From Kisii to America: Irene Kerubo’s Burning Ambition to help Immigrants


From Kisii to America: Irene Kerubo’s Burning Ambition to help Immigrants

From Kisii to America: Irene Kerubo's Burning Ambition to help ImmigrantsIt is estimated that at least two out of every five Kenyan adults in the US are in the country illegally, with mostly expired visas. Many migrated there as students who, at some point in their educational journey, dropped out of school for lack of fees, others travelled on short-term visitor visas but decided to make America their home, and therefore intentionally let their visas lapse.

These illegal immigrants live off the grid and would do anything to stay “underground”. They steer clear of any government initiatives or situations that would require them to disclose their identities or current addresses because they fear this could be used by the dreaded Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement (ICE) to hunt them down and deport them.

This is the group that Irene Kerubo Webster, a Kenyan who now lives in Burlington, Vermont, has “a burden” for. It’s the reason she recently released a song in Kiswahili to specifically encourage them to come out and get vaccinated.

Through her afro-jazz band Kachumbari, which she formed three years ago after suffering an aneurysm that nearly killed her, Kerubo addresses these fears and other misinformation when it comes to the Covid-19 vaccine.

The song, Chanjo, which means vaccine in Kiswahili, is in demand by public health officials in Vermont and other states.

Speaking to the Sunday Nation about this initiative, Kerubo says: “When I wrote this song, I didn’t think it’d be this popular. I wrote it primarily to reach my people because, as you know, the Kenyan community in the US has grown exponentially in recent years and now we have even among us, parents and elderly people that need the vaccine but who only understand Kiswahili. I also wanted to speak to those without legal documents to stay here, and who fear they could be victimised if they registered to take the Covid vaccines.”

African communities

Kerubo, who works as a community outreach caseworker for the refugees in Huntington and Winooski, realised that some in the Kenyan and African communities were not sold to the idea of getting the vaccine.

“I work at the Association of Africans Living in Vermont. Recently, during the pandemic I became very frustrated by misleading information circulating among African communities through WhatsApp and Facebook. There have been videos, some from Kenya, depicting false health episodes that were clearly manufactured to dissuade people from getting the vaccine,” she said, adding: “So I composed a song which I published as a music video to address this kind of misleading information in the African diaspora and the black community in general.”

History has shown that these groups suffer unequal and sometimes fatal health care practices that over time has made them mistrust big pharmaceutical companies. This mistrust can negatively impact global public health goals and people’s lives.

Kerubo says in the song that the world will eradicate coronavirus by vaccination. She says leading experts in the coronavirus field have said it’s safe and the trial tests indicate it’s 95 per cent effective.

“If we all come together, we can eradicate this easily. If you’re safe, then I’m safe,” she says in the song.

Listening to Kerubo, one gets the feeling that she is on some sort of social mission that directly affects and touches people. And, it is easy to sense why. Several years ago, this Kenyan singer-songwriter, who is now a celebrated Kenyan artiste in the US, went into a coma following a ruptured artery. Talking about the incident, Irene shudders at the thought it it all.

“When I woke up, I was not able to speak or walk,” she says.

Her road to recovery was difficult, but it made her realise that she wanted to resume her singing career and write songs with social messages.

“It’s not just good enough to sing; one has to think seriously about the message one wants to convey, so the song has to have a meaning. It has to have messages that help people who have gone through life-or-death experiences, or are trapped in situations where they don’t see light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.

To Kerubo, her life-changing episode was a turning point of sorts and helped her reflect on her priorities and talents.

Family life

“For me, singing and music are a calling. For as long as I can remember, I have always been involved in music. Of course my musical career also had its interruptions — such as school and family life — but I always found a way back to the stage to perform. My life really changed when I had the brain aneurysm six years ago. I almost died. Doctors initially told my husband that I would probably not survive but God is good. I came out of the coma.”

She says that, in rehabilitation, she experienced a condition known as aphasia, which is a brain disorder often associated with traumatic injuries that affect speech.

“There is nothing scarier than when you feel you are losing something you have always taken for granted — your voice. It was a turning point for me. I believe that I am a living miracle. God brought me back from the coma, healed me completely and wants me to use the voice he gave me to do good, to give hope and to give back to the community,” she says.

Irene Kerubo Webster, 49, was born in Kendu Bay, Kenya to Leah Nyaboke Onchangu and the late Simon Onchangu. She has five siblings. She went to Nairobi South Primary School, Karura SDA High School and Champlain College in Vermont, US. She migrated to the US in 2006.

Raised mostly in Nairobi, she met her American husband Michael Webster in Nairobi in the early 2000s. Mr Webster, who was at the time working in Nairobi as a diplomat, was apparently also a great lover of the arts. He was a musician, too.

“Our love story is long and runs deep. We shared so much in common that we are not very sure when and where it crossed over from bandmates to sweetheart partners,” she says.

Both of them performed in a band called Keru Blues. Webster played the guitar; she was the lead singer and manager.

“I have been in the music industry for over 20 years now. I have produced four singles and an album, which I expect to release this May” she says.

She started honing her skills as a stage-performer when she began singing as a background vocalist for renowned musicians such as the late Achien’g Abura and Suzanna Owiyo.

“I travelled to the US, Europe and Asia with them. Later, I became the lead singer and manager of my band, Keru Blues. We played at the Toona Tree and other Nairobi venues where expatriates and UN workers frequented. We played blues and jazz, ” she says

The genre was unfamiliar to Kerubo, but her husband taught her everything about it, in part by giving her a lot of CDs to listen to.

“If you’re a stage performer, this is what you have to do,” she said. “You have to learn how to project or get into a character and then deliver it to the people.”

On and off, Kerubo continued to sing background vocals for local musicians, and then in mid-2006 she moved to the US to join her husband. Her singing career took a backseat as she adjusted to her new life, although she continued to sing in church. She lived in Washington, DC, and Georgia before moving to Vermont in 2011.

Brain aneurysm

As a result of her brain aneurysm, Kerubo had to undergo a tracheal operation. “My capacity, to some degree, isn’t what it used to be,” she says. “But I have learned to work with what I have, and it’s still beautiful.”

Last year, Kerubo formed Kachumbari, an Afro-jazz band, with local musicians, including her husband. They’ve performed at Radio Bean and the Vermont International Festival, as well as at events organised by Champlain College, where Kerubo is a receptionist when she is not working with the African immigrant community.

Beyond that, Kerubo has written a song — Zima Moto — about the need for African countries to help each other and offer safe havens for refugees fleeing conflict. She has also written a song about female genital mutilation. In Kenya, pockets of communities still practise FGM, even though it’s illegal. She was surprised to learn that some groups in the US still practise it.

The singer-songwriter hopes that her song will offer healing to those afflicted. “I find ways to make it easy for those affected to process, so that they don’t feel like they’re replaying that trauma in their mind.

As to what the future holds for her, Kerubo says she plans to continue producing music for as long as she can.

“There are so many things to sing about. Some of them are hard to talk about but easier to discuss through music. I want to be remembered as a woman who used her voice to lift up people and present a hopeful world in which artistic collaboration breaks down barriers between people of different backgrounds and beliefs.”

By Chris Wamalwa


From Kisii to America: Irene Kerubo’s Burning Ambition to help Immigrants

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