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 Jamie Munn tells about life in the Centre, in Nairobi and in Kenya.
Working at a school like Starehe Girls’ Centre is difficult to sum up. It comes with a huge range of emotions: pride, excitement, encouragement, frustration and the occasional bout of exasperation. First of all, the setting is quite something. The school compound is located about 10km north of Nairobi’s smoke-filled, dusty and polluted city centre, in what often seems like a haven of fresh air and greenery. The bungalow (normally) reserved for the music volunteer is right at the edge of the grounds and overlooks the nearby forest and fields. There is often nothing better than sitting on the veranda after a long teaching day with a cup of fresh Kenyan coffee or an amazing Kenyan mango and watching the monkeys fight each other in the trees as ibis birds screech, and the occasional Ugandan crane (complete with ridiculous headdress of yellow feathers) or pelican fly overhead towards the school’s lake.
But there is also plenty of work too. And I mean plenty. At the moment there are 43 music students in the school, and about 35 of them get their individual piano lessons from me once a week. Now that’s a lot of lessons! There is also the bi-annual school musical with Starehe Boys’ Centre, which, as you can imagine, takes up a huge amount of time and energy. We aren’t hosting one this year, but last year we ambitiously produced the Broadway version of The Lion King. The only people organising it were Georgina, the volunteer at Starehe Boys’, and me, so it was hugely tiring, and we often felt that it would never happen. In the end it was hugely successful with many saying it was the best Starehe production they had seen in a very long time. If you pile onto that assisting with the training of the choir, soloists and ensembles for the Provincial and National sections of the Kenya Music Festival, writing a piece for the choir to perform at the festival, organising and training for ABRSM practical and theory exams, taking a few of the classroom music lessons, taking the students on trips to see concerts by the Nairobi Orchestra and visiting musicians and ensembles, organising the termly School Recital, and getting music groups together and rehearsed for frequent visits by donors and supporters, then you might begin to see why that coffee on the veranda might be essential!
There are also plenty of opportunities outside of school to earn a bit of pocket money by teaching and performing. I teach all day on a Saturday at the Kenya Conservatoire, with students ranging from four-year old piano beginners, to coaching operatic sopranos – so it’s varied to say the least! As well as that I have performed in concerts and recitals all over Nairobi and to Nanyuki, Kisumu, Kilifi, Gilgil and even Arusha in Tanzania, and have been the soloist for the last three oratorios performed by the Nairobi Music Society and Orchestra.
Nairobi also has a burgeoning cultural scene, and there are plenty of art exhibitions, concerts, jazz sessions and films (including a new IMAX cinema!) to attend. The Nairobi Music Society organises fairly regular classical concerts (as do the various European cultural centres), and I even took some Italian classes during last year’s ‘quiet’ third term.
There are, of course, downsides, but none of them too disheartening. Getting things done through the school administration can be long and tedious and you often feel as if you’re fighting a semi-losing battle. The same applies for work visa and residence permits. Teachers of other subjects can sometimes be dismissive of music lessons and rehearsals. If you don’t have a car (like me), then travelling around, especially at night, can be a bit of an issue, but if you give yourself Health and Safety amnesia then the 4km fast, helmet-less ride on the back of a motorbike (boda-boda) from the school to the main road can be quite exhilarating, and at least the notoriously awful matatus get you to your destination quickly, forgetting the fact that the drivers seem to think they are in a game of Grand Theft Auto. As a white person (mzungu), you inevitably stand out in town, which is often a cue for the cast of ‘The World’s Most Annoying’ people to shout and give (tame) hassle. But if you give as good as you get or ignore them then that’s usually the end of it.
All in all it’s a year or two that probably can’t be matched anywhere else. The girls are keen and hard working, the city exhilarating and home to probably the most active music scene in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa. Just don’t leave the windows open, or else the monkeys will soon find an alternative home for your food.