One day, Elizabeth Njoroge woke up as usual, went to work, and, as it sometimes happens, realised she would not be much busy that day.
And so, to keep herself occupied, she tagged along for a meeting with her colleagues at the time to discuss a fundraising initiative for a basketball pitch at St. John’s Community Centre in Korogocho, Nairobi.
As she did so, she had no idea she was walking head-first into her destiny, because this was the day the seed of Ghetto Classics music programme was planted after a conversation with Father John Webootsa, the resident priest at St. John’s Catholic Church.
“Going to Korogocho was a fluke, one of those things that happen because life wants them to happen,” she said, in retrospect.
“After the meeting, Fr. Webootsa followed up on our conversation; he wanted to know if I could start a music programme in Korogocho. His worry was that the children were being exposed to too many vices and needed something structured to give them the discipline needed to live a decent life.”
She said ‘yes’ to the proposal, even though she had absolutely no idea what she was getting herself into, and that is how she and Fr. Webootsa co-founded the Ghetto Classics music programme in 2008, which currently has over 650 children – aged between 10 and 19.
The programme has expanded steadily and has recently spread its wings to Mombasa, where children from poor backgrounds are excitedly joining Ghetto Classics.
“I always wonder whether I would have proceeded had I known about the hurdles, the sleepless nights, the lack of shame while begging for money for instruments, and the thick skin I would have to develop,” she continues.
And then, after a short pause in which she peers back into the depths of her psyche and thinks about everything the programme has taught her, she answers herself: “Probably yes. It has been a labour of love… a very difficult one… but I don’t regret it at all.”
Before Safaricom came on board, Elizabeth and her team of volunteer music teachers had to source for funding for music instruments from well-wishers and embassies. And on several occasions they had to pay – from their own pockets — for food and rent for their members and their families, as well as cater for their other basic needs besides the music lessons.
“I have had tough days; I have had to develop a thick skin because of some of the situations I have seen in the course of running this programme. But just when I am about to give up, I see some remarkable achievement in one of our charges or they perform a piece and I am completely blown away, reminding me what I am here for,” she said of her eight-year journey with Ghetto Classics.
Initially, Elizabeth and her team used to work with primary schools in the Korogocho neighborhood to reach out to children who might be interested in music. They would gather these children and hold rehearsals every Sunday at the St. John’s Community Center grounds, where they have built an amphitheater and training rooms.
The Ghetto Classics music programme still does that, but they have also expanded to other areas such as Mukuru kwa Reuben, Claire Community Centre in Dandora, Farasi Lane Primary School in Lower Kabete, and Muthangari Primary School in Muthangari.
She knows that many, if not most, of the 650 members might not end up being professional musicians, but that does not worry her too much because the discipline of music — the constant practice, learning something complex, commitment and hard work — equips them with skills they will need to make it in life.
Through this exposure to music, the children have not only gained self-confidence, but have had several opportunities to go to different places, meet, interact and network with people they would probably have never met.
“One of my proudest moments was when they performed for Pope Francis in 2015,” says Elizabeth, “but there is no greater feeling than seeing the ones in college excel.”
This is a great departure for the lady who is a trained pharmacist. Although her love for music was evident from childhood, she did not discover Classical music until she got to university.
“I loved music while I was growing up, and always took part in the Kenya Music Festivals in high school. I remember I was the music prefect in high school and was also in a music group called Angels of Harmony, but I discovered Classical music while in university in Canada and fell madly in love with it.”
She did not know that love would lead her to Korogocho, and in the process help her transform numerous lives.
She cannot help but brag about the performance of some of her young charges: “One of my girls who had to drop out of school for a year due to early pregnancy topped her class in last term’s exams! She is now in Form One!”
She almost chokes with emotion while talking about the young Mary, who, at 17, has seen more of life’s trials and tribulations than most girls way older than her. She got pregnant at 15 after a gang rape and had to stay home until she gave birth to her child.
Because she is an orphan, she had to stay at home for a year to take care of her newborn. She could also not afford school fees, and one day she approached Elizabeth at the centre and told her she wanted to go back to school.
“I did not have the money but I could not turn her away. I could see the determination in her eyes. So we looked for a home for her baby and then set about looking for a school for her… and then she came back with results that were beyond my expectations. I was so proud of her.”
Mary’s one-year-old son is in a temporary home and she can see him whenever she likes, and will get him back when she is ready and able.
One of the key discoveries she has made during all this is that Kenyans, really, care because the music programme has survived over the years due to the generosity of her compatriots.
“The launch of the Safaricom International Jazz Festival was also a lifeline for us. Previously, the pupils used to share instruments, but now we have been able to not only buy more instruments, but also have a van. And now we can accommodate even more children and have more shows because we have transport,” said Elizabeth.
All ticket sales proceeds from the Safaricom Jazz International Festival go to the music programme.
Asked if she would have her life any other way, she says “no”, this time without hesitation. Elizabeth is now absolutely sure she is where she is meant to be. And more than 650 children would agree with her.