Jun 282012

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 Georgina Hardiman tells about life in the Centre, in Nairobi and in Kenya.

It’s hard to summarise two fantastic years when there are so many stories to tell. From arriving in Nairobi in December 2009 to saying farewell to my students in November 2011, my time in Kenya has been one unforgettable experience.

Back in June 2009 I was 1 month away from graduation and still unsure what to do next. I was interested in teaching but I didn’t feel ready to pursue a teaching degree straight away. It was then that I read the advert for the music volunteer position at Starehe Boys’ Centre which seemed too good to be true. It offered the chance for me to use the musical skills covered in my degree, gain teaching experience and to travel and live in another part of the world. This opportunity couldn’t be missed!

I had a few months to prepare myself, speak to ex-volunteers and to collect teaching resources. However, nothing can really prepare you to stand in front of 900 teenage boys and 100 staff members on your first day! Looking back, being thrown in at the deep end like this was the best thing for me and prepared me for what lay ahead. Living in a different country and dealing with the hectic city of Nairobi was a huge culture shock to me, but the welcoming staff and students quickly helped me settle into my new life. Before I knew it I felt comfortable in the school and city and developed a good routine.

As a music volunteer I was in charge of piano and violin lessons (teaching 40 individual lessons a week), classes on western music theory/history, training the choir for the annual Kenya Music Festival as well as organising and running musical events in the school. I also managed to host ‘Music Club’ weekly, school recitals and enter 22 students for international music exams (ABRSM). To witness students gaining their Grade 5 piano certificate after only one year of tuition proved to me just how enthusiastic and determined these young Kenyans are. My own skills were put to the test when I was asked to write a sacred composition for the Starehe Boys’ choir to sing in the Kenya Music Festival provincials 2011. I was thrilled when the judges announced that my composition had achieved first place. This provided me with valuable experience for writing choral music. My conducting ability was also tested when I had to publicly conduct the musical band (July 2011) and then a group of Starehe students in front of Prince Edward (September 2011). This is an area of music I have never attempted before and now I feel I have the confidence to use it in the future.

Georgina and the students with newly donated instruments

One of the main highlights of my time as a volunteer was directing The Lion King musical with Jamie Munn. It was a tough job auditioning and casting 60 students, organising scripts, scores, costumes, rehearsals and an 8-piece band on top of daily duties, especially in a time of the music festival and mock exams. Weekends were taken and weekdays ended at 11pm (if you were lucky!). Through the hard work and extra practice put in by the students we managed to achieve 4 sold-out performances. One audience member even deemed our rendition as “Better than the London West End!”. I felt so proud of each and every student and at this point I realised this was the career I knew I was meant to pursue.

Outside of school life I was an active member of the Nairobi Music Society Choir, performing 3 times a year. I was also able to work at the Kenya Conservatoire one day a week teaching pupils ranging from 15 – 50 years old to provide me with some additional funding. The music scene in Nairobi is at its peak with regular concerts, operas and theatre productions taking place. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved and to perform. One memorable moment for me was when South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo headlined the ‘Classical Fusion Concert’ in Sept 2011 and I joined Nairobi Choir to sing alongside them to an audience of 12,000 people. What a moment to treasure!

Two years in Kenya flew by and before I knew it I was leaving a fantastic place and people who  will always remain close to my heart. As I left in December 2011 I felt ready to apply for a teaching degree and take on the responsiblity that the role of an educator carries. I was then interviewed and accepted by the University of Bristol to start a Secondary Music PGCE starting September 2012. As I wait for my course to begin I have been travelling throughout the world including America, South America, New Zealand and Australia, gaining a few more incredible memories.

Working at Starehe Boys’ Centre with talented and enthusiastic young adults was an honour and I feel that I have learnt as much from the students as they (hopefully) have from me! My experience has enabled me to gain the necessary skills needed to be a successful teacher and gave me a greater sense of confidence. I would encourage anyone thinking about volunteering with MDMT to go out there, get involved and rise to the challenge. It will be the best decision you ever make!

Jun 162012

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 Jamie Munn tells about life in the Centre, in Nairobi and in Kenya.

Working at a school like Starehe Girls’ Centre is difficult to sum up. It comes with a huge range of emotions: pride, excitement, encouragement, frustration and the occasional bout of exasperation. First of all, the setting is quite something. The school compound is located about 10km north of Nairobi’s smoke-filled, dusty and polluted city centre, in what often seems like a haven of fresh air and greenery. The bungalow (normally) reserved for the music volunteer is right at the edge of the grounds and overlooks the nearby forest and fields. There is often nothing better than sitting on the veranda after a long teaching day with a cup of fresh Kenyan coffee or an amazing Kenyan mango and watching the monkeys fight each other in the trees as ibis birds screech, and the occasional Ugandan crane (complete with ridiculous headdress of yellow feathers) or pelican fly overhead towards the school’s lake.

Jamie Munn at Starehe Girls

But there is also plenty of work too. And I mean plenty. At the moment there are 43 music students in the school, and about 35 of them get their individual piano lessons from me once a week. Now that’s a lot of lessons! There is also the bi-annual school musical with Starehe Boys’ Centre, which, as you can imagine, takes up a huge amount of time and energy. We aren’t hosting one this year, but last year we ambitiously produced the Broadway version of The Lion King. The only people organising it were Georgina, the volunteer at Starehe Boys’, and me, so it was hugely tiring, and we often felt that it would never happen. In the end it was hugely successful with many saying it was the best Starehe production they had seen in a very long time. If you pile onto that assisting with the training of the choir, soloists and ensembles for the Provincial and National sections of the Kenya Music Festival, writing a piece for the choir to perform at the festival, organising and training for ABRSM practical and theory exams, taking a few of the classroom music lessons, taking the students on trips to see concerts by the Nairobi Orchestra and visiting musicians and ensembles, organising the termly School Recital, and getting music groups together and rehearsed for frequent visits by donors and supporters, then you might begin to see why that coffee on the veranda might be essential!

