Since MDMT became a registered charity in 2003, it has been superbly served by outstanding music volunteers who have worked at Starehe Boys’ Centre and Starehe Girls’ Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. Typically MDMT volunteers are in their mid twenties having graduated with music degrees from UK universities or conservatoires. Here Chris Walters tells his own inspiring story about what prompted him to take on these formidable challenges, life in the Centre, in Nairobi and in Kenya and his subsequent career path.
I first stumbled across the advert for the music volunteer job at Starehe Boys’ Centre at a time when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next in life. It was five years after I’d graduated and I’d been enjoying working as freelance musician and teacher, but with an increasing feeling that I would run out of steam unless I did something different while I still had the chance. The Starehe job involved moving to Kenya, and as I hadn’t travelled all that much it seemed perfect. And it was to do with music, and all the costs were covered! I felt lucky to have found such a tailor-made opportunity.
The few weeks before I left for Kenya were an anxious time. Looking back at myself I was a bag of nerves, like a different person. One of the things that Starehe gave me was the ability to rise to new challenges with a much greater degree of confidence, but back then the prospect of leaping into the unknown was scary to say the least.
My first few weeks at Starehe were a bit of a blur, but less alien than my worst fears had predicted. The weather was surprisingly British and not too scorching, and people were friendly and welcoming. Even public transport was manageable, if a little unnerving, and trips into the centre of Nairobi were a welcome break from the routine of living and working on campus.
Before long I was meeting people outside the school, and I soon got a job teaching at the Kenya Conservatoire one day a week. One of the perks of being a musician in Kenya is the number of enquiries and requests you receive – I was able to pick and choose a collection of enjoyable gigs ranging from accompanying the Nairobi Music Society choir to teaching diploma students at the conservatoire. Over my time in Kenya there were also wedding gigs at tropical coastal hideaways, a performance with Cape Town Opera outdoors at Hell’s Gate National Park (where we had to fend off curious monkeys) and convivial evening recitals at house parties.
But the school remained my main focus, particularly putting on the musical Oliver – although developing the instrumental tuition was a big priority too. I ended up working most nights until 11pm in the run up to Oliver’s first night, and the show was a huge success, even transferring to a theatre in the centre of Nairobi for an extra week’s run later in the year. Getting involved with set design, marketing, drama direction and crowd control gave me a range of new skills, and I would advise anyone looking to prepare themselves for almost any future profession to put on a school musical.
I ended up staying in Kenya for 18 months, six months longer than I had planned. Deciding to leave at the end of that period was a very painful decision – a number of ex-Starehe volunteers have ended up making lives for themselves in Kenya. But for various reasons I felt I should return to the UK. Fortunately I have been able to return to Kenya no fewer than four times – once on holiday and three times as a coach for the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya.
Just as I was about to move back to the UK, a fellow expat advised me to ‘go back bold’. I laughed at the time, but this is exactly what my experience enabled me to do. When I first got back I returned to work as a player and teacher, but I was soon able to pluck up the courage to pursue writing, something I had always wanted to do but had never known how to get into. I managed to get a job as deputy editor on a trade magazine for music teachers, and I now edit the title and also work as a freelance writer for a range of other magazines, newspapers and websites. I really enjoy this work, which puts me at the heart of the debate about what matters in music education. I still play and teach too, and all in all it’s a pretty happy balance. Would I be doing all this if I hadn’t gone to Kenya? Almost certainly not.
My advice to anyone considering becoming a Starehe music volunteer would be to grab the opportunity with both hands. Your experience will almost certainly be different to mine, but the one thing you will definitely gain is a new perspective on the UK and on life generally, something that for me has been priceless.