By Nicole Kukieza Guimaraes, Britt ES Music Teacher
We hear all the time that music is a universal language, and I was truly able to experience that first-hand this summer when I visited The Art of Music Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya.
I was able to travel to the African country as part of my Fund for Teachers Fellowship. Fund for Teachers is an organization that gives teachers the opportunity to create self-designed summer professional learning after an extensive application process. Fund for Teachers has awarded more than $27.5 million in grants to more than 7,500 teachers since its inception in 2001.
As a 2018 recipient of the grant, I was able to travel to Kenya for two weeks in the month of July to learn from and teach lessons to students through The Art of Music Foundation. The foundation has several moving parts, including The Ghetto Classics Orchestra, The Safaricom Youth Orchestra, and Link Up recorder classes at several different primary schools. All of the programs serve students from Nairobi slums or very low income areas.
A slum called Korogocho is where the Ghetto Classics program was born. It serves as the main program for The Art of Music. Korogocho, or “Koch” as residents call it, is one of Nairobi’s largest slums and home to Dandora, East Africa’s largest garbage dumpsite.
In Koch, I worked with several of the band and orchestra students in the Ghetto Classics program during my visit. It was so incredible that, despite the living conditions, they were able to create such beautiful music.
I have never worked with students who work harder than the students of Ghetto Classics. We rehearsed for more than two hours straight. I was tired, thirsty, and hungry, but when I asked them if they needed a break, they looked at me with the most innocent faces and said, “No.” I have never worked with students that eager to learn.
I also had the opportunity to visit several primary schools to teach recorder lessons to the students. The circumstances were not ideal. There was smoke from trash burning on the side of the road. The schools had dirt floors, with three students to each small desk and no technology. On top of that, most of the students didn’t have basic necessities like running water and enough food to eat!
Despite everything, the children were so passionate about music. They understood, even at such a young age, that music can take you places. It gave them a goal, something to strive toward. Their music was such a positive outlet for students who might otherwise not have something so positive in their lives.
Something incredibly striking to me was that, during my time in Kenya, I never felt unsafe. One of the most important lessons I learned was to not judge a place based on what you read or hear in the media. We went to some of the most dangerous places in Kenya, and were never in a dangerous situation. In fact, I found that the people of Kenya were the most welcoming people I have ever met. They were all so proud of their country and wanted to share that. It was amazing.
Perhaps my biggest takeaway from the trip was the amount of responsibility that even the primary school students were given. The students set up their own classroom, passed out instruments, were responsible for showing up on time, and had to clean up the room.
I hope that I can instill that same level of responsibility with my own students at Britt ES. The kids need to take ownership for their program. After all, it is their music class, not mine.
All of the Kenyan students really value their education. They truly understand that getting an education is the only way to move out of the slums. Many of the Ghetto Classics students have seen this first-hand. They performed for Pope Francis in 2015 and for former President Barack Obama just this summer. Some of the students even had the opportunity to travel to Poland to perform. Many people told me that the attitude in Kenya is, "If you have been on an airplane, you have made it." I was overwhelmed thinking about how exciting and unreal it must have been for those students to actually board a plane and fly to a completely different country, all because of music. What an amazing thing music has done for them!
And what an amazing thing music has done for me. This was truly a life-changing experience, and I am so fortunate to have had to the opportunity. Now, I have the chance to share what I have learned from the journey with my students at Britt, and that is an amazing gift.
The people of Kenya are forever in my hearts.
For a day-by-day chronicle of my experience, check out blog posts from my visit to Kenya.