From an Immigrant to a Star in Italy Amidst Setbacks: The story of Hannah Wakesho

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Hannah Wakesho aka Lioness Afreeka left Kenya for Italy in 2006 with one thing in her mind: She was going to be a hit!  She was sure Italy would provide a platform for her to become a renowned musician whose rhythms would reverberate across the globe and make her an instant star. She had started out as a band musician in Kenya, and when the then MP for Embakasi the late Mellitus Were in Nairobi offered to pay for their group to go and perform in Leece, Italy, she knew her dream was finally taking off. The MP had seen them performing at pizza garden and fallen in love with their music. He connected them to a producer he knew in Italy.

“I did not know what awaited me. The suffering I would go through, and the tears I would shed in diaspora,” she says.

Hannah was already a successful singer before she left. She was a member of one of the leading band in Kenya called “Big Matata”  of the “fish and Chips” fame who regaled audiences with live performances in famous clubs such as Utalii, Zanze and Holiday Inn in Westlands.  They toured different parts of Kenya and Africa for concerts. When she released her album “Tuliza Boli”, she got a bigger fan base in the local scene.

When the group arrived in Italy, they made a decision that she admits changed the dynamics of her life.

“We all remained after the few months we were to stay elapsed. We never went back to Kenya…everyone had their struggles. Some went to Greece. One of the members is my husband so he stayed with me in Leece,” she says.

Their woes started barely six months after they became illegal immigrants in Italy. Wakesho was pregnant and after giving birth, they had to stay with strangers and endure many hungry days because they could not afford food.

“Some Italian girls who followed our performance came to visit me in hospital. They talked to their area priest and he gave me a room with my baby to stay,” she says.

It is there that they met other immigrants who told them the reality of living in a country without proper documentation. The hunger, anxiety of knowing they could be caught any time, the lack of jobs because no employer is willing to risk on them, and the poverty that follows.  The Kenyan community would sometimes chip in and shop for them, and she says there is a point a group of Kenyans came through for them when they did not have even a grain of salt in their kitchen.

“My music career came to a standstill. Something inside of me was burning, wanting that chance to be heard. The warrior heart was building inside of me. I knew I had to break barriers. I had to convince one person at a time. I took to free performances just to make sure people hear me sing,” says Wakesho.

The biggest challenge was language barrier. Even small jobs they would have otherwise done needed proficiency in Italian – a language they did not speak.

“I had to learn it through watching TV and making mistakes,” she says.

When she learnt that she was expecting her second child, she had a bitter sweet moment. She knew things would get even tougher for her.

“At 7 months pregnant I fell down the stairs and broke my knee. I was hospitalized for a month and a half. Operated on my knee. Came out using crutches. That slowed down everything,” she says.  Her daughter survived the fall.

Despite the challenges, she never let go of her dream to become a singer. It was a dream she had nurtured from when she was a young girl, growing up in Mombasa. Since her youth she was involved in church choir and school musical activities. In 1991, she bagged the title of second best soloist during the national drama festivals. Even the adjudicators admitted she had a talent that if nurtured, will produce one of the best vocalist in the world.  A few years later she released her single ”Maisha Yao” which means ”Their lives” and can be found on Youtube. It is based on the life she had seen street children in Djibouti living, and she was touched by their plight.

After her second baby, she hit the stage again. She won a local singing talent show in Carpignao Salentino, Lecce in 2008. Coincidentally, as she was singing to a crowd of more than 5,000 people, nobody knew that her daughter had been diagnosed with a heart condition and was scheduled for operation later that day.  She had gotten the gig courtesy of  a contest that she won through a local talent show called “La Corrida” in Italy. Many musicians were shortlisted, but she emerged the winner.

“I sang like I have never done before. I did it for me and my daughter,” she says.

Lioness’s latest recordings have been Sister love, Roar and Cry revolution.

Hannah is not shy to open up on the many conflicts she had with her husband as both of them grappled to find a bearing in diaspora.

“We had all kinds of misunderstandings. He was fighting his own battles and I was struggling to rise amidst the hopelessness,” she says. She laughs and says they sailed through the turbulence and have never been happier.

It has been more than a decade of rising and falling, and she believes her experience strengthened her and she now understands the pain of immigrants all over the world.

She has now mastered Italian, and helps as a translator for immigrants who are struggling to put their papers in order. Wakesho now has her papers in order and is a permanent resident waiting for Italian citizenship.

“God was feeding me with strength and wisdom. The project was “me”.  I had to work this project. I met people along the way who saw the potential I had. Fearlessly I grabbed on every opportunity. I have even won local singing competitions here in Lecce. I have loved this journey, it has made me someone new on the inside,” she says.

Italy is where she awakened her inner strength.  She says she enjoys the order and how systems work in Italy unlike Kenya. She also appreciates how they tend to connect with her music, saying Italians love the exotic nature Kenyan music has, and the beautiful percussion that accompany the songs. Her husband is a multi instrumentalist who accompanies her for performances and they sometimes collaborate in duets. They get connections and recommendations in discos and clubs and the pay is higher than what they would get in Kenya. She however, cautions budding musicians who may want to move to diaspora that they need to plan properly and know that Music alone may not sustain them.

“Gigs are usually seasonal; mostly during summer. That is why we have to get jobs to maintain our lives. Even though we love music, it is now our side hustle,” she says.

Sadly, she says she still experiences racism. People avoid sitting next to her in the bus because of the color of her skin. They still ask her for tickets while letting the Italian ahead of her to walk on.

“Once I was with my daughter at a train station, she wanted to play with an Italian kid …the Italian mother took her kid away far from my daughter,” she says.

She misses home. The laughter, the food, and the social nature that defines Kenyans. She is currently working on an album that she hopes to release next year.

Are you a Kenyan in Diaspora? Let us Share your Diaspora Experience. Write to us: info@awmagazine.org

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