‘Oliver’, Kenyan Style!

In January 2007, MDMT sent out for the first time music volunteer teachers to not only Starehe Boys’ School in Nairobi, but also to the newly-opened Girls’ School. Chris Walters from Northampton was to work at the former and Niamh Molloy from Dublin at the latter. In the following months, besides lots of other work, they brought students from both schools together to mount the musical ‘Oliver!’. That may be quite run of the mill in English schools, but in Nairobi it was quite extraordinary.

It was the first time on stage for these teenagers, the first time the schools worked on a joint project, the first time our volunteers had produced a show and the first time that the two student audiences attending the dress rehearsals had watched a live stage show! Linda and I wanted to show MDMT’s support for all these endeavours by attending the dress rehearsals in early July, prior to the public performances in Nairobi later in the month.

We flew from Manchester on Qatar Airlines via Doha in the United Arab Emirates and an unscheduled and slightly unnerving detour to Tehran. Our friend Kennedy Hongo met us at the airport. He also arranged for us to visit for the first time Starehe Girls’ School, which opened in 2004. It is a distance from the city and, although well situated in pleasant woodland, is difficult to access without a car. By Kenyan standards the facilities are good, although Niamh explained that the digital piano MDMT sent out only works when the electricity is on!

Another logistical problem was finding transport for the 15 girls in ‘Oliver!’ to regularly attend rehearsals at the Boys’ School. That evening found us at the Boys’ School and Chris putting the cast through their paces. The hall is big and holds over 1000 and the stage is big but with nothing on it!

For this occasion, new blackout curtains had been bought for the back of the stage so the cast could move freely behind and the basic lighting system had been given a bit of an overhaul. The MDMT
digital piano, played by Chris, was the accompaniment, with Niamh on cello. We quickly learned that the rehearsal schedule was really every available free moment outside school hours, but mainly 9-11pm each evening, Saturday afternoon/evening and all day Sunday after morning services! No wonder Chris looked shattered. During the last month he’d been ably assisted on the production side by Sarah, a friend from college. We also learned that the general factotum, who made sure the cast turned up for rehearsals, found the props, organised the costumes and so on, was the student playing Mr Bumble –James Kisiah. Without James, Chris said, the show would not have happened. Remarkably James has just started a degree course at Keele University in Computer Science and Maths and has already been to Macclesfield for a visit.

Friday evening, and the hall was full of Boys’ School pupils for the first dress rehearsal. And how the cast rose to the occasion! Considering this was their first time in front of an audience, and quite a rowdy one (especially whenever the female members of the cast appeared!), the discipline, concentration and enthusiasm was remarkable. ‘Oliver!’ is a complicated show with many scene changes, props to remember, costumes to change in semi-darkness and so on. Within a few months, these young people had learnt all the songs, some in harmony, all the Dickensian dialogue, stage movement and even a bit of dance. Not once did they have to be prompted, which was just as well, as there wasn’t a prompter! It being the first time the audience had witnessed a musical, their reaction was sometimes unorthodox! There was no applause at any point except from us, Chris, Niamh and Sister Frances, a nun working at the school. But there was plenty of audience participation, sometimes at all the wrong moments, like when the policeman carried off the body of the murdered Nancy with great dignity, to be greeted with wild cheers and stamping of feet! Chris, Niamh and Sarah kept the cast behind afterwards, sorting out some teething problems and then we had a chance to meet some of the cast and congratulate them.

The second dress rehearsal was given to the 300 students of the Girls’ School, bussed over in an endless line of matatus– the local minibuses that swarm like bees around Nairobi. The show was markedly better and it was obvious that the cast had gained confidence and really takenon board the after-show comments of Chris and Sarah. It was fascinating to see how these young Kenyan actors adapted parts of the story to the local situation in Nairobi rather than London. Although they didn’t attempt cockney accents, their characterisations were authentic and believable. The young Oliver was a natural, with real stage presence and a lovely treble voice, unfortunately about to break. The evil Bill Sykes and his moll Nancy were well matched, as were the pompous Mr Bumble and his awful spouse Widow Corney. The only different ‘take’ on the Dickens character was the role of Fagin. Instead of the old, crafty miser, we were treated to a youthful Fagin who had more energy than the rest of the cast put together! He couldn’t keep still and leapt around the stage ‘body-popping’ hisway hilariously through all the songs, in a manner that would have seen the original Fagin having heart attack! Although the audience reaction was more restrainedit was again a cultural shock to us to find plenty of smiles in the hall but noapplause, even at the final curtain calls.Hopefully this exposure to stage work will inspire more students in the future to build on this success.

As well as watching the show we had time to spend with the two students sponsored by MDMT, the two students sponsored by the Cheshire scouts to attend the International Jamboree in Essex in July, and the student sponsored by All Hallows High School. They gave us a tour of the School, including a visit to the mosque. At the Music Centre, we had a whistlestop sing through ‘Oliver!’around the piano, with Kennedy Miruka
playing the sax. Kennedy stayed with Colin and Beryl North in 2005 when MDMT brought some students over to
Macclesfield. At the Girls’ School we met the 5 students MDMT brought over lastyear and congratulated one of them, Jane, who had played Nancy in ‘Oliver!’. We also met Mercy, who is being sponsored by the Jones family at Macclesfield Methodist Church. We were impressed by the headmistress Margaret Wanjohi, who openly discussed the problems of establishing the new school and particularly the difficulties of day to day
life with 300 adolescent girls that we could all relate to!

On reflection, MDMT can be proud of the work and total commitment this year of our two volunteers Chris and
Niamh. It is no easy task being thrown into a completely new culture and within such a short space of time, producing a 2 hour full-length musical with the rawest recruits. The benefits to individual students in their self-esteem and confidence will vary, but for some it will have been a life-changing experience that only the future will reveal.

Andy Donaldson

<< Back to home page