Matthew Brooks


Starehe Boys Centre

Life at Starehe – The First Three Months, by Matthew Brooks.

So I have been working as Music Volunteer at Starehe Boys’ Centre and School in Nairobi for almost three months now. A lot has happened since I’ve been here – I have been involved in many different musical activities – both at the school, and also around Nairobi in general. I will try to give some idea of what I’ve been up to, along with some of my impressions of life here in general – some flavours of Nairobi, and Kenyan culture.

Leaving, and First Impressions of Nairobi

My flight to Nairobi left on the 17 September, 2004. It was an early morning flight from Heathrow, so after just a few hours sleep we (me and my parents) left my home town of Ashbourne, in Derbyshire around three or four o’clock in the morning. Although I had been trying to prepare myself for the whole thing as best I could – I had sorted out pretty much everything that needed organising before departing (most of it in the two weeks just before leaving – a somewhat hectic and chaotic time for me, and also my family! – my thanks to them for putting up with the chaos at this time and giving me so much help in preparing for this venture), and had of course discussed the trip with many different people on numerous occasions – it was still only on this drive down to the airport that it really seemed to fully hit home and I realised – ‘I’m going to Kenya to live in Nairobi for over a year! Wow! This is going to be an experience!’, mixed with a bit of (or maybe rather a lot, if I’m honest!) – ‘Oh my God! What’s it going to be like? What will I have to do? What sort of place will I be living in? …’ etc., etc.!

Matt playing piano at the Leavers Concert

Matt plays for the Leavers Concert

On arriving at the airport, checking-in itself was a somewhat traumatic experience, as I had packed quite a bit more than my baggage allowance (kind of hoping they might take pity on a poor volunteer and let me get away with it!), and ended up having to empty half my luggage and completely re-pack in the middle of the airport!

Anyway, after negotiating this hurdle, and saying goodbye to my parents (along with half of my treasured possessions!) I was on my way.

The flight was good (though even a die hard Tarantino fan like myself would have to admit that Kill Bill: Volume 2 does get a little boring after about two and a half consecutive viewings), and it was a fantastic experience flying over North Africa, looking out to see the vast expanse of desert below. I spent some time gazing out of the window, fascinated by this sight, – and then after turning back to Bill and Uma for a couple of hours, to look out the window again and see that we were still flying over more desert was quite incredible!

I arrived at Kenyatta airport in Nairobi in the evening, and was successfully retrieved off the baggage carousel by John Odor, who works in publicity at the school, and my two new flatmates – Stuart Gray and Edwin Martin, both of them also volunteers like myself. Stuart is from England and is the Computer Volunteer at the school, and Edwin is an American Peace Corps volunteer working for CFSK (Computers for Schools, Kenya) who have their main workshop on the Starehe compound.

So my first views of Nairobi were in the dark – driving up from the airport through town (stopping on the way to buy ‘Kenchick’ for dinner!) and then out towards Eastleigh, before arriving at the Starehe compound. It was all quite strange to begin with – the heat, the smells, the fires by the side of the road where people were burning rubbish, the vague glimpses I got in the darkness of these shack-type buildings by the roadside in the slum area next to Starehe. It was all quite different to anything I had seen or experienced before.

The next day was something else again. After being shown round the school a bit by Stu, we went into town for lunch and some shopping. I just remember thinking how crazy the place was! All the matatus along Tom Mboya Street, with their touts shouting for business (matatus: the common form of public transport in Nairobi – garishly spray-painted vans, often with incredibly loud music playing, and coloured neon lights inside at night! – sometimes they can seem a bit like a kind of mobile nightclub! The drivers of these vehicles are invariably crazy, – as are the touts, who have a habit of holding on to the top of the door frame and swinging their legs out the door on the corners when taken at high speed! – though fortunately safety has apparently improved a great deal in the past few years – they now only take the number of passengers that they actually have seats for, for one thing!); all the crowds moving down the pavement, spilling into the street (OK – you get this sort of thing in London – but somehow it’s just ten times more chaotic over here!); the street vendors on the side of the road selling all manner of things, from mangoes to mobile phones; the different sights, the different sounds, the different smells, the different clothes people wear; and just the dirt, and the dust, and the pavements with gaping holes and crevasses which the city council would be sued thousands for on a daily basis if this were in England!

It was all very different to life back home – and although it wasn’t exactly a shock, as this was pretty much what I had been expecting, – still, experiencing the reality of it is something you can’t really prepare for.

Also, the poverty and living conditions that some people live in, especially in the area near the school (and many other areas around the edge of the city – Starehe is by no means the worst, but of course it is literally very close to home) are things that I had never seen first-hand before, and again, although you go prepared for it, it still makes an impression when you see it for yourself.

Matt enjoys the view at Crater Lake

Matt enjoying the view at Crater Lake

The School

On Sunday morning I met the Director of the school – Dr. Geoffrey Griffin – who founded the whole place way back in 1959. He took me for a walk around the compound, and showed me the two tin huts where it all started all those years ago. He has gradually expanded and built around that original site for the past 45 years, and the school is now home to over 1000 boys and stretches to 48 acres. Dr. Griffin has devoted his whole life to this school and the boys who pass through it, and he is a truly remarkable man.

