Old Starehe


We have been privileged and fortunate to make contact with one of Martyn’s Starehe pupils.   Norbert Ng’ethe, Martyn’s prize piano student, now lives in Chicago and is studying at law school.  Here are some extracts from his emails:

Norbert Ng’ethe

Norbert writes:

Martyn and I were very close during his time in Starehe. We spent a lot of time together playing the piano, listening to music, watching British Comedy, talking about life in Kenya/England and sharing personal stories. Up to date, he has had the most influence on the development of my music. He introduced me to Beethoven sonatas, Scott Joplin, Bach’s Fugues and best of all Mozart’s Requiem and Mahler Symphonies. I could go on ad infinitum about my experiences with Martyn. When I graduated from Starehe, I went to South Africa for two years before I came to the United States. I had always planned to visit him in the UK and was still trying to find a way to get hold of him when I heard about his demise from a friend last year. To this day, I am still in denial that someone whom I share such precious memories is no longer with us.
Norbert wrote an account of his time with Martyn for our July 2006 newsletter:

Memories of Martyn       Norbert Ng’ethe

I was born in the city of Nairobi to a family of six. I attended nursery and primary schools in the city before joining Starehe Boys Center. I was very eager to enroll at Starehe because of its reputation for imparting superior education to boys who grew up to become intelligent and capable young men. Moreover, the school had an excellent music program that I hoped would develop my nascent interest in classical music. Norbert Ng’ethe

One of the reasons why Starehe was so good in music was the school’s collaboration with music teachers from the UK who become intimately involved with everything musical in the school from teaching instruments, to accompanying choirs and producing the annual musical.

With such a plethora of musical opportunities, I jumped right in and savored every minute. My fondest memories include conducting the school song in the presence of HRH Princess Anne, winning the intra-house music festival with my boarding house and receiving the first prize at the Kenya Music Festival for piano duets.

Martyn Donaldson came to Starehe during my formative years as a music student. I had just passed my Grade 5 ABRSM piano exam and I was very keen on developing a good piano technique. My goal was to practice scales and etudes while studying the main works by Bach, Beethoven and Mozart – the only composers I knew at the time. Martyn had different ideas. He quickly established a different approach to music lessons. Although he wanted me to become a competent pianist, he also wanted me to be a well-rounded musician with a good appreciation for other genres of music.

Initially, I was confused by his approach as I was used to a strict regiment of playback, critique and repetition during lessons. Martyn was different.
He preferred a more informal style where we talked about the composer, his life and influences and what the music meant. We also listened to recordings of pieces and analyzed differences in techniques. Our lessons were thus wholesome, enjoyable and very fulfilling.

Watching Martyn play was fascinating as he was excellent at the piano. On the rare occasion he broke out his violin, I would sit and watch mesmerized by his flawless technique in a capricious rondo or his steady hand in a beautiful adagio. And when we were not playing music, we would listen to his collection of “tunes” and talk endlessly about life and global politics. We also enjoyed watching British shows together. One of my fondest memories of Martyn is him laughing hysterically at the crazy antics of John Kleese in Fawlty Towers or the acerbic wit of Rowan Atkinson in Black Adder.

Having music volunteers like Martyn at Starehe was a great idea. They were enthusiastic, and got along very well with the boys. At the time, I did not understand the sacrifice they made by volunteering their services. Now that I live in a country far from home, I understand how difficult it is to leave your family and friends and travel to a different part of the world for an extended period of time. As difficult as it was, Martyn’s passion for music, his dedication to the school and his love for Kenya were apparent throughout his tenure at Starehe.

I have just finished my second year of law school at the University of Chicago. When I graduate, I intend to work as a lawyer in mergers, acquisitions and international business. While I am looking forward to my career, music remains my true passion. I still make time to go to the symphony, play with friends or listen to music recordings. One of my favorite recordings is a tape that Martyn made for me when he returned to the U.K. The selections include choral works by the Macclesfield Choir. The choir sings Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine and Bruckner’s Locus Iste with such emotion and clarity that I cannot help but remember my precious moments at Starehe with Martyn.

