Mary Atieno Ominde – Teacher’s gift of song rises above her visual challenge

Pioneer gospel singer Mary Atieno Ominde is living proof that disability is not inability; blind from birth, she became a leading artiste in Kenya’s gospel music arena in the 1980s and 1990s, producing numerous albums that continue to inspire millions. Her first album, Adam na Eva, released in 1982, remained popular for years. As a wife, mother, teacher and pastor, the songstress juggles her multiple roles to garner fans through the deep message of her songs coupled with strong and clear vocals. Her music has stood the test of time, inspiring both young and old with biblical messages.

Mary Atieno’s parents discovered that she was blind when she was five months old, although everything about her seemed to be fine until then. “I was their first-born child, and I imagine they were devastated by the discovery that I could not see. They tried everything in their power to restore my sight, but it was not to be,” she says.

Singing is what has made my name known and brought me recognition. Because of it, I have been able to inspire many people and serve God. Music has taken me to places I never thought I would go

With time, her parents accepted that their first-born would be blind for life. And then another shock was awaiting them. In 1978, when she was 17, Ominde was diagnosed with an incurable heart disease. Doctors predicted she would not live to adulthood.

The news was enough to break anybody’s spirit, but not Ominde. In her darkest hour, she turned to God and trusted Him to heal her. “I prayed earnestly and promised God that if He would only heal me, I would devote the rest of my life to his service.”

Ominde’s faith was rewarded when on follow-up hospital visits, tests proved that her heart was as healthy as it could possibly be, and what had spelt doom became the turning point in her life. “I got saved and gave my life to serving God. I asked him to give me a gift through which I could serve Him and He gave me singing.” Ominde started singing in the church and giving her testimony at every opportunity. “Later, I joined the choir and my music career took off,” she reminisces.

Four years later, Ominde released her first album, Adam na Eva, which proved to be a roaring success. Over the years, she has released eight more albums, all of them well received for their inspiring timeless messages. Today, the songstress is an acclaimed pioneer of the Kenyan gospel music industry. The trained teacher is still going strong in music and her strong voice continues to inspire millions. Her album, Njooni Tumsifu, released in 2004, showcases her vocal gift.

Ominde doesn’t let her disability limit the other areas of her life. She is a wife, a mother of three, a high school teacher and a pastor. “Being blind or having any other disability doesn’t mean that one cannot be a productive member of society.” She shares that the blind have enhanced senses of smell, hearing and touch, and also an incredible memory. “God might not have given us sight, but he has given us other gifts which in others are not quite as enhanced,” she says.

Born in 1961 in Nyanza, Ominde has eight siblings. Her father, Francis Yara, was a school headmaster while her mother, Polina Ajwang’ who passed on in 2015, was a housewife. Her father had another wife who was a teacher.

During her childhood, people in rural Nyanza viewed disability as a curse or the result of witchcraft. Many disabled children were denied education, which was not the case for Ominde, who attended Asumbi Mission and St. Oda’s Aluor Girls schools. She proceeded to the Thika Salvation Army High School for the Blind, from where she qualified for admission to Kenyatta University for a Bachelor’s degree in Education.

While in high school she started singing and even led the school choir. “I had a strong alto voice, and during major events and state functions, I was asked to lead the Starlight choir.” On one such occasion, the choir was invited to sing for President Daniel arap Moi. “We sang two of my own patriotic compositions – Furahini Wakenya and Kenya Twaipenda. It was a big thing for me!”

The songs, which coincided with the release of her first album, became instant hits and enjoyed considerable airplay on both radio and television. “I was surprised by the positive response that my music was getting, but I gave all the glory to God.” She explains that music helped improve her self-esteem and helped her to start seeing herself as a useful person. “It made me forget about my disability and play a more active role in my church choir. The church members and members of the International Fellowship of Christ Choir were really good to me and gave me a sense of belonging.”

Words of Wisdom

  • “Read as many inspirational books as you can, as they encourage you to be the best that you can be.”
  • “Always put your trust in God and do everything that you can to serve Him.”
  • “If you are disabled, remember that God created you the same as He created everybody else. You are just as important as everybody else.”
  • “Women are an essential part of creation. Without the woman creation was incomplete.”

Unlike many artistes in Kenya who release a few singles and are never heard from again, Ominde has released over 10 albums. They include Adam na Eva, Sodom na Gomora, Jerusalem Mpya, Nirudieni, Hakuna Mungu Mwengine, Usiogope, Yesu ni Jawabu, Nimeokoka, Nani Kama Yesu and Usife Moyo. Although she has other achievements, she considers music her greatest accomplishment.

