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The Life of an Mzungu in Nairobi

It’s June 2 now, and the rest of our Tunaweza Kimuziki team has left, Diana and Kim boarding the plane back to the US about a week ago. It’s been an interesting transition—20 years old, and for the first time in my life, traveling alone. In the next three weeks, my goals are very simple; to teach recorder and piano at St. James, to improve my Swahili and knowledge of Nairobian culture, and to find some sort of footing for my undergraduate thesis at Indiana University. While I’m on my way to accomplishing all three goals, I have to admit…nothing is quite as I expected. However, as it turns out, the unexpected adventures are the best part.
I should make a quick note: I’ve suddenly realized a very distinct flaw in my blogging plan—I’ve been the willing photographer/videographer for the group these last few weeks, but have recently recognized that there is some difficulty involved in getting footage of one’s own work. Needless to say, the photo to text ratio will be severely altered in the coming weeks due to this slight oversight, but I hope I will be able to adequately make use of the English language to fill this gap…
I started work at St. James on Thursday, after much preparation and negotiation of plans with the headmaster and teachers. Father Andrew Masawe has been more than pleasant to me throughout the whole process—it’s wonderful to see such enthusiasm for music in the walls of Holy Cross. The entire parish seems quite spirited when it comes to any kind of music, and has even developed a room in the school devoted to the performing arts. I can’t describe how wonderful it is to have my own little classroom to teach from, with adequate space and an abundance of instruments. It is places like St. James Primary School that I find hope for the future of music education. I only hope I might be able to live up to the expectations of teachers and students there in the coming weeks, though I am happy to take up the challenge.
The rest of my time has been spent at the apartment, at Kenyatta University, or gallivanting around Nairobi with my good friend Monica. Monica has been wonderful help—she’s currently assisting me with the St. James children as well as teaching me about the city itself.
Yesterday she accompanied me as I boarded a matatu for the first time—an absolutely thrilling experience for a newcomer to Nairobi. I’ve heard so many horror stories about matatus, from the crazy driving to the random price hikes to the incorrect drop-off points, and I don’t doubt that every story I’ve heard is true. However, as I boarded the matatu with Monica, I felt my fears slide away. Just a week ago, I believe I proclaimed that I would never ride a matatu alone, and though I still have a lot of experience to gain before I attempt such a thing, it no longer seems like such a foolhardy idea. Perhaps public transportation in Nairobi is not so impossible as I had initially thought—it just requires a lot more experience than so many of the user-friendly European/American systems I’m used to.
We took a couple of matatus and a bus outside of Nairobi, to a touristy place called “Paradise Lost”. Although a sign directed us to continue 2km down the road, by the third kilometer we were lamenting how accurately this place seemed to live up to its name. After walking what must have been at least 4km, we finally approached the entrance gate. It truly was worth the time—a large expansion of grass and picnic areas, leading down into a jungle-like forest with waterfalls and a large pondish-lake-thing. (Wilson, Caroline, and I later debated what body of water constitutes a pond or a lake, so I hesitate to define it…) Monica and I content ourselves climbing the trees, playing in the river, and eventually exploring the caves behind the waterfall. I felt like a child again in that area—what a fun afternoon!
Another first experience; the boda-boda. Monica told me that they used to be used along the borders, thus the name, and had started as bicycles before graduating to motorcycles. After having walked from the highway to this place, Monica and I were ready to jump at any alternative option for the return journey. (Camel rides were offered at the park, but I figured they might not take kindly to us hijacking their camels…) I don’t know whether it was the motorcycle rides my uncle used to take me on, or the jetskis I used to love driving, but I felt right at home on the back of the bike, and couldn’t feel happier to be where I am.
All in all, I’m enjoying life here in Nairobi. I love listening to the children play outside our apartment, watching all of the random soap operas on the TV, walking through the neighborhood just to witness Nairobi lifestyles, and exploring whenever I get the chance. When I first embarked on this trip, I thought that two months in Nairobi would be more than sufficient, but in the last week alone I have discovered that two months in Nairobi is hardly enough.

Nairobi School Grades

We had an illuminating conversation with Mr. Andrew Obaga, assistant director and music teacher at the Nairobi School (a Kenyan national boy’s school). We were sharing that we were surprised to see the grades posted publically with students’ names. He explained that it was in part to bring accountability to the school, but was more meant to bring accountability to the boys. I thought he meant individual accountability, but he went on to explain that part of the social education and character formation is that they learn to pull each other up, to help each other to get better. So, by posting grades and names publicly, they can see not only who needs help in certain areas, but also who should be taking on the responsibility to help. If the lower marks don’t improve, then the students with higher marks aren’t doing their duty. If all of the marks improve, it shows the students have been helping each other properly.
It was an interesting study in contrast and reflection with the US system of completely anonymous grade posting and the emphasis on individual achievement.

