Aug 282012

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 Rob Stewardson tells about life in the Centre, in Nairobi and in Kenya.


There are only so many academic articles one can read in a day, and only so many times one can break the ennui by checking one’s emails in the hope that somebody will have responded to one’s query about an obscure score. On one such check on a Friday afternoon in July 2008 while writing my Masters degree at Manchester University there was a rather more interesting email; ‘The Martyn Donaldson Music Trust are looking to hire a music volunteer to work at Starehe Girls’ Centre in Kenya,’ it read! Needless to say, the thesis took a back seat for the afternoon and four days later I had been interviewed for and accepted a job 4000 miles away.

Fast-forward to January 2009 and I arrived in Nairobi late in the evening and was whizzed (quite literally) through the city and then into what seemed like the middle of nowhere; Starehe Girls’ Centre is 20k north of Nairobi and 4k through coffee and flower plantations from the main road. The school is in beautiful countryside with its own dam and no shortage of wildlife; monkeys, dik-dik, giant forest hog and over 70 species of bird were seen within the grounds and the place is utterly tranquil. At 11pm after an 8 hour flight it is quite bewildering, however!

‘I would like a band’, the Director, Mrs. Wanjohi, told me. Two trumpets with stuck mouthpieces stuck, two with stuck valves, two French Horns, two trombones and various woodwind instruments in varying states of dilapidation were available. ‘The German Embassy has promised more, we are just waiting for them,’ was often repeated. Two years later the donation came through and my last job at the school was organising the purchase and delivery of £4000 worth of instruments from the UK which are now widely used. We endeavored gamefully at the time and achieved a good National Anthem which is played every Monday morning at parade.

The first job at Starehe is to pick the music students. 80 confused Form 1s are lined up around the music room and given rhythm and pitch tests; the best 15 become music students and your piano students. Trying to find time to teach piano to 35 girls when one is only allowed to take them out of certain lessons and with other teachers distinctly obstinate is…tricky. In January 2009 we only had 1 electric piano which only worked when we had electricity. Life at SGC can be frustrating but is always fun!

Term 2 is Choir term. The provincials and nationals of the Kenya Music Festival are held in July and August and are taken very seriously. Rehearsals from 4-6, Monday to Thursday, for the 75-strong choir and then extra lessons, sometimes late into the evening, for all of the soloists and small ensembles. In 2009 we were exceptional winning three categories including the prodigious Class 301A, Girls’ Unaccompanied Set Piece ‘The Handsome Fool’. The look on the girls’ faces when the result was announced will remain with me forever. KMF is an experience and could test the patience of even the most serene. Lack of a piano (because it had slipped the committee’s mind, apparently), for instance, held up day 1 of the 2009 provincials; lack of water, either for drinking or sanitation, did not!

In the same week as the provincials we staged Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to general acclaim as the first event in the 50th anniversary celebrations of Starehe Boys’ Centre. A lack of spoons for the girls to eat their dinner with held up Saturday night’s performance by at least half an hour and there was general panic when the golden chalice was discovered in the sound box 30 seconds before it was needed (the students improvised and Benjamin was arrested for stealing a plastic tea-cup!). But, as with everything at Starehe, it was fantastic and such amazing good fun! I doubt that ever again I will work with such dedicated, hard-working, enthusiastic, motivated, intelligent and talented young people. When you consider their backgrounds, that these young people achieve so much musically in such a short period of time is extraordinary.

As well as working at SGC, I became heavily involved with the Nairobi Orchestra playing various brass instruments (I have had to make a promise that I will never play French Horn in public again), conducting for two concerts and playing the Tuba Concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams in March 2010; a Kenyan, if not an African premiere. Dinner and a couple of cold Tuskers afterwards was always pleasant and the friendships made will last a lifetime. Teaching piano and brass at the Conservatoire on a Saturday was a welcome extra source of income especially when running, or more often fixing, a car.

Being a tutor with the inaugural National Youth Orchestra of Kenya was a unique experience. Our first gig was at the signing of Kenya’s new constitution. We marched on, me at the front of the line, television cameras in front of us, Kenya and African dignitaries to our right and up to 1 million people on the bank to our left, turned, played La Rejouissance, picked up the music stands and marched off again. Totally surreal but amazing to be playing in front of so many people. At our next gig, a lunch at Statehouse, to appease the whims of the President’s wife, the tutors got together and from a piano score, two trumpets, two clarinets, a flute, a tuba, a drumkit and a singer performed I got Rhythm. Perhaps the greatest lesson Kenya taught me is to be totally prepared for the unexpected and to improvise, improvise, improvise. On leaving Kenya I moved to South Africa and am setting up a music department at girls’ school in Johannesburg. The lessons and experiences discovered in Kenya have been and will remain invaluable.

There is plenty of time to get away and I had trips to Tsavo East, Meru, the Masaai Mara, Shimba Hills, Kakamega Forest, Lake Victoria, Lake Nakuru, Lake Baringo, Lake Bogoria, Mombasa, Lamu and Watamu. Each has its own special memories but breaking down in the Masaai Mara (engine overheated, warped cylinder-head, oil leak, water everywhere etc. (Tip: If you buy a car, get a good mechanic!)) will remain with me the longest. In December 2010, just a week before I left Kenya, I climbed the 4,995 metres of Lenana Peak on Mt. Kenya. Standing, looking down, at the country I had come to love was definitely the best way to finish two magnificent years at Starehe Girls’ Centre. My thanks once again to the Martyn Donaldson Music Trust for making it possible. May God bless and protect them and all future students and volunteers of Starehe.


Rob Stewardson


26 August 2012