By Joseph Wasswa, Founder and CEO, IMLS
Music can unite the world, produce unity and harmony in the community, and offer social and financial assurance. Having grown up humbly myself, I began dreaming in 2011 of starting an academic institution and cultural center for the young generation in my home area of Masaka, Uganda. That dream became the International School of Music, Languages and Polytechnic Studies (IMLS), located in the city of Masaka, near Lake Victoria.
As most of the music schools and cultural centers in Uganda are centered around Kampala, near the city center, I wanted to extend services closer to the less privileged children and youths deep in the villages of Masaka and its surrounding area. These children would otherwise not have opportunities to identify and leverage their music talents into self-confidence, social capacity, or even a career.
IMLS has its roots in Germany through the German NGO Förderverein für Musik und Kultur Uganda e.V. (FMK Uganda e.V.), or Friends of Music and Culture Uganda. Located in Regensburg, Germany, it supports music and cultural development in Uganda, especially at IMLS. Through its well-known Himbisa Mukama intercultural exchange program, FMK has arranged several fundraising concerts in which the IMLS Children’s Troupe is invited to take part. The German organization is under the chairmanship of Mrs. Sophia Schaaf, and I act as its Project Manager and Vice Chairperson.
As a pilot project, IMLS tentatively opened its gates in September 2016 in a single room. Our aim was to develop music skills and language in vulnerable young people, build self-sustainability, reduce poverty, and improve living conditions for people nearby. As such, we immediately embarked on the construction of new toilets for the children, in order to improve their hygienic conditions. Since water scarcity has proved to be another major issue, we came up with a borehole project that provides approximately 1,000 liters of water per day to community members. These initiatives were successful and showed our families that we are committed to serving the region.
Currently, over 900 students take lessons with us, many of them coming on foot. Most IMLS students are between seven and 15 years old, and all of them have one thing in common: joy and enthusiasm for making music. The origin does not matter; we teach many street children and orphans at the school each year. Some of them come from politically unstable regions like Northern Uganda, Rwanda, or the D.R. Congo.
Our students sing in a choir, take dance lessons, and learn a variety of instruments. In addition, we are planning to integrate Studio Production into our curriculum, which will give our musicians and composers the necessary tools to record and release music—to make themselves known to the world. This way, everyone can experience the power of music to unite people of different colors and cultures. We hope this will in a way reduce conflict brought about by the historical identification of Ugandans based on their different ethnic backgrounds.
More recently, IMLS has been extended to become a polytechnic institute, where young people can study tailoring, carpentry, instrument building and repair, sound engineering, fashion design, business studies, and more. The school also teaches a variety of languages, such as German, Swahili, and English, which enables students to widen their scope of communication and make the rest of the world feel a bit closer.
We have taken special care to reach students in their own spaces with our IMLS Outreach Program. Attracting several schools around Masaka, this program is carried out during normal school terms with the aid of our IMLS van, which our teachers use to travel to registered partner kindergarten, primary, and secondary schools to teach the students a variety of musical instruments. As most families don’t possess their own instruments, this is many students’ only introduction to music-playing and their first chance to awaken their talents. The program has been so successful that the van has become too small to accommodate its large numbers. A good problem to have.
And it’s not just the van that’s too small. As our numbers increased each year, we realized that room capacity would soon be an issue. As such, we’ve begun construction on a five-story building that will include various lecture rooms, a recording studio, rehearsal rooms for choir and orchestra, a band room, seminar rooms, offices, and a concert hall. Since the underground floor has reached its final stage, IMLS will shift as we prepare for the next construction process of the upper-ground floor—a strategy used in most third-world countries.
Despite these exciting developments, we are still hindered by several obstacles. Many of our students are orphans and vulnerable children who cannot afford to pay for the lessons, so we must always seek out sponsorships. To support that goal, IMLS is grooming different music groups and ensembles. Currently, we have an orchestra, brass band, children’s choir, adult choir, and traditional dance troupe. As a fundraising strategy, we hope to begin staging concerts.
Similarly, we must always seek funding in order to pay our teachers; with an increased number of students comes higher demand for instructors. Many of our 25 teachers are volunteers, mostly students and high school graduates from Germany. Unfortunately, we can only pay a few staff members; the rest help at their will, for which they are paid a small token within our means. This is not a sustainable model, of course, as those volunteers may move to permanent well-paying jobs, if offered. We are working to find means to hire more full time staff, offering them security and offering our children a better education.
Uganda is known as the Pearl of Africa. At IMLS, we seek to nurture and celebrate that pearl, building a meeting place for international musicians and cultural scientists, ethnomusicologists, educationalists, tourists, and people interested in promoting and merging East African and European cultures. By providing a service to the community, we strengthen it, and build a long-term trust that will sustain us and the students we serve. Come and visit us!