Report by Rob Stewardson: first term at Starehe Girls.
A Year in the Life of a Starehe Girls’ Centre Volunteer
Met at Jomo Kenyatta Airport late in the evening of Friday 2 January I travelled for what seemed like an age before we reached Starehe Girls’. The school is situated in woodland 15km outside of Nairobi and is extremely peaceful being 5km from the main road with thr only noise coming from the numerous birds and the resident colony of Sykes’ Monkeys. Asked what time I would like to wake and have breakfast in the morning I didn’t consider 9am to be so lazy only to be informed that this was kick-off time for the staff meeting which I had to attend. The staff at Starehe Girls’ are all extremely welcoming and made me feel at home right away. The school driver, since departed, took me fishing on the school dam that afternoon and gave me some of our catch which the head chef, Luvai, cooked up for my dinner. Tea, served in the staffroom at breaktime and after school, provides the staff with an opportunity to meet and chat with each other and the strong friendships which have formed transmit an aura of homeliness and relaxation around the school. Two teachers, in particular, John Mwaura and Jacktone Nyonje, have become good friends of mine and I shall certainly keep contact with them after I leave.
The school provides accommodation in the form of a bungalow within the grounds which I believe, I hope, is set aside for future volunteers. It came furnished with a ¾ bed, two armchairs and basic kitchen equipment. After some negotiation a proper gas cooker was bought and installed and I have added to the house by buying a sofa, a big one, for when I fall asleep watching films! I have also bought a car in the form of a 1992 Mitsubishi Pajero. After witnessing the standard of driving in Kenya I decided I wanted a vehicle that was big, old and ugly enough for nobody, especially the maniacal matatus, to argue with. It was working absolutely fine until the radiator cap flew off in the middle of the Masaai Mara, the fallout from which was only fully repaired two months later. Living at Starehe Girls’, having a car is a big advantage. To get into town without one involves a rather swift and dangerous motorbike ride followed by an even swifter, more dangerous matatu journey which drops you off nowhere near the place you want to be. Old cars are, however, expensive to run and maintain.
The job of the music volunteer is basically to assist the music teacher, currently Franklin Etyang’. My roles include teaching all the piano and brass students – Etyang’ teaches the woodwind players – training the soloists and small choir entries for the music festival, assisting with the training of the main choir, producing a musical alongside Starehe’ Boys and accompanying all of the above. From the third term I started a school band and am arranging music for them to play and conducting from the french Horn, an instrument I have learnt since being here. The first and third terms are relatively quiet work-wise with just normal instrumental lessons for the most part with choir and the musical arriving in March. The second term, however, is all-hands-to-the-pump with the provincial and national rounds of the Kenya music festival, the musical, Founders’ Day and numerous other functions and events which the music department has to attend notably the race day at Ngong racecourse at which we lunched with Prime Minister Raila Odinga! Thinking that the second term would be like the first I volunteered to conduct the Nairobi Orchestra in their June concert and fun as this was it was an extra burden that I will be glad to do without next year.
We performed Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat as this year’s musical with a large cast of boys and girls. As most of them had never seen a musical and only a handful had acted in the school production of Oliver two years previously the most difficult task was to get the students to act on stage. Singing comes very naturally to them but being dramatic not so and it required lots of persuasion to convince the students that big gestures were needed and didn’t look silly! Next year’s production is likely to be Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance!
