Volunteer at Starehe Girls’ Centre
Jan 2007 to Dec 2007
I’m having an absolute ball here, the girls’ school is beautiful, my apartment is really clean and I have everything I need, fridge microwave etc! The staff are very friendly – because it’s only a young school with less than 20 staff members, it’s been really easy to get to know everybody. I’m the only mzungu (white person) for miles around which they all find very entertaining – the matron has taken it upon herself to be my kikuyu teacher and surrogate mother!
The second term at Starehe Girls School is hectic! Chris and I are rehearsing as much as possible for “Oliver” the musical. It’s going really well – there are 15 girls taking part and around 40 boys. I think the girls are going to really show the boys how it’s done! They’re all taking it extremely seriously and are full of suggestions for the choreography and direction! We go to the boys’ school every Sunday to piece the scenes and the songs together. We’re also preparing for the Kenya Music Festival. The girls’ choir is great, really fast at learning and I’ve written a song for girls’ choir, cello and piano which we hope to perform. SGC won most of the prizes last year so the pressure is on!
In other news, I have started giving the Form One music students piano lessons so I now have 33 students, all desperately trying to practice on one piano… it’s not easy. But the girls have responded really well, given that most of them would never have seen a piano before, they’re keen to learn. The girls have set up a music club as well – I brought over my ipod and speakers so we have sessions of listening to all kinds of music, although to be honest they mostly want to listen to my extensive Westlife collection!
It’s hard to know where to start… my year in Kenya was so jam-packed with highs and lows, challenges and successes that putting them all in order is quite a task!
The first month at the school was spent acquainting myself with the students, the school and the Nairobi lifestyle. The girls were very quick to make me feel welcome – although the staff accommodation is supposedly “out-of-bounds” for students, I was delighted to be visited almost immediately by several music students, eager to see who this new volunteer was. Indeed throughout the year I had regular visits from a few particular students – I think they benefit from having a listener who is not a ‘teacher’ in the normal sense, I felt like their big sister, something I really enjoyed.
The girls are, in general, extremely pleasant to work with, keen to show their gratitude and absolutely dying to learn everything you have to teach them.
One of the benefits of teaching at SGC is the very pleasant atmosphere between the staff – every day at 4pm tea is served in the staff room, giving me an opportunity to get to know the teachers, to brush up on my Kiswahili and generally feel part of a team. (Kiswahili is not essential but I found having a few phrases invaluable to ‘break the ice’ – Kenyans love to hear that you’re trying!)
The music department is very much a project in development – the facilities are still restricted by the lack of space and lack of instruments, notably a second piano for the students to practise on. The Form One and Two students came for individual instrument lessons during class-time: the weekly timetable was basically left up to me, as long as they didn’t miss the same class two weeks in a row. During the year the Form 3 teachers became concerned about the students missing any class time whatsoever so it was decided that from Form 3 on, students would be taught after school, although putting this into practice was quite hard – the students have very little free time, between doing chores, clubs, religious groups and then prep in the evening.
The standard of music skill varies hugely between each student – luckily there is a plentiful source of sheet music for every level and they are nothing if not determined! Most of the girls have an incredible aural memory, something which is extremely useful in choir rehearsals but which holds them back in their sight-reading. It is a challenge for music teachers, not in any way specific to Kenya, but I’m sure it is at least heightened due to the amazing oral heritage of Kenyan music and dance.
In general, most teachers were very kind and understanding of my job in the school. The issue of extra-curricular activity affecting school time became quite a big problem during the Kenyan Music Festival when students missed a few days of classes. Needless to say, there has to be a balance for the students to develop an overall education and there are certainly some extremely talented girls who deserve to get the most out of every opportunity, be it music lessons, performing at the Festival or taking part in the musical.
Speaking of which, the KMF and the Musical were two hugely successful adventures, highlights of the year. Franklin Etyang’, the main music teacher in SGC, is exceptionally talented at arranging music and gets amazing results from the choirs.
The musical ‘Oliver’ that we staged twice during the year was, for me, the unforgettable highlight of my time with Starehe. Endless rehearsals, endless requests for transport to SBC, endless logistical nightmares were all worth it for the resulting success of the show. The students benefited enormously from the performance, team-work and confidence-building opportunities and I can only hope that the tradition continues to be supported by the school administration, they have a huge amount to be proud of.
Another tradition that will hopefully continue is that of the Christmas Carol Service at the Girls’ School. Due to external commitments, Mr.Etyang’ was not available to organise this so I was given the responsibility of rehearsing the music (including girls choir, music class choir, Christian union choir, solo songs, staff choir, children of staff choir…) and the dances (there are a number of student-run dance groups, plus for the last three months we had an American volunteer at the school who taught ballet), and then draw up the service programme, buy the decorations… in short, if you want anything done, you have to do it yourself. An important life lesson to learn.
Indeed, it wasn’t long before I realised the importance of self-reliance, and was therefore delighted to be able to buy a car. The actual process of buying a car was very simple in the end, I got the number of a mechanic recommended by some British friends living in Nairobi, he brought me to the car bazaar, did all the bargaining on my behalf and did any work that was needed at a reasonable price. I bought a Subaru four-wheel drive for just over £2000, an ugly beast that was unlikely to attract attention of would-be thieves, and it lasted the whole year without any problems, after which I sold it for just less than £2000. Fuel is quite expensive however, and I found that I was spending most of my monthly allowance on petrol (a sacrifice I was happy to make, I may add).
Aside from the school life, I quickly got involved with the Nairobi Orchestra and the Conservatoire who are always looking for players and teachers, and due to my flexible timetable it was possible for me to take on some private cello teaching. Chris and I were also lucky to be involved in a few exciting concerts during the year, including performing Porgy and Bess with Cape Town Opera at the awesome Hell’s Gate National Park, we travelled to Kampala, Uganda for a weekend with the Conservatoire Orchestra and we both performed concertos at the final Nairobi Orchestra concert in November.
I also would recommend the running club that I joined, the ‘Hash House Harriers’, as this was a hugely enjoyable way to meet people, enjoy a meal and also get to know Nairobi – each week a run is set in a different part of the city, usually around the many forests and coffee plantations, but sometimes through slums – not for the faint-hearted!
Needless to say I took every opportunity to see as much of Kenya as possible: Chris and I got the famous Nairobi-Mombasa train and spent a week by the coast, I went camping in the Masai Mara, spent some time in Nakuru, the Aberdares and Samburu National Parks and splashed out on a paradise holiday in Lamu – the touristy side of Kenya is quite expensive but it is possible to work around it, arranging safaris with friends rather than U.K.tour operators, and mentioning the fact that we were Starehe Volunteers guaranteed a good service, if not a discount!
It was an incredible year, one that surpassed all my expectations, challenged me and definitely changed me, I hope for the better. Certainly I have gained a lot of perspective in terms of what I do for a living and how I want to live my life.
To be honest, I found it quite hard when I came home, to come to terms with the fact that I had left all these people behind – one of the reasons it has taken me so long to write this report is that I simply couldn’t bring myself to think about it. There is a huge amount of expectation on any white volunteer that comes into Kenya, the assumption is made that this person has money and/or the ability to save lives, something that it quite hard to deal with on a daily basis.
I still absolutely recommend this volunteer programme, it is something I think every weary musician should do, but be warned it is not a holiday. I can almost guarantee, however, that the experience will have a positive outcome, as it has for me. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity and looking back I would do it all again. After all, to be lucky is a gift but to really understand how lucky you are is something very special.