May 082012

Since MDMT became a registered charity in 2003, it has been superbly served by outstanding music volunteers who have worked at Starehe Boys’ Centre and Starehe Girls’ Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. Typically MDMT volunteers are in their mid twenties having graduated with music degrees from UK universities or conservatoires. Here Niamh Molloy tells her own inspiring story about what prompted her to take on these formidable challenges, life in the Centre, in Nairobi and in Kenya and her subsequent career path.

It was July 2006, I was living in London, about to embark on a life as a freelance musician and I was not happy. I was frustrated with work, and although I was surrounded by friends, I was frequently lonely – London can be like that sometimes.

I decided I needed to go travelling, and initially made plans to go to Australia for 6 months. Fortunately, my course was altered by a chance meeting with a friend from youth orchestra – Chris Walters was a fellow freelance musician and had found an opportunity to work in a school in Nairobi for a year. He told me of his plans and it struck a chord: I wanted to do that too. My parents had lived in Zambia in the early 70’s, teaching in a missionary school, my older sister had worked as a pharmacist in Tanzania when she finished college, I realised that a year in Kenya would be a chance to figure out what kind of person I was, a real life experience and an opportunity to see one of the most beautiful places in the world.

So although it was a volunteer scheme, I went for quite selfish reasons – I knew I would come out better on the other side!

Chris was assigned to Starehe Boys’ Centre, a huge campus in the middle of Nairobi that has been educating underprivileged but highly-intelligent Kenyans for decades. The Starehe Girls’ Centre had opened in 2004, out in the Nairobi countryside, surrounded by coffee plantations and banana groves. I was to be their first music volunteer and I started in January 2007.

Chris and I flew out to Nairobi together – I remember the flight clearly because there was a woman on board who was being deported from the U.K., and she wailed solidly for about 2hours much to the annoyance of all the other passengers. The craziness of the situation was not lost on us – we were volunteering to go to Africa, all eager and enthusiastic and full of ideas, it was clear she wasn’t so keen to be going the same direction.

On arrival at the girls’ centre I was delighted to find that my living quarters were much better than anticipated – I had been promised a room with basic facilities – a gas stove and running water, in reality I had a lovely two bedroom apartment in a newly built dormitory block with a kitchen that even included a microwave!

The students were incredibly welcoming. I was primarily there to teach piano to the music students, but I quickly learned that there was a role for me as ‘big sister’ and I often had girls come to my rooms just looking to chat about life and their future. I loved this.

I also got on very well with the office staff and made myself useful when necessary, especially during exam-time when all of the teachers suddenly needed their test papers typed up and formatted.

The music students were brilliant. They have the most impressive oral tradition and are able to memorise tunes almost on sight, but my job was to teach them piano which involves being to read music on sight, a very different skill! Most were starting from scratch, learning the lines and spaces, and I had to be very strict with them because I knew that once they heard the piece through they would have it memorised, and would stop reading! The school piano is an electric keyboard donated by the MDMT, and is a great asset as the tuning doesn’t get affected by the climate, but the monsoon season does bring regular power cuts…

Like I said, I’m a strict teacher and we carried on regardless, with me watching over them as they practiced soundless scales, pouncing on wrong fingering like a hawk. Surprisingly they didn’t complain, and they all progressed hugely in the year. In fact I had a few stand-out pupils who were good enough to compete in the Kenyan Music Festival Schools competition – imagine having your first piano lesson EVER in January and being able to play Fur Elise by Beethoven in July!

I was constantly amazed by them and their determination to succeed – even if there was only piano to practise on and forty girls wanting to practise, they all found time.

When I wasn’t needed in the school, I also found time to get involved in other musical activities in Nairobi. Chris and I were in demand as musicians and were quickly enlisted into the Nairobi Orchestra which rehearsed every week and the Nairobi Conservatoire, where I taught cello for one morning a week. I also joined a running group called the Hash House Harriers, a group of mostly ex-pats and Aid-workers who met every week to run a 6km trail – it turned out to be a great way to get to know Nairobi as we met in a different place every week, and it was certainly a great way to meet people, I’m still in touch with the friends I made through that.

We also had some holiday time, Chris and I took the overnight train to Mombasa (quite an experience), we had a few safari adventures in the Mara and Samburu reserves, and we endured a long bumpy bus-ride over the border to Kampala, Uganda with the Nairobi Conservatoire orchestra.

However most of our free time was taken up (quite gladly) with rehearsals for Oliver! the musical, which was performed by combined forces of Starehe Boys’ and Girls’ centres to huge success.

All in all, the year was incredibly challenging, enjoyable and absolutely unforgettable. I learned to be grateful for what I have, and grateful for what I can do. I would heartily recommend the experience to any musician who feels there’s something missing in their lives after music college, it’s the chance to do something really worthwhile with your talent, to share music with people who are dying to learn and to hopefully come back enriched and inspired. Thank you to the Donaldsons and all at MDMT for this life-changing opportunity.

I came back inspired to play cello and am now happily living in London, with a job in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Life is good!