The Kenya Music Festival is the biggest annual event in the musical life of the school and months of labour intensive rehearsals are put in accordingly. Choral pieces are all memorised from beginning to end along with requisite dance moves for the Kenyan songs. At the Provincial festival we arrived to discover that nobody had bothered to organise a piano! It took until midday for somebody to decide that we could start with the unaccompanied items and until four o’clock for a piano to arrive, ironically from the school at which the festival was originally to have been held! We scraped through qualification in most categories but work needs to be done in changing the attitude of the girls that just qualifying is enough and that the hard work can be done for the Nationals. The National Music Festival was held in Mombasa and was a farce from beginning to end. Arriving in Mombasa at around 1730 we discovered that Nairobi province had failed to confirm any accommodation for the students and it was 2am before a place could be found. Although the girls were extremely tired we won the first event , the mixed accompanied set piece although it being a song from Joseph we did have a slight advantage! It was not until better accommodation could be found two nights later that we had any more success on a fantastic Saturday winning the Duet and Western folksong categories alongside the coveted Unaccompanied Girls’ set piece awarding us the title National Choir Champions 2009. For the school to win the event in only its fourth year of entry and the first time it has qualified for the final is wonderful and the sight of the girls’ faces, full of joy and excitement is a memory I shall keep for a long time. The victory celebrations were dampened by the sheer incompetence of the Nairobi provincial committee who arranged for our transport home, left us at a petrol station for six hours and then announced that there were no busses available and we would have to try again tomorrow. ‘The patience of a saint’ should be on the job description!
The trip to the UK is one that I will never forget. From the very beginning at Jomo Kenyatta Airport watching the girls struggle to come to terms with getting on and off an escalator to seeing them wave a tearful goodbye at Manchester everybody had a fantastic time. While going to Alton Towers was the obvious highlight, the trip into Manchester to see the Hallé Orchestra rehearse (as well as lunch at Burger King and shopping at Primark) was also a fun day out. Things we take for granted such as the cathedral, architecture, statues and the obeying of traffic lights were awe-inspiring to girls used to the concrete jungle and chaos of Nairobi; Nairobi Orchestra will never sound the same again after watching Mark Elder put the Hallé through their paces with Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no.2. The trip certainly spurred the girls into more work and Linet and Michelle stood out in the end of year exams both scoring A’s. The Young Musician of the Year competition in February and the prospect of very good prize money should keep interest levels high.
The third term, being exam term, makes it difficult to enthuse the girls into musical activity especially after the exploits of term two. I have started a band, however, and began teaching piano to the Form 1’s who, for the most part, are very keen and will be a good year of musicians. From next year the girls have organized a club, separate to music club and band, in which the older musicians will teach the younger ones the basics of their instrument. They have asked me to attend all of their meetings but I would prefer to leave them to it as much as possible in order that instrumental playing will continue after I leave if I am replaced by a pianist or string player. We have a steadily increasing number of wind and brass instruments along with a good supply of solo repertoire (band music is lacking slightly) and some very keen girls. Mrs Wanjohi has also expressed her desire that the girls’ band will be as good as the boys’ before her tenure as Director ends!
It is not all work, however, and I have made several trips to defferent areas of the country. On safari I have been to Tsavo East, Naivasha, Nakuru, Masaai Mara, Meru and the Aberdares with Kakamega Forest on the list for next year after the National Music Festival is held in Kakamega. My birthday was spent in Lamu, a small island off the North-East coast and I have twice gone walking with the girls in the Aberdares. Involving myself with the Scouts and the President’s Award Scheme at Starehe Girls’ has allowed me to get to know many more of the girls and I have already been asked to assist with their activities next year.
To conclude, working at Starehe is a truly amazing experience which I will never forget. Working in a beautiful environment with an extremely intelligent and enthusiastic group of young people is an opportunity that has considerably broadened my horizons as well as improving me as a musician and as a person in a way that no other job ever could. May the second year be as successful and as productive as the first!
A new year has now started and new challenges lie ahead. I have already begun selecting vocal music for this year’s KMF and will find girls to sing in the groups of the coming weeks. Although we won three classes last year I felt that we were underprepared in many others and entered simply because we felt we ought to. Many of the small ensemble classes are winnable with a well-chosen, well-prepared song and we will hopefully be in this position in July at the Provincials.
I have returned with some more instruments bringing our totals to four flutes, 1 oboe, 3 clarinets, 3 saxophones, 5 trumpets, 2 French horns, 1 tenor horn and 2 trombones; while still short of band music we should be able to produce a decent noise!