On the Monday of my first week at Starehe I was introduced to all the boys in assembly, and was asked to say a few words – a somewhat daunting experience in a huge hall packed with over 1000 students when you’re not used to it! But the Director seemed happy – so it must have come out alright!


The first few weeks I was here were predominantly spent getting to know the place, getting to know my way around, getting to know the people I needed to know, etc. Stu has been a great help in showing me the ropes and filling me in on how things work (or don’t!) around here, and especially during these first few weeks he really helped me settle in to my new life here a lot more easily than would otherwise have been the case, and I am extremely grateful to him for all his assistance!

I started teaching piano in my second week here. I was allocated several students from each of the Forms 1, 2 and 3, and have been giving them all one-to-one tuition since then. The Form 4s had their final practical exams for their KCSEs just a couple of days after I arrived, so I have not been working with them, but from January I will be teaching boys from all four forms.

I was initially a bit nervous about giving my first piano lessons here, as I only had a limited experience of teaching before, – but after my first day teaching about five or six Starehe boys, I was very happy with how it had gone. I was confident that they all had some kind of potential as piano students – though all in very different ways – and also felt that I was going to be able to offer something useful to them, and help them in their musical development.

Also from about the second or third week I was here, I started organising listening sessions for some of the boys. This idea came about from a request from one particular student, who wanted to know what CDs I had, and could he listen to them. It has turned out to be generally very successful – we often have a full classroom of boys eager to sit through a whole Beethoven symphony, or whatever I throw at them! After playing a piece, I tell them a bit about it, let them ask questions, and then ask them questions about what they thought about the music etc., and after initially being quite quiet and cautious about offering ideas or opinions, a lot of them are now starting to open up more and contribute their thoughts to what I would like to be a kind of informal discussion session of all different types of music. I hope we will be able to continue with and build on these sessions in the new year – and hopefully get more of the younger Form 1s and 2s involved as well, as I think the sessions have provided a lot of the boys with a chance to hear lots of different pieces that they simply wouldn’t have the opportunity to hear otherwise.

We have also started rehearsals for a musical, which we will be putting on around May next year. John Odor had already started to organise things for this, and he has brought in a director from a theatre group in town, Roy Lawrence, and has asked me to be the Music Director – to which of course, I agreed. The production is to be Roy’s own version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, with songs taken from various different musicals and other sources.

So in the last week of October we had several sessions where we taught the boys some of the songs, and then Roy came in to help audition and select suitable candidates for the lead parts. Since then we have been teaching them some of the songs, and putting some initial choreography to them, and John has had a couple of read-through sessions of the script with the principals. I have been greatly assisted in the song-teaching sessions by two senior boys from the college – Patrick Gatonga and Stanley Kamau – who are no longer actual music students, but who have evidently kept things running whilst there has been no music volunteer at the school, and who have helped me out a great deal since I’ve arrived – so many thanks to these guys!

So things are in place to get down to some serious work on putting it all together in the first few months of next year. I hope we will be able to produce a really good show, as apparently there has not been one for some time, and it would be good to try and re-install what used to be a tradition here.

Musical Life in Nairobi

6th form leavers ceremony at Starehe

The 6th Form Leavers at Starehe

I have also been getting involved in various other musical activities in and around Nairobi: as has been something of a tradition for a while now it seems, the Starehe Music Volunteer tends to play in the Nairobi orchestra, – so I have been playing percussion with them since I arrived, and we gave two successful concerts in mid-November (- for one of which I organised a school trip and got free tickets for a bus-load of boys, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy it!), and then another couple at the beginning of December with the Nairobi Music Society choir; … whom I have also been involved with as a rehearsal pianist on a couple of occasions, as well as playing for their auditions for soloists for the concerts; and finally, I have been playing for a ‘cabaret’ show in town – there is a theatre group called the Phoenix Players whose Christmas show is a kind of cabaret with lots of songs from the musicals and other popular numbers, so this has been great fun, and keeping me busy since the end of the school term!

And for the future …

Speaking of the end of term – the boys gave a very lively(!), informal ‘leavers’ concert just before the Christmas holiday started, which went really well, and I am hoping to try and make this a more regular occurrence as they only seem to have one a year at the moment. I am also planning (with the other piano teacher at Starehe, Levi Wataka, who has been coming in while there has been no volunteer) to give a short recital of piano duets and solos for the boys early in the new year, and I have also been speaking to some of the musicians I have met through the Nairobi Orchestra about having them come in to the school and do similar things (workshops and concerts on various different instruments – some of which the boys may never have seen before!).

I feel that the first three months I have been here have been very productive and successful, and also very busy! I hope we can continue to build on this next year.

I have also managed to get away for a couple of brief holidays (one at half-term, one last week) to see some more of the country, which has been a great experience! On the first trip we camped in Hell’s Gate (a National Park) and near Lake Naivasha – involving some rather exciting (indeed, scary!) wildlife encounters, and a cycle up to the beautiful Crater Lake – and on the second we stayed in Kisumu (on Lake Victoria) and Kakamega Forest (the last remaining patch of an equatorial rainforest that once stretched across the whole of Africa). So I am hoping to do more of this sort of thing as well!

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