Somewhere down the new Thika Road Super Highway, a large billboard spills into the faces of traffic jammed motorists. The photograph is that of an apparently well known Jazz maestro. The contours on his face betray a passing of the years; too many late nights in back street clubs coaxing his saxophone to impress inebriated audiences. Wrinkles have set in where laughter once resided, but his padded jaw line tells of a lined wallet. His instrument droops loosely over his slight public opinion tummy. His eyes scan out the new highway.

“It took him twenty four years to become an overnight sensation”, runs the spiel above his picture.  What?! Twenty four years! Overnight sensation! Those two phrases don’t belong together.  Then underneath the oversized photograph runs a caption: Johnny Walker. Keep Walking. Oh, okay. I see.  The maestro is also a connoisseur of quality liquor.

It’s a whisky commercial, one from which I would scarcely draw wisdom. My body has zero tolerance for the substance, quite apart from its offence on my other sensibilities. But Johnny Walker has become my inspiration since I saw that billboard.

The exquisite ability to improvise random notes to wow a crowd, the restraint to hold in breath for so long, the precision to hit the right note—wow! No wonder they call it Jazz. It takes more than good luck, more than strength of willpower, more than the fine charms of the artist. It’s long years of training, practice, even some under the radar acts before one can achieve the rapturous talent of sensational performances. That’s why we pay hefty tickets to see famous entertainers. That’s why athletes and footballers are worth their weight in gold. They have earned our money with the consistency of their practice, staying power to hang in till they get it, sacrifices to resist the easy way out. And I hear that even when you become so good at it, at anything, you have to keep honing your talent behind the scenes if you want to remain a sensation in public limelight.

Plodding through books is just that. Presently I’m reading Anthropology. Believe me, it’s one of the most technical disciplines I’ve ever come across. High school Algebra and Chemistry were easier, predictable formulas and all that. Oh yes, it does have a simplified definition, ‘the study of man’, but the easy part ends there. In short I need to research on a congregation.  I must frame my research in terms of theories that have been used to explain how human societies function. Anthropological insights should intersect with the other course I’m working on, Research Methods with big words like ethnography, qualitative and quantitative research, problems statements, research designs, research paradigms etc, etc. It’s all convoluted if you ask me, the fine script that we don’t bother to read when we sign up for grand projects.  But that is part of my road to the sensational act.

Dallas Willard in his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, puts it this way, “A successful (public) performance essentially depends on the depths of a wisely and rigorously prepared self, in mind and body.” Or to put it in Steve Covey’s terms, primary greatness precedes public greatness. You have to work on yourself behind the scenes to get to where you want to go, to be all that you were meant to be. It’s a principle of life whichever field you are work in. Sweat precedes the sensation. There are no shortcuts in athletics, in the arts, in business, even PhD studies. The only folk who seem to find shortcuts are politicians, at what costly prices! But that’s a story for another day.

I’m fixated on the billboard. The motorist behind me hoots madly. Tone-deaf where Jazz is concerned, I mentally do a quick bow to the maestro as I inch my car forward.

Johnny Walker. Keep Walking.

by Maggie Gitau
Ignite Excellence Scholarship recipient