There are also plenty of opportunities outside of school to earn a bit of pocket money by teaching and performing. I teach all day on a Saturday at the Kenya Conservatoire, with students ranging from four-year old piano beginners, to coaching operatic sopranos – so it’s varied to say the least! As well as that I have performed in concerts and recitals all over Nairobi and to Nanyuki, Kisumu, Kilifi, Gilgil and even Arusha in Tanzania, and have been the soloist for the last three oratorios performed by the Nairobi Music Society and Orchestra.

Nairobi also has a burgeoning cultural scene, and there are plenty of art exhibitions, concerts, jazz sessions and films (including a new IMAX cinema!) to attend. The Nairobi Music Society organises fairly regular classical concerts (as do the various European cultural centres), and I even took some Italian classes during last year’s ‘quiet’ third term.

There are, of course, downsides, but none of them too disheartening. Getting things done through the school administration can be long and tedious and you often feel as if you’re fighting a semi-losing battle. The same applies for work visa and residence permits. Teachers of other subjects can sometimes be dismissive of music lessons and rehearsals. If you don’t have a car (like me), then travelling around, especially at night, can be a bit of an issue, but if you give yourself Health and Safety amnesia then the 4km fast, helmet-less ride on the back of a motorbike (boda-boda) from the school to the main road can be quite exhilarating, and at least the notoriously awful matatus get you to your destination quickly, forgetting the fact that the drivers seem to think they are in a game of Grand Theft Auto. As a white person (mzungu), you inevitably stand out in town, which is often a cue for the cast of ‘The World’s Most Annoying’ people to shout and give (tame) hassle. But if you give as good as you get or ignore them then that’s usually the end of it.


All in all it’s a year or two that probably can’t be matched anywhere else. The girls are keen and hard working, the city exhilarating and home to probably the most active music scene in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa. Just don’t leave the windows open, or else the monkeys will soon find an alternative home for your food.

Jun 162012

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 Chris Walters tells his own inspiring story about what prompted him to take on these formidable challenges, life in the Centre, in Nairobi and in Kenya and his subsequent career path.

I first stumbled across the advert for the music volunteer job at Starehe Boys’ Centre at a time when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next in life. It was five years after I’d graduated and I’d been enjoying working as freelance musician and teacher, but with an increasing feeling that I would run out of steam unless I did something different while I still had the chance. The Starehe job involved moving to Kenya, and as I hadn’t travelled all that much it seemed perfect. And it was to do with music, and all the costs were covered! I felt lucky to have found such a tailor-made opportunity.

The few weeks before I left for Kenya were an anxious time. Looking back at myself I was a bag of nerves, like a different person. One of the things that Starehe gave me was the ability to rise to new challenges with a much greater degree of confidence, but back then the prospect of leaping into the unknown was scary to say the least.

My first few weeks at Starehe were a bit of a blur, but less alien than my worst fears had predicted. The weather was surprisingly British and not too scorching, and people were friendly and welcoming. Even public transport was manageable, if a little unnerving, and trips into the centre of Nairobi were a welcome break from the routine of living and working on campus.

Before long I was meeting people outside the school, and I soon got a job teaching at the Kenya Conservatoire one day a week. One of the perks of being a musician in Kenya is the number of enquiries and requests you receive – I was able to pick and choose a collection of enjoyable gigs ranging from accompanying the Nairobi Music Society choir to teaching diploma students at the conservatoire. Over my time in Kenya there were also wedding gigs at tropical coastal hideaways, a performance with Cape Town Opera outdoors at Hell’s Gate National Park (where we had to fend off curious monkeys) and convivial evening recitals at house parties.

But the school remained my main focus, particularly putting on the musical Oliver – although developing the instrumental tuition was a big priority too. I ended up working most nights until 11pm in the run up to Oliver’s first night, and the show was a huge success, even transferring to a theatre in the centre of Nairobi for an extra week’s run later in the year. Getting involved with set design, marketing, drama direction and crowd control gave me a range of new skills, and I would advise anyone looking to prepare themselves for almost any future profession to put on a school musical.

I ended up staying in Kenya for 18 months, six months longer than I had planned. Deciding to leave at the end of that period was a very painful decision – a number of ex-Starehe volunteers have ended up making lives for themselves in Kenya. But for various reasons I felt I should return to the UK. Fortunately I have been able to return to Kenya no fewer than four times – once on holiday and three times as a coach for the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya.

Just as I was about to move back to the UK, a fellow expat advised me to ‘go back bold’. I laughed at the time, but this is exactly what my experience enabled me to do. When I first got back I returned to work as a player and teacher, but I was soon able to pluck up the courage to pursue writing, something I had always wanted to do but had never known how to get into. I managed to get a job as deputy editor on a trade magazine for music teachers, and I now edit the title and also work as a freelance writer for a range of other magazines, newspapers and websites. I really enjoy this work, which puts me at the heart of the debate about what matters in music education. I still play and teach too, and all in all it’s a pretty happy balance. Would I be doing all this if I hadn’t gone to Kenya? Almost certainly not.

My advice to anyone considering becoming a Starehe music volunteer would be to grab the opportunity with both hands. Your experience will almost certainly be different to mine, but the one thing you will definitely gain is a new perspective on the UK and on life generally, something that for me has been priceless.