by Elizabeth Njoroge, Founder and Director
My journey creating The Art of Music Foundation began in 2003, when I came back from living in North America and Europe. I wanted to do my part in broadening the art music space in Kenya. I started in small, personal ways, such as holding recitals and publishing a small classical music magazine. I found a sponsor and benefactor who helped me to get on national radio and to run a three-year classical music festival, which helped classical music reach a whole new young and African audience. I do not have music technique know-how, so I worked very closely with people who did and who strongly shared my same passion and commitment to music.
The idea for Ghetto Classics, our flagship programme, started through a chance encounter with the Catholic priest who ran the centre where my foundation is based, in Korogocho, an impoverished neighborhood of Nairobi. The priest asked me to start a music programme with some of his youth.
We began with 14 young singers and one teacher. The early years were very tough. We had no money, little buy-in—in fact, indifference bordering on suspicion from the local community—and very challenging physical circumstances. To keep going was an act of faith and great sacrifice from all. But as anyone will attest, no one can come to make music with my children and not wish to come back. They are amazing, and you somehow find a way to be back as soon as you can. That has helped us keep our doors open all these years.
All the times I’ve thought, “I can’t do this anymore, we have to close shop,” I remember that the children I serve don’t have the option to quit—they are stuck living a tough life they cannot escape from and it is my job to give them the joy that only music can bring. So, we always found a way forward.
Now, ten years later, Ghetto Classics teaches almost 1,500 students a week in 14 different locations. We have three orchestras, two in Nairobi and a fledgling one in Mombasa. We also have violin lessons in three other centres and we teach the Link Up programme in 14 schools.
Growth is great in some ways, but it brings challenges in many others. One of the strengths of our flagship project in Korogocho has always been that we look at the whole child. We make music, but we also make sure our children’s education, health and general wellbeing are okay. As we have grown, that capacity has become diluted and we are less able to be as involved with each child as we would like to be.
Growth also imposes great stretches on our few resources. Our staff has grown from one employee at the very beginning to 17 full-time and 35 part-time tutors. We have to make do with little, and we have to innovate all the time, coming up with solutions on the go. Sometimes that is thrilling, but a lot of times it is stressful. There are so many moving parts, many of which we have absolutely no control over. I always say that our biggest challenge is to get the instrument, the teacher and the child at the same place at the same time. Phew!
On the positive side, growth has provided employment opportunities for our senior students. The best part is that the student members themselves feel ownership of the program. They believe in what it stands for and the older players have taken more and more leadership positions. The next decade is about slowly handing over leadership to a new and energetic generation.
And I’ve learnt so much! Patience, resilience, faith, forgiveness.
To anyone thinking of starting a program like this, I would say—Just take the first step. One step at a time. One child at a time. Sometimes if you look too far ahead you might never start. So start with what you have. I now believe more than ever that if you are doing things for the right reasons, it may be very bumpy, but it will be okay.
When we started, it was good enough just to be together and to play. That is still true, but now we are more equipped to grow our children more. We have a fully active social work department, an in-house instrument repairer, a well-stocked library. It is less than perfect, but we keep working on it. One of my main goals is to continually improve our teaching so that our students are equipped to compete on an international level. I want my kids not just to have lessons but to have the best lessons possible. Overall, our goal is to make all the children the best versions of themselves. We don’t always get it right, but we try!
On our ten-year anniversary, here is what we are most proud of:
- Keeping the doors open to any and every child who wants to join our programme—not always easy, but hugely important!
- Seeing the oldest students grow up to become amazing musicians, leaders and members of society. Many have their own musical groups and teaching jobs, but they always have time to give back to the programme.
- Having more and more of our own instruments.
- Increasing the musicianship of our students and ensembles. We have had some amazing musical performance opportunities through our partnership with the Safaricom International Jazz Festival. Our trip to Poland to perform with JIMEK and the musicians of NPW stands out, as does our appearance on Kirk Whalum’s new album Humanite.
For me, the greatest accomplishment of all is when a child, who walked into the program feeling broken and unable to look me in the eye, slowly starts to bloom. Head up, shoulders up, smiling, laughing, playing, with a healthy teenage attitude…and eventually growing taller than me. That, to me, is the best.