Sunday = Field Day!

Sundays in Kenya are just as busy as any other day! Today we got up early to cram in as much sight-seeing as possible. First we went to the Giraffe Center and visited the Rothchild giraffes. Then we went to the Elephant Orphanage in time to see the feeding of the baby elephants. And then after a quick stop to pick up coffee and snacks we were off to Nairobi National Park, where we saw rhino, giraffe, impala, some other kind of antelope, cape buffalo, zebra, Thompson’s gazelle, hippo, and crested crane. We finished up the day with a trip to the Carnivore restaurant for dinner with all our friends.

Last day at Nairobi School

Here is a video of Sylvester’s group:

Today we finished up our three days at the Nairobi School. The kids and the faculty here have been so welcoming and warm. It is lovely to see how much the students are working, and the progress they’ve made since last year.

Nairobi School

Today we went to the beautiful Nairobi School. This is a campus with large trees and British colonial buildings, built in 1929. The school is a Kenyan national boarding school. Students who scored the highest on the national exams at the end of primary school are selected from all over the country to attend this government school. There are 1500 boys (there are similar national schools for girls). The assistant principal, Mr. Andrew Obaga, a long-time music educator, told us many stories about the school. He said that some of the boys come from as far away as three days away from Nairobi. They have to ride on the backs of trucks for three days to get home or to get from home to school.


The entrance to Nairobi School


Mr. Obaga told us about how when he started as the music teacher in 1991, there was one working trumpet and a number of old broken instruments from the 1950s. He worked on the instruments and gradually acquired

The playing fields

other instruments to build a small band – several trombones and a few trumpets, and some drums. Then in the troubled times around the 2007 elections, there was a brief riot, where rioters broke into the music building and destroyed the instruments. They twisted the trumpets until they broke in pieces. They were stopped before they destroyed the pianos. But there were no band instruments left. Mr. Obaga rebuilt again, and here are the students today playing in the band. Jeff coached the band for awhile in the afternoon.

Mr. Andrew Obaga











Kim and I taught sonata form to the students.

The percussion section

Mr. Moses Watatua ably leads the band now

Jeff coaches the band


I’m probably saying something brilliant here



We were back at the hotel before the sun set at 6:30 – the first time we’ve seen the hotel in the early evening. I think it will be the last – the next few nights will have evening activities.



Utawala Academy – May 15, 2013

So today, I am lacking my usual 100+ photos…to be honest, I think I took twenty photos throughout the day.  Now, the only two reasons I will ever do this are as follows—I have either gone through such a crazy day of meeting and greeting and exploring that I haven’t actually found the time to unpack my equipment, or I have found the day so entirely enthralling that I had to content myself to simply leave the video camera running for hours on end, not wanting to miss a moment or forget an instant.  Today, suffice to say, falls in the category of the latter.  The videos will likely not be posted until they are filed and edited (which may take a few months yet), but I am excited to be living in an age where I might be able to share my experiences abroad through such technology.

This is the campus of the beautiful Utawala Academy—an enormous institution serving Standards 1-8, as well as Forms 1 and 2.

Even in my diminished number of photos, I found this gem.  Cute kids!

Jeff is reunited with Samson—the two worked together frequently during Samson’s stay in Bloomington last fall.

The AP Band wraps up for the day.

We were treated with a gorgeous Nairobi sunset on the way home…there truly is nothing quite like a sunset in Kenya.

Last Day at Kenyatta University – May 14, 2013

Today was our last day teaching at Kenyatta University.  It has been a wonderful experience, and we’ve made quite a few friends along the road.  The campus here is beautiful and the people are always friendly—I can’t wait to return!  We delivered our parting gifts – donations made by several of our friends and acquaintances in the US in the form of books and scores, which were much appreciated by Dr. Wanjala.

Diana preaches the word of the tuner…

We took lunch with the Dean of the Department of Music and Dance at Kenyatta University, Dr. Beatrice Digolo, where we enjoyed a wonderful meal and conversation.

Trying to create overtones with a pop bottle…professionally, of course.  Because we’re professional like that.

