Elizabeth Njoroge is the founder of the Art of Music Foundation which teaches music to over 500 children in one of Kenya’s biggest slums, Korogocho, with other satellite projects spread across the country. The Foundation uses music for social change, teaching children from unstable backgrounds to play instruments as well as keeping them in school, providing mentorship, and offering food and a shelter to the most vulnerable.
R:Ed: Could you give an overview of your project?
I’m Elizabeth Njoroge, and I’m the founder and executive director at the Art of Music Foundation. Our motto is: “Making Music Make a Difference”. We use music for social change, especially with our projects: the Ghetto Classics project is the most well-known and our day to day work is heavily focused on this. We also run the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya and a vocal music orchestra. We work within the informal settlements in Nairobi and Mombasa, as well as another more rural area called Campbell, where we teach in various primary schools. We run two community centers, where children who are interested in learning music can come. It’s purely walk-in, no one is auditioned. As long as you’re interested, and you stick to the rules, you’re very welcome. We create a sort of a family. Music is a tool that we use. We have some amazing, gifted and driven musicians, but most of the kids that we interact with will not necessarily be full time musicians. What we’re trying to do is build a better person through music.
We focus heavily on discipline, widening horizons, keeping them in school, providing mentorship, and, for the extremely vulnerable ones, we also make sure they have food and a roof over their heads.
R:Ed: Why is your work so important?
We work with kids who come from very, very unstable homes, very unstable environments. I don’t want to sound patronising, but there’s very little hope for a lot of the kids if they look at what is around them. They grow up in homes where crime is very common. A lot of people around them have not finished school and are either working on the dump site or doing menial jobs. They don’t necessarily have great futures. We feel our work is very important, because we see the talents and the gifts in these kids. We do our best to help them achieve what they are capable of achieving. For example, school is very, very important and so we go out of our way to find sponsors to keep them in school, because a lot of them, when we started twelve years ago, wouldn’t finish school because of a lack of school fees and many other life issues. Now, more and more of them are completing high school and going into tertiary education. A lot of them now have employment as music teachers elsewhere. They’re able to support not just themselves, but their siblings and their other relatives. They also stand out in their community. Especially during this Corona season, my kids do so much work in supporting their community because of what we have taught them, and what they now believe in.
One of our very, very first students, Simon, who was in a top class, is now at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. He was a criminal as a young boy, following his older brother’s footsteps. Now, he is studying music and development, hoping to come back and change the way we do things and change his community. He has overcome so many barriers. He’s so strong to be there. I’m very proud of him.
We have so many other kids who came off the streets and one of them played the flute so beautifully he now studies music at a local university.
A lot of positives happened in the corona season. A girl called Tracy took it upon herself to start looking after the elderly and got some of the players to work together. That makes me feel that we are doing the right thing. We’re not just building musicians; we’re creating young adults who want to change their community.
R:Ed: Could you give me an overview of the situation in the slums?
The slums are very, very, very crowded. They don’t get a lot of government services in terms of sanitation. Clean drinking water and a safe neighborhood are not very possible to be honest. Where we started in Cordoba is right next to the Nairobi dump site where all the garbage in Nairobi comes in. The environment is very polluted. And with that comes a lot of crime a lot, a lot, a lot of crime.
The kids see their parents struggling with alcoholism, a lot of joblessness. It’s a very tough life. Really, it really, really is. But when you come to our center, to be honest, it’s like a bright ray of sunshine. Not necessarily because of the physical environment, but because of the spirit that is in there and the joy and laughter. It’s a safe space. Even during the corona season, when a lot of things had shut down, we spoke to the local authorities and said: ‘our program is very important and if we shut it down, these kids will then be on the streets and they’ll fall into trouble’. We were given special dispensation to stay open. We found a COVID friendly, because it is so important that the children stay away from the bad influences in the environment.
R:Ed: Has your work influenced cultural exchange?
Over the years, and particularly after we were adopted by a jazz festival, a local Jazz Festival, our profile has really raised. In terms of international cultural exchange, we often have visiting musicians and Skype lessons with international artists. Some of our kids have traveled out of the country, to the US, to the UK, to Poland, to Australia, which is really, really great.
