Elizabeth Njoroge on The Growth of Ghetto Classics & The Conversation That Changed Their Lives Thanks to Safaricom Jazz Festival

The look on Elizabeth Njoroge’s face when I first meet her is one full of hope, almost an array of relief and a whole dash of happiness. Her kids, Ghetto Classics, are turning a year older and it’s impossible for her to hide her joy, seeing their tremendous growth!

“It’s amazing what 5 years and the unwavering support of Safaricom International Festival has done for my kids and for that, I am eternally grateful.”

Elizabeth has been described as a sedulous visionary for the power of classical music in Kenya. She is more than a mother figure to the kids of the Ghetto Classics program and orchestra, and she is also one of the leading figures for getting young people across Kenya involved in classical music through The Art of Music Foundation, which she created in 2009.

She also founded the Kenya National Youth Orchestra, or K.N.Y.O., and runs the Safaricom Youth Orchestra, or S.Y.O. The K.N.Y.O. — which started in 2010 and is made up of young talent from across the country who are from 14 to 24 — meets three times a year for intensive rehearsals and a few concerts, including a performance in July 2015 at the state dinner held for President Obama.

Her passion for music

In her early years as a child, she developed a passion for music and when she was four she started to take piano lessons. She then moved to Canada and then to the United Kingdom to pursue her other passion: medical disciplines.

She graduated with a degree in biochemistry and pharmacy, but somewhere along the line, her life took a different path. She had also thought of embarking on a career as professional musician, but at the time she says, she didn’t have the guts.

So what changed?

Elizabeth Njoroge, Director of the Ghetto Classics programme. Image Courtesy of richallela.com

She came back to Nairobi in 2003 and was immediately struck by the fact that there were few music initiatives and that only white people had access to music schools.

One Father John Webootsa, the catholic father who worked at St John’s Catholic Church at the time asked her to start teaching some of his kids music.

In 2007 Njoroge started to host a programme of classical music in a local radio, that was sponsored by Safaricom, and came to understand that more people than she thought were interested in classical music, even those who aren’t members of the wealthy white community.

“Playing music makes you forget the world around you. Troubles can be left behind and there is room again to focus on the positive things in life. I’ve seen it first hand especially in the first days of starting the Ghetto Classics programme in 2008”, Elizabeth Njoroge says. Music also gives the poorest children the skills to overcome their daily challenges: “If you can master an instrument, you can master life”, she adds while smiling.

The Ghetto Classics and the Conversation that changed their lives

The life changing project that became the Ghetto Classics program began with just 14 children using instruments borrowed from the Kenya Conservatoire of Music.

A very delighted and talented Levi Wataka, a music teacher who is now the K.N.Y.O. music director, started teaching the kids with the little they had but thanks to private donations and the ever growing determination of Elizabeth and her team, they eventually had enough instruments for more regular lessons.

In 2013 however, her luck changed forever when Mr. Bob Collymore, C.E.O of Safaricom, asked Ms. Njoroge to form the Safaricom Youth Orchestra.

Some of the kids from the Ghetto Classics orchestra

This was in order to bring together children who are living in the most desperate conditions with similarly talented kids from more privileged backgrounds and teach them music – both in reading sheet music and playing instruments.

So far, they have over 1,200 kids from Korogocho, Huruma, Dandora and Mukuru kwa Reuben, as well as students from Farasi Lane Primary School and Muthangari Primary School in Nairobi. They’ve also expanded to Mombasa and will soon kick off in Kisumu.

“As much as it has been an uphill win for the kids, they still face quite a number of challenges,” Elizabeth says. “Considering their backgrounds, most of them were either involved in crime, were physically and mentally abused and most of them can’t fend for themselves despite them being underage.”

“It’s sad to see some of the kids falling sick because of the dumpsite. We currently have a few kids in hospital fighting infections because of the toxicity of the smoke that comes from the rubbish there. It’s even worse now that the sun is out. It sometimes makes it unbearable. This forces us to relocate our music sessions to a different area, but it breaks my heart that we’re leaving more than 1,700 kids from the primary schools next to us behind. We pray we find a solution to this soon.”

“We still have a very long way to go but we are taking steps in the right direction. If you want to see what music can do and what it has done to these precious kids, come down to Kasarani this Sunday. I assure you that your life will change once you see those kids play!”

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