to the school that day accompanied by my mother, I felt a great sense of pride well up in me for having been accepted into the school which consistently ranked among the top high schools in Kenya in the '90s and well into the 2000s.
That evening of January 17th 2002 as I sat in the assembly hall of Starehe, I was impressed to hear Dr. Griffin address us. He spoke with such intensity and confidence that I wished several weeks later that he would live to see me complete my studies in the school.
I enrolled at Starehe at a time when Dr. Griffin had advanced in years. So not surprisingly, he never got to know my name even though I stood out by giving a few speeches as well as accompanying hymns on the piano. But I at least found him encouraging and understanding in the few instances I got to catch his attention.
Like during one assembly in my first year at Starehe in 2002, he gently requested Miss Church - a talented, willowy young lady from England who was volunteering as a Music teacher in the school - to help me out on the piano after I became horribly nervous when I accompanied the wonderful old hymn Jesus, Good Above All Other whose last verse goes as follows:
About two years later when I developed the chutzpah to play the piano in front of the whole school, Dr. Griffin congratulated me on one or two occasions on his way out of the assembly hall. I am not sure if he got to recall how nervous I had been two years earlier when I was in Form 1 but it must have been heartening for me to hear his "well done" compliment.
Lord, in all our doings guide us;
Pride and hate shall ne'er divide us;
We'll go on with thee beside us,
And with joy we'll persevere!
And when it came to giving speeches of which I sometimes volunteered during my days in the school, Dr. Griffin was accepting of me because I didn't do it that excellently. Like during one speech I gave in 2003 when I was in Form 2, the students I was addressing started clapping their hands in a manner suggesting that I finish saying whatever I was talking about. But Dr. Griffin came to my rescue by commanding the students, "Let him finish!" He must have understood it was proper for a boy to hone his public-speaking skills while still in school.
There was one special school assembly held back in 2002 when I was in Form 1 that I beg to mention here because I did speak during it. The assembly was special in the sense that it was held in the morning after Dr. Griffin interrupted all lessons to address the rising cases of theft in the school. It must have greatly perturbed him that the school he had laboured diligently and wisely to found was turning into a den of thieves.
When Dr. Griffin asked us to offer suggestions on how we could curb the increasing cases of theft, I stood up on the podium in front of the whole school and suggested that visitors be barred from going beyond the school canteen area. Dr. Griffin listened to my suggestion but for reasons best known to him, it was never implemented.
For those who used to know Starehe as a centre of excellence during the Griffin era, don't be surprised to hear from me that the school had cases of theft because as the masters of the Queen's language would put it, there is always a rotten apple in a basket of good ones. Even among the famous twelve apostles of Christ, there was Judas Iscariot who accepted a bribe for betraying Jesus who was good above all others.
As I have pointed out, I wished on my first weeks at Starehe in 2002 that Dr. Griffin would live to see me complete my studies in the school. It was a wish that didn't come true because God called him home in my final year in high school in 2005. And his last words to me were "good luck in your exams" when we met on a highway in Starehe as I carried my desk to the assembly hall in readiness for a major exam, a few months before he passed on.
I was fortunate to play the piano during his funeral service that was graced by such distinguished dignitaries as Mwai Kibaki, the widely respected third president of our country Kenya. And I had the honour of playing on an electric organ the sweetly-flowing theme of Mozart's Sonata in A as Dr. Griffin's remains were getting lowered in his grave inside the school chapel.
All told, I am thankful to God for having let me encounter with Dr. Griffin who I am always endeavouring to make proud as he now reposes in heaven with the angels. Adieu!