KenyaBuzz Interviews: Elizabeth Njoroge Orchestrating Change Using Music

Article by Maureen Kasuku
Posted: September 08, 2020

Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything”-Plato.

Elizabeth Njoroge, founder and director The Art of Music Foundation and also manager of the Safaricom Youth Orchestra epitomizes the beauty of that Plato quote. 

Through Ghetto Classics, the flagship programme of The Art of Music Foundation, Elizabeth has orchestrated change in the underprivileged community of Korogocho by offering music education to close to  500 children.  Many of these kids have gone on to join the prestigious Safaricom Youth Orchestra and have had opportunities to perform abroad and for various dignitaries.

The program uses music education to provide the youth with opportunities to better themselves and their community. They do this by instilling in them the life skills that come with the discipline of studying music. Their programme also provides them with income-generating opportunities.   

We caught up with Elizabeth and she let us in on how she’s using classical music to change the lives of kids in the most underprivileged communities.

KB: Your professional background is in medical sciences. How did you end up founding The Art of Music Foundation and subsequently managing the Safaricom Youth Orchestra?

I studied medical sciences – biochemistry (Canada) and then pharmacy (UK); even then I was still a musician and I was able to balance the two. When I returned to Kenya, I was drawn more towards music even though I did work as a pharmacist for a while.

I did concerts and started a magazine called Classics trying to shine a light on classical music in Kenya. It started to pull me more towards music and I wasn’t very happy being a pharmacist. I didn’t really plan to stop being a pharmacist and go into music. It happened very progressively but I left the job and didn’t get another one.

Starting the foundation, I didn’t think it was going to be a for-profit. I was requested by the priest at St. John’s Catholic Church in Korogocho to work with his youth and that was the beginning of the foundation. I went there with a few music teachers because I’m not trained to be a music teacher nor trained professionally as a musician as I’m self-taught. We started off with 14 children singing and that is what has grown into the Art of Music Foundation.

KB: What’s a typical day like at the Foundation and what’s in your “In Tray” at the SYO on a day to day basis?

There’s no typical day. Fundraising is key for us. You’re looking for funding and partnerships (items in kind). I feel that I have made it up as I go along. There is no book to follow. There is a lot of instinct and questions to ask other people on best practices. Over the years I am learning so much about myself.

One of our partnerships is with a counselor who’s able to advise parents and children. Our focus is on music but the well-being (emotional and physical) of our students is very important. As much as we’re teaching music, it’s really a way to build the children.

A typical day would have issues around streamlining things, fixing problems (children still get naughty), working with our partners and parents to see how to improve the children’s wellbeing and then making sure the teacher, student and instrument are in the same room for practice sessions.

KB: How has this changed amid the pandemic?

The pandemic has forced us to be  innovative and I have an amazing team that makes it so much easier to navigate.

The Safaricom Youth Orchestra is the easier one because we have Safaricom’s support and they are involved. They provided mobile devices to every child who didn’t have one and gave them airtime to purchase data bundles. Every Saturday when we’re on term (it starts again on 19 September 2020), the students have to find a quiet spot, get an instrument and they will get their lesson. What is missing is the one on one musical engagement. Although, an advantage is they have now been able to receive individual lessons during the week as well which they couldn’t before.

With Ghetto Classics, we’re in the middle of informal settlements. Our largest numbers are from primary students around Nairobi, Kiambu and Mombasa. With the schools closed, we are not able to teach. We have tried but it’s not working. My two community centers in Korogocho and Mukuru Kwa Njenga were previously locations where children could come and hang out (300 plus).

We can’t do that anymore due to the pandemic so now we have lessons of about 6-8 students every hour. They have to sign in and say they are coming to rehearse. We also have a feeding program to ensure they are fed. Some good things have happened. We used to have water problems but now we don’t as we received a donation of a water tank. We started an Urban garden and are now producing some vegetables of our own.

KB: Most people would’ve scoffed at the idea of offering classical music education/training to kids from underprivileged communities. What drew you to these children and not the kids society considers “cultured”?

Nobody talks about it when they’re talking about a book, poetry or art. Those are not class. If you read a book, it doesn’t matter whether it’s written by a Japanese or South American or African, it doesn’t matter as long as you get the message and it’s a good book. But when it comes to music, people like to classify it and attribute classical music as being for the ‘cultured’ which is not true.

Like any other art form, music is universal and it speaks to everybody. Of course there are people who don’t enjoy classical music just as there are people who don’t enjoy other genres of music. It is what your soul vibrates to. My mission from the very beginning was to put classical music on the menu so that if you love it, it’s there and you don’t have to search too hard to find it. It’s available.

When I used to do a classical show on Capital FM, I used to get messages from people with very different backgrounds on how much they enjoyed the music. The art form is pure and it should be available for all.

