About 30 years ago, a young man fell in love with a young girl who was then a student at Kenyatta University. That young man was named Freshley Mwamburi, and his love was a bright, ambitious girl named Stellah. He came from the hills of Taita, she from the lush of the Kangundo savannah.
The relationship took off well, with the two enjoying the little trappings of youth and, every now and then, riding around town in Mwamburi’s aging car. I think he told me it was a Peugeot 504, but I’m not sure. If it was, I can picture him riding around town, his fingers stroking the four-spoke steering wheel and the distinctive romantic purr of the carbureted 1800cc mill under the bonnet massaging the rims of his ears.
But, just as he was considering settling down for an enchanting life with the girl of his dreams, Mwamburi got the shock of his life when, in the early 1990s, Stellah ditched him for another man. Heartbroken, he went to the studios and, together with his Everest Kings bandmate Abdul Muyonga, recorded the hit song “Stellah”, released in 1995 as an album cover.
That song went on to become an evergreen number, taken to the top of the charts by Mwamburi’s emotional refrain to Stellah to “come back” to him and sustained there by the cosy place love stories occupy in creative arts and pop culture.
The story had actually started a few years before 1995, when a sprightly, creative and energetic Mwamburi settled in Nairobi from Mombasa to nurture his musical dream.
At the age of 15, he had cobbled up his own musical group, Mombasa International Band, before, in 1984, joining Simba Wanyika, the popular band headed by the Tanzanian Kinyonga brothers, Wilson and George. Two years later, he left Simba Wanyika for its offshoot, Les Wanyika, where he stayed until 1986, when he formed Mavalo Kings. In 1988, he joined hands with Muyonga and changed the band name to Everest Kings.
Stellah, on the other hand, had moved to Nairobi to study at Kenyatta University. Fate drew them together, the bond strengthened by their individual youthful struggles, the strong chemistry between them, and the pregnant promise of tomorrow. And then, one day, Stellah informed Mwamburi that she had landed a scholarship to study in Japan.
Stellah came from a poor family and could neither raise the fare to Japan nor the money for upkeep. Mwamburi, seeing a chance to prove his love, and riding the wave of naïve promises made in the midst of the madness of youthful romance, decided to step in and prove his worth.
“I sold my car and a few personal belongings and gave the money to her to travel abroad,” he told me during an interview for the Nation in Nairobi.
Stella travelled to Japan, from where she kept Mwamburi well apprised of her progress via mail, but the regularity of the communication soon became an agonising trickle. Stellah would, much later, confess to Mwamburi that she had started dating her college principal, “a stout, short man”, as Mwamburi describes him in the song.
On May 17, 1992, the day she was scheduled to return to the country, Mwamburi took a colourful entourage to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to receive her.
His heart, however, sunk to his knees when Stella, now married, approached him carrying a child from her relationship with her college head, who was in tow. After the initial shock, Mwamburi tried to rationalise the turn of events, but to do that he needed the input and reasoning of Stellah. She explained to him her vulnerability in Japan and how it had somehow led her to the man who would become her husband.
“We remained friends,” he said. “We kept in touch after the JKIA incident, and once or twice she attended my gigs in Nairobi.”
I remember the look in Mwamburi’s face as he spoke of Stellah. We were at his bandmate Muyonga’s house. I told Mwamburi that everyone had heard of Stellah, but no one had seen her. Was she a myth? Some sort of a creative fantasy that had somehow found life in the reggae beat of his music?
To answer me, he fished out a greying photo. And there, in a leather jacket, shiny braids and peeling nail polish, was the legendary Stellah! I asked him why he had kept the photo. He said Stellah was still a close friend. Period.
The photo had been taken at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport as Stellah left for Japan. She was crying, sobbing into her hands. I asked Mwamburi whether I could have a copy of it, and he graciously agreed.
And so today, on May 17, 2020, I present to you Stellah. I am, against my better judgment, releasing this photo to the wild.