I will be travelling to the U.K. this summer and I am looking forward to meeting Martyn’s family and friends and sharing favored stories and fond memories of our beloved musician, Martyn Donaldson.

James Wasonga and Coulson School, Gilgil

Since January 2008, MDMT has been sponsoring the work of Joseph Wasonga, a volunteer music assistant at Coulson School in Gilgil, Kenya.  Joseph was a pupil at Starehe Boys and is waiting to start University.  He has no family to return to, so our Starehe volunteer Chris Walters was resourceful enough to find Joseph this position at Coulson in the meantime.  MDMT is supporting Joseph with living expenses and costs to travel back to Nairobi for music lessons.

Read Joseph’s report on his achievements so far at Coulson below:

An Insightful Experience at Coulson – When Volunteering becomes an learning opportunity!

My experience at Coulson as a music volunteer ….. Hmmm, well I’d have to say it’s been quite pleasant and insightful over the last six months since I completed school at Starehe Boys Centre. I’ve learnt many lessons with a practical approach on what it really involves to teach music and exactly what it meant to my teachers coming to teach me less than a year ago.

Coulson Schools consist of a boy school and girl school at Gilgil, about two hours drive from Nairobi with a total population of 298, 160 boys and 138 girls. They are about five miles apart and I teach at both.

On my arrival at Coulson schools I was happy of the fact that it was quite an appropriate place for me to volunteer as a music teacher in that there was much I could offer considering the vast difference there is between Coulson School and my former school, not only in a musical aspect but on general perspective. I felt greatly honored particularly because it was evident to me that I would get well on with my students as they are roughly my age and we would have similar views on many issues. At some point though I felt it would be more of a challenge than an advantage. Anyway I took to the task and started off preparing for an end of term music Gala which we held on 12th of April. I taught the students a variety of music items I learnt at school and let them build up on them for an inter-house competition during the gala. These involved choir music group traditional songs as well as skits. There was also a provision for solo pop songs, poems, public speaking and one student managed to stage a piano performance we had worked on for the gala. I enjoyed preparing for the gala and on the day we invited the parents. It was a success and a fantastic music experience for us all! The outcome of the gala actually gave rise to an idea of holding a school function, Appreciation Day, for the first time in the schools history when the management was eventually assured that the students could provide entertainment on the day of the event.

After the April holidays we’ve embarked on choir rehearsals as we prepared for the music festivals taking place this term. The girls did a traditional folk dance at the District level and are yet to present an  piano accompanied choral piece and a negro spiritual at the National level while the boys are getting on well with traditional folk dance and they’ve qualified through to the Provincial level having been first both at the District and Regional festivals. The choirs are doing well and all the students involved are enjoying music as a co-curricular activity. However, we did not have any instrumental performances apart from the choir items and poems. For the first time Coulson Schools are taking part in the music festivals and the students have already done excellently as per the standards! They are glad to receive certificates for their performance.

At the moment I am preparing the boys and the girls choirs for a total of five items at the National Music Festivals in August. The students are very determined to succeed and are very faithful to rehearsals. We shall be meeting many other schools nationwide including Starehe Girls Centre and Starehe Boys Centre. Coulson is at the same time competing against Starehe in the accompanied pieces and spirituals at the National level. This is a big challenge ahead of us considering that we have never taken part in this exercise before.

At the end of this term we shall have a talent show which I intend to leave to the students to organize and run the event. The idea is for them to present items they are gifted in, especially music and I shall give them the guidelines they require on this. Principally this is to nurture a capability to independently run an event amongst the students. This is something we used to do at Starehe.

The plans for next term are to focus on instrumental music whereby I’ll  work on piano lessons more and begin lessons on the descant recorder of which we have three, donated to the school by Mr. Chris Walters, MDMT volunteer at Starehe Boys Centre. We shall also have a lot of music during the carol service which will be held in November before the schools break for the Christmas holidays.