Women’s dance and chorus group at Kenyatta University – they tried to teach me this dance.  I gave up once we tried to throw in the arms…I’ll stick to singing.

We love teaching at KU!

“Cat Duet”, as performed by Juliet and Eddy.  This short and funny piece depicts a love scene between cats, written in the original language…meow!  Very entertaining. We wrapped up our time at KU with a student recital, organized quite quickly and effectively by our go-to student, Sylvester Makobi.  What a wonderful way to end an effective workshop!





Administration Police Training College

Jeff and Lisa are here! Jeff Gershman is a band director from IU and his wife Lisa Wong is a choral director at The College of Wooster. Here they are smiling with Samson after having arrived the evening before and taught all day. They are troopers and we’re impressed! It’s so great to have them here.

Jeff and Lisa with Samson


Today since there are so many of us we split up. Kim, Jeff, and I went to the Administration Police Training College, where there is a full-size military band. Liz and Lisa went to the nearby Utawala Academy, a large primary and secondary school complex (that we visited briefly last week) to teach music.

At the AP Training College, Jeff coached the band in the morning. After a (big) lunch, we split up – I took the woodwinds for a sectional and Kim the brass, while Jeff worked with the conductors.

One problem we have is that Liz had the cameras, so all the record we have of the day is this photo from my Iphone of Jeff working with the band.


Jeff with the Administration Police band

The end of another lovely day in Kenya.


Utawala Academy – Day 1

So today, I am lacking my usual 100+ photos…to be honest, I think I took twenty photos throughout the day.  Now, the only two reasons I will ever do this are as follows—I have either gone through such a crazy day of meeting and greeting and exploring that I haven’t actually found the time to unpack my equipment, or I have found the day so entirely enthralling that I had to content myself to simply leave the video camera running for hours on end, not wanting to miss a moment or forget an instant.  Today, suffice to say, falls in the category of the latter.  The videos will likely not be posted until they are filed and edited (which may take a few months yet), but I am excited to be living in an age where I might be able to share my experiences abroad through such technology.  Hopefully I will be able to post my thoughts on my experiences at Utawala Academy in full later on, but I’m afraid this blogger is worm out for the day.  Lots to do tomorrow at Nairobi School!

In other news, today marks Jeff and Lisa’s first day on the job!  We are very pleased to have them along – even in one day, they have proven to be invaluable to our efforts.  I honestly can’t believe they managed so well today after having just gotten off the plane less than 24 hours before.  They’re quite the troopers!

Today, Lisa and I split off from the rest of our group to orient ourselves within Utawala Academy, a military-related academy teaching and housing around 1200 children/teenagers from Standards 1-8 and Forms 1 and 2.  The campus was beautiful – because electricity is not always so reliable, there is a huge emphasis on natural light in the buildings.  I honestly couldn’t help but envy that just a tiny bit…I can’t express how many times I cursed the fluorescent lights of my elementary school back in the day.  We found the school to be quite lovely (as you can see), and the staff were extremely warm and welcoming (falling in line with the rest of the Kenyans we have encountered on this trip – the level of hospitality and warmth is truly touching).

More pictures of the beautiful campus!

Among the 15-20 or so photos I took today, I found this gem.  Had to post!

  Samson and Jeff, reunited at last!  Last fall, they worked together for much of the time Samson was in Bloomington.

End of the day lecture at the AP Training College.


We were treated with the most gorgeous sunset on our return trip from the AP training college after a long day of work.  What a great way to end a wonderful day.

Kenyatta University – Day 2


I’m so happy to be back at Kenyatta University!  My Swahili is a bit rusty after a semester of intensive French, but with the large amounts of encouragement I’ve been receiving from every Kenyan I meet, I imagine it will come back to me in no time.  We’ve already made quite a few good friends during our short time here – in fact, I’ve found myself so busy meeting people that I forgot to take pictures the first day we were at KU…I suppose I’ll have to step up my game a bit!

Monica just received a new flute!  She’s been so excited to play it!

Here, Kim teaches George how to hold his wrist as Sylvester watches.

I had fun taking photos today – can you tell?

The world from Liz’s point of view…

Kim coaches a group of young male singers, helping with a really cool vocal arrangement.

Eddie works to put Diana’s embouchure lesson to use.

Kim coached today from about 8:30-7:00 with very few small breaks.  In the words of our good friend Wilson – “She’s crazy!”

Our favorite Kenyan assistant, Sylvester!  I tried to catch a photo without him noticing, but it looks like he caught me…