So how it came to be, I was looking for an advertisement for the magazine I used to do and the priest who was running the parish hood in Korogocho was at the meeting and he requested me to teach his kids. And that is all I had to offer, classical music is the genre of music I knew and understood and loved.

What I tell my kids to this day is that even though you have been taught the classical way of music, you don’t have to play classical music, you can choose whichever genre you prefer, you just need to be good at it. What I tell them is I’m teaching the alphabet and what they choose to do with that alphabet is up to them as long as they do me proud. There are some kids who join but are tone deaf and that’s OK as we don’t turn them away.

You still learn discipline, hard work, make a new family and through music you are able to see a world that you wouldn’t otherwise see. We have travelled to Poland and the USA and the kids have met so many musicians through the Safaricom Jazz festival.

KB: How do you select who gets to join the mentorship programme? Is there an audition process? For Ghetto classics, with the community centres it’s totally walk-in so anybody who wants to come and sticks around is welcome. There are just rules you have to follow – no drugs, you have to be regular and so on. With the National Youth Orchestra similar to the Safaricom Youth Orchestra there is an audition process on who can join.

KB: It must be quite expensive to run this programme. How do you sustain yourselves? Do you have a patreon of sorts?

We rely on sponsors and partners. Safaricom is one of our key sponsors and partners and has been extremely supportive. A lot of the musicians who have come in to visit us through the Safaricom Jazz festival have been very good friends. Salut Salon is one of those groups.

They had a concert and with the money they raised they bought 50 violins which they then sent to us. They continue to give Skype lessons to my kids till today during this pandemic. They have also sent us money to buy food. In that sense they are a very good partner. There are many others as well, Jef Nev who has been doing a series of concerts online during this pandemic to raise money for us as well.

A rotary club in Germany too. In Kenya, cash wise not so much but in other ways I have great Kenyan partners in individuals who donate instruments which their children gave up. In my phone book, I have people who will always help me out of a situation. So in terms of instruments, most of our instruments are donated. And for that I am truly grateful for my friends. The biggest issues have been solved from friendships.

KB: You’ve run this wholesome foundation for a decade now. What valuable life lessons have you learnt in these 10 years?

Like I’ve said earlier, the friendships. When I was starting the foundation I didn’t have an idea what I was doing, I just knew the feeling and urge and drive to do it. I just knew it had to be done. If I had stopped being present, everything would have come crashing down. But today, what I am so proud of is the team that we have built. And a lot of the team comes from the project itself.

So a lot of my staff (15 full time employees) are from Korogocho and they have come in through the project. The day to day is being run by the kids themselves and that I’m so happy and proud about. And I have learned to bring people in and invest in people and discuss the way forward in them. I am more confident now that if I wasn’t present the projects would survive.

There is enough buy in and structure from within that it will continue growing. And I have seen it more now during this pandemic with the urban farming project, feeding project. There is a team called ‘Team Wazee’ that has been going round helping the elderly. These are initiatives brought by the kids themselves and for that I’m very proud. They have understood that you give and serve your community.

KB: Any mind blowing anecdote from Ghetto Classics you’d like to share?

I have so many anecdotes but right now there is a young boy whose mother collects garbage from the dumpsites and he just started medical school. He is a great team leader in the orchestra. Last week, the kids had this challenge going on – who’s always on time, who’s always late and he was selected as the one who practices the most. He has made us proud by working through these challenges.

And like I mentioned previously, on friendships, one of them has committed to paying his fees until he graduates from medical school. He’s a great musician who was part of the Safaricom Youth Orchestra.

KB: In what ways would you say music has impacted you and the children?

For me, it is as I had indicated earlier. For the children, we have quite a lot of street kids who come into the projects and one of these kids came in and he couldn’t look you in the eye and his shoulders were hunched and now he’s laughing and helping to carry musical stands. And that is what I feel it gives these kids.

We don’t solve all the problems, we don’t make everything OK physically but we give them the strength from within and we give them a reason to keep going and give them a new family and I feel that is always what I want to keep doing. To create this space and all you have there is an instrument and another musician and you feel you can go back to face whatever is waiting for you outside the gate.

KB: What’s in the pipeline for T.A.M.F, Ghetto Classics and Safaricom Youth Orchestra? At the moment, we are seeking to ensure they are all self-sustaining and like I said earlier as a result of the pandemic, the team has been excellent and the students asking to come back to offer services, training, support has been very helpful. That for me is the future. Like I mentioned, the SYO term resumes in 2 weeks and for Ghetto Classics, we have hourly sessions for up to 8 students per hour.

 *Images: Elizabeth Njoroge


About the author

Maureen Kasuku

Maureen is our resident cat lady and Beyoncé stan. She writes about spas, brunch and ballet recitals but has never been to any. Moonlights as a social justice activist in her spare time. She knows things and is obnoxiously opinionated on the internet but not in real life


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