The international community has donated instruments. Most of our instruments have been donated. Just this morning somebody donated a piano to us. We are very short on cellos so a gentleman is having a concert this weekend in California, and the money will go towards buying us two cellos.
Also, the friendships that we have made through music allow my kids to have master classes with great musicians, with visiting musicians spending a week or a month here. We have string Skype lessons from Germany every Saturday, for beginners. Every three to four weeks we have a Skype lesson for a big band that has formed, from a well-known musician in the US, and every so often a famous trumpeter gives us master classes as well,
Kirk Whalum teaches the saxophone, he has a Grammy Award, and Mr Ross plays for the bass guitarist Marcus Miller, and he teaches the trumpet and saxophone. A cello teacher, Robert Howard, is based in California and taught a lesson this morning – every Wednesday – in the middle of the night for him.
The people that have allowed us to travel, those connections have been life changing.
But I find the local exchange here in Kenya the most powerful. Our kids, who are from one side of the tracks, get to meet, play music, and interact with kids from the other side: the rich kids, or even the middle-class kids. There’s this invisible wall in the slum areas where kids shouldn’t come out because they’re troubled, they’re dirty, they’re street kids, they’re going to steal from you, but when they go and play with kids, whose shoes probably cost as much as what their parents earn a year. It’s a great equalizer.
My kids see another Kenyan, just like them, who can sit with them, play with them, chat with them. That is really, really, really powerful. That is what I push for, that social economic local exchange.
Most of our teachers are local, they’re Kenyans, and most of them have actually come through the project. Nowadays, 90% of my teachers are our kids who have come through the project. They continue to grow. We have a teacher training program, and we teach them how to teach so they can then give back to the community. Our system is that if you know two notes, you teach one. There is a lot of teaching that goes on around.
R:Ed: How did the project arise?
I started it with a community center that’s run by the Catholic Church. I was in a meeting where the parish priest was 12 years ago. He was in a meeting and I told him what I do. He reached out to me after that meeting and asked me to start teaching music to his kids. I was like, ‘Okay, let’s try!’ He was very supportive at the very beginning, convincing the parents that we were genuine and that you can bring your kids over.
R:Ed: What problems have you faced?
Running the program in an informal settlement is a challenge in itself. Our biggest challenge is getting the instrument, the child, and the teacher in the same place at the same time.
There are also life issues: girls falling pregnant before they finish school, kids going back to the streets or rejoining a gang, parents causing problems at home that then affects the child’s ability to be in our program. Those sorts of challenges are very difficult. There’s no good way of handling it and each time it’s different. It’s such a complex issue. We have a social worker who’s kept very busy trying to keep all those social issues at bay to provide the best environment for our children to flourish.
R:Ed: How are you looking to expand the project?
We would love to be more accessible to more Kenyans. Let’s start in Kenya. We are always getting messages from kids out of town asking to join and for us to come to them. We would love to teach more kids. There’s a foundation in Switzerland, Musique et Vie, who gave us some funds to run our project in Mombasa. Now we have a growing orchestra in Mombasa, five hours away from Nairobi. We would love to work in many other towns in Kenya.
R:Ed: What needs to be done now? How can we get involved?
Oh wow, an instrument drive would be wonderful. We have 20 cello players, but we only have six instruments. Each saxophone is played by six kids. Instruments would be a wonderful thing.
Teachers: as the digital world is growing, having more and more Skype lessons and opportunities that way. It would be wonderful to help us grow musically.
Opportunities for our very gifted kids. Scholarship opportunities where they can come to you for a few weeks or months or a year to study in an international university, and also funds to just help run the program.
R:Ed: What is your wider vision for Kenya as a whole?
Generally speaking, the political class has let the youth down. They are very self-centered, very greedy. They have no long-term ideas or policies for the youth. 60%, if not more, of our population is under the age of 25. It’s a ticking bomb. I would love to see a political class that leads from a good place with the well-being of the country at heart. The youth also need to change. For many years, they haven’t had good examples of service to your country. I cannot be okay if my neighbor is not okay. That kind of care for your country, loving your country, I would love to see more of that.
What I am doing, one of the reasons I wake up every day, is to do what I do with the hope and belief that in a small way I am creating children who will be that change in this country. I want them to be musicians but, beyond that, I want them to be Kenyans who are different, willing to do what it takes to make this country better.