Volunteer at Starehe Boys’ School Jan 2007 to July 2008
My journey to Kenya began early on January 5th. I met Niamh at the check in desks and said one last goodbye to my Mum and Dad. I was feeling a little weird – for six months I had been living with the idea that I was going off to Kenya for a serious amount of time. Now the day had finally arrived.
By the time we had landed we were about two hours late. But our welcome party was all smiles and we were escorted out to the school van. By this stage I was exhausted, but even so the conversation on the journey to the school was lively. As we approached Starehe the van lurched to avoid pot-holes and we passed small groups of men sitting round fires by the roadside, settling down for the night
The next day Niamh was collected by a team from Starehe Girls’ Centre and we said our farewells for the time being. Later she texted to say how beautiful the school was. I unpacked and tried to get settled.
Over the next few weeks, I met everyone and got used to how things worked. My next-door-neighbour, Sister Frances, was a big help, as was John Odor, a friend from the accounts department. On the first Monday I attended my first departmental meeting, where I met the three music teachers, plus the bandmaster, who trains the excellent Starehe band, who march and play every Friday afternoon for the school’s entertainment. The meeting began with a prayer of thanks for the fact that all the members of the department were alive.
It was decided that the school would have a musical for the first time in nine years, and that I should be put in charge. I decided on ‘Oliver!’, which suited our needs well – a large cast of boys with fifteen or so girls who would be provided by Starehe Girls’ Centre. We started rehearsals immediately, working mainly at 9pm two or three nights a week. The boys have extremely busy schedules, so the 9pm slot was all that could be spared. At first it wasn’t easy to explain what a musical was – none of the boys currently at the school could remember the last one. After a few weeks I held auditions for the main parts. It was strange to think that boys who had only just started to use taps or sleep on mattresses were now being asked to audition for a musical.
One of the highlights of the rehearsal process was a debate we had about whether it was appropriate to mime eating – as the boys are required to do in the song ‘Food Glorious Food’ – without miming saying grace beforehand. In the end we agreed that it was not a sin to omit grace as long as the eating was only a mime. The boys are sincerely religious and such issues are very important to them.
The collaboration of the boys’ and girls’ schools on the musical has gone down very well in terms of allowing each school to socialise with the other – not something that happens very often, but now with musical rehearsals, something that happens every Sunday for an entire day. The way the boys and girls speak to each other is beautifully polite. At the lunch break, it is possible to take a walk around the school and see a boy/girl couple on every bench, sitting in formal posture and facing forward, occasionally turning their faces toward each other in order to ask a polite question. When the girls’ bus pulls away at the end of the day, a raucous debriefing session takes place among the boys, to establish the progress of each couple.
Living in Kenya for me is two different experiences – inside the school and outside it. Inside, I am always smiled at and appreciated, but outside and in Nairobi generally I am just another rich mzungu (Swahili for white person). Mzungus get shouted at frequently and are of course a target for petty criminals. After a while a strategy for dealing with this comes, but at first it can feel unpleasant and frightening. But as I write I am beginning to feel more and more like Nairobi is home. And Kenya is a beautiful country. At Easter I went on a short Safari in the Maasai Mara, which was a wonderful experience. So all in all I feel lucky to be here doing all this. And by the time ‘Oliver!’ finally makes it to the stage, I am confident that every grey hair will have been worthwhile.
Nearly a month after completing my time at Starehe, it’s time to reflect on the experience. Firstly, I would like to list what I believe to be the positive impacts of my presence at the school. I believe that instrumental standards have risen, and that the students have been exposed to a wide range of music-making in different contexts; through being taken to the Nairobi Orchestra concerts and attending concerts at the school itself, given by visiting musicians. Our great success with the musical, ‘Oliver’, fostered skills but also encouraged teamwork and confidence building. The transfer of the musical to a theatre in Nairobi gave a feeling of prestige to the project, and I am sure that ‘Oliver’ will live on in the memories of all who participated in it. The presence of a volunteer also allows the boys to get to know someone from a different culture, which for some boys is a very valuable thing. It is clear that the volunteer programme is a very good thing for the students. For the volunteer there is also much to be gained and I can say without exaggeration that the experience changed my life. Over the course of the 18 months I slowly found within myself a deep and genuine confidence, and I now feel that I can move forward in life with a better sense of who I am and where my skills lie.