The staff is quite supportive of the progress of music in schools and one or two have accompanied me to the competitions with students except that there are those who consider music not worth giving time thereby dismissing students proud of being members of the music club. On one occasion the students have been told off having celebrated at school after clinching the first position at the District Music Festivals.
By contrast, the students are very determined to make music despite the challenge. It’s been hectic getting transport to attend the festivals because the school does not have enough finances to pay for transport and not much music material. Essentially, all is well at Coulson and I’m enthusiastic about the progress.

I’d say that it’s been a great experience for me teaching music at Coulson Schools and really educative as well since I’ve been out of school. I’m looking forward to offering all I can to the students for as long I will be a teacher at Coulson Schools. I have not got much practice time though since I have no place to do my practice over the week and I have to wait for the weekend and practice while at Starehe. I’ll be sitting for my piano grade four exam in two weeks time. I’m sure it will be great! Finally, I am very grateful to the Martyn Donaldson Music Trust for the support they’ve given to us as the Coulson schools and we can be sure of a fantastical musical experience at Coulson. Thank you all!

Joseph Wasonga


James Kisiah, a former student at Starehe who took the part of ‘Mr Bumble’ in the production of ‘Oliver!’ is now studying at Keele University and sent us this report.

The singer who reminded us that time wanes as our journeys draw nigh must have been inspired from above – for I do have a personal testimony of the same. About nine months ago, I was an unknown boy who was yet to use a mode of transport other than the road. Little did I know about life outside my village in Kitale Kenya, or Kenya’s Capital, Nairobi, where I went to high school. The only inkling of how things were out of these two places harboured in the blancmange between my ears thanks to the Geography learnt in class. Now I can look back and see how far away from the realisation of my full potential I was, having experienced eight good months of stay and study in the UK.

James and Kisiah, which means ‘born after twins’, are my two commonly used names. I am the youngest in a family of six including mum, one brother and three sisters. I call them brothers and sisters albeit that I was born of a different father as I grew up not knowing that they were my step-siblings. The state of things surrounding my family made it turn into one that cannot support itself beyond basic needs. Six years ago, a smile came to all of us when I got a place in the top Kenyan high school, Starehe Boys’, as a fully sponsored student for the whole duration of my four years of study. After the four years, I got admission into the college division of the same centre to do C.P.A. (Certified Public Accounting). In my second and final year of the course, I met Chris Walters (whom some of us called either Walters, or Mr. Chris – perhaps because we did not know which of the two names was the first name). Chris had just come to the centre as the new Music volunteer teacher. This actually made me cancel a job I was to quit college for, as I wanted to see how the new teacher was like. It was then that he decided to reintroduce an eight-year-buried tradition of annual musicals in the school. This was to be ‘Oliver’.

In spite of the tough hurdles that placed themselves on the way to the achievement of the great shows, Chris, Joel (my closest friend in college) and I put the cast of boys together and brought back the much needed enthusiasm amongst the boys. It was this hard work that got me sponsors through Chris for my study in the UK. This has been the great turning point in my life as I have experienced a lot of things that have changed me for the better. I have just completed my first year studying Maths and Computer Science. In line with my singing talent, I am a member of four choirs in the University: the Keele Philharmonic Choir – where I am also the Chairman for 2008/09, Chapel Singers, Rock Gospel Choir and the Catholic Music Group. Through them, I have interacted with people from all over the world and shared different views from different perspectives. The atmosphere in the university is good and very conducive for meaningful learning. The people are great, very polite, mindful and generous. My mates have supported me when needed and have been quick to tell me about Alton Towers, which remains my most memorable place – thanks to the ride Oblivion!

In essence, the last two years have been the best years in my life, firstly because I discovered an acting talent, when I took part in ‘Oliver’ as ‘Mr. Bumble’, and secondly because I met and interacted with Chris without whom I would not be studying in the UK. I give my credit to him for being very strong, focused and committed to his course in his stay in Kenya and above all, for going an extra mile by teaching me, and others too, how to fish. All the boys got something positive from him and he will be dotingly missed as he goes back home. All these would not have happened without the Martyn Donaldson Music Trust which sponsored his stay and work in Kenya. Therefore, thanks to the ladies and gentlemen who constitute this great course for through you, many lives are inspired and many smiles made.

There really is a lot to learn from!

James Kisiah

<< Back