“Singing is what has made my name known and brought me recognition. Because of it, I have been able to inspire many people and serve God.” She adds that music has taken her to places she never thought she would go. “I have been to Norway, Tanzania, Switzerland, Britain, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the US and Canada, all thanks to my singing career.”

However, the journey has not always been easy. Being visually impaired, Ominde acknowledges that she needs help from others all the time. When she was in high school in Thika, things were easier for her, but she remembers her time at Kenyatta University as the most challenging. “There were only four blind students in the whole campus and we were all in different hostels. It was impossible for us to be of help to each other. I was living with non-blind people, and to make matters worse, I had my own room.”

Despite the challenges, and with her indomitable spirit, Ominde went on to earn her degree and later got a teaching job at Buru Buru Girls’ High School, where she teaches to date. The educator finds fulfilment in teaching, especially when her students score high marks. “One might not think that it is a big thing because I am not the only blind teacher, but to me it is quite an achievement.” It gives her joy to know that she is a useful member of society in spite of being blind.

“The staff and students of Buru Buru Girls’ are very supportive and extend help even without my asking for it.” One way they have been able to help the teacher is by reading for her; she loves reading, but since only few books are in Braille, she needs people to read for her. She started out as an English teacher, but because none of the set books was available in Braille, she requested that the Ministry of Education switch her subject to Christian Religious Education. “Even the Braille Bible is too bulky to lug around, so I need someone to read it for me.”

Authors such as Zig Ziglar, Joel Osteen and Dale Carnegie hold great attraction for Ominde. “Reading their books has helped me view myself in a positive light and strive to be the best that I can be.” Her husband, Alex Ominde, and children also help her read. “This is always a wonderful shared experience. We discuss the lessons and try to understand and apply them in our lives.”

The musician credits the depth and freshness of the messages in her music to her love of reading. She says: “I read the Bible, Bible commentaries and motivational books a lot, and they inspire my music. When writing a song, I take a message which has been particularly meaningful to me and research on it.” That gives her songs the depth that most gospel music doesn’t have, she explains. “I think this is something that other gospel artistes should also learn to do. They should always research on what the Bible says and not just sing to excite crowds.”

And it goes beyond composing songs. “Reading extensively and intensively also gives me something to say when invited to share as a motivational speaker. Another thing that helps is that I have maintained my personal relationship with God.”

What is her take on music and wealth? “While I think it is good to make money from gospel music, I don’t think it should be the key focus. That is where gospel artistes go wrong today.” She emphasises that gospel music should always be God-centred and about ministering to others.”

In more than three decades in the Kenyan gospel industry, Ominde has witnessed a lot of change. “Gospel music has evolved, and even the beats have changed. In the past, gospel music was all about slow soulful beats, but now it is as upbeat as secular music. Nowadays there is even rap and rock gospel music!” She recalls an incident when a young producer offered her such a beat for her music. “Needless to say, I had to say no. I am comfortable with my kind of music.”

She adds that the content of songs has also changed. “Gospel music used to carry strictly Bible-based messages, but now the genre has expanded to include personal testimonies and even humour,” says the singer, who has also witnessed the evolution from analogue recording using cassettes to the digital era of DVDs and CDs, making production more complex. Her songs are self-produced and recorded at various studios.

At the time of this interview, Ominde was working on a new album and a single titled Nakupenda Yesu which, she said, “will be unique and have a deep message.”

Ominde stays motivated through her faith in God as well as through positive response to her music from people who give testimonies of how her music has touched their lives and restored their faith in God. “I have also received a lot of recognition in the media and get invitations to share my story and inspire others.”

Together with her husband, Ominde established a church in Kayole in 2001 called the Sanctuary of Hope. She preaches in the church and takes every opportunity to sing for the congregation. The church regularly organises ways to give back, something that Ominde is passionate about.

The songstress spends her free time at home with her husband, daughters Melody and Harmony and her son, Precious. She feels proud and happy when her children appreciate her. “Melody wrote me a nice letter telling me that I am the best mother in the world and thanking me for how I understand and take care of her and her siblings. It was touching!”

The doyenne of Kenyan gospel music also loves listening to songs by like-minded artistes, particularly African American musicians. “They sing like angels. You can tell that they give it their whole hearts.”

The singer plans to continue touching lives with her music and her preaching. “I have come to learn that although I might be blind, that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have a vision. I would like to tell all physically disabled people that they should never let their handicap define them.”

She further advises, “Don’t feel inferior to others, and avoid people who are negative because they will only hinder you from your vision.”

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