NAIROBI, Kenya — “Sometimes, you see the children come in the morning. You look at them and they are sad. But when they start singing, everybody gets excited. They start dancing and laughing. I think it’s the best medicine to give the children,” says Lilian Wangala, founder of the Magoso School in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Magoso School, which opened in 1998, is encompassed by high walls coated in vibrant murals of warm landscapes and iconic cartoon characters. On most mornings, you will find hundreds of young Kenyan children dancing around the dirt schoolyard while singing along to the steady beat of drums.
One of the core missions of the Magoso School is to fight the anxieties and other mental stresses of children who have experienced situations of extreme violence and poverty through the use of poetry, acrobatic dancing, drumming and gospel singing.
In recent years, the school has also began to provide shelter to homeless children living on the streets of Nairobi. The most recent UNICEF Report estimates that there are currently between 250,000 and 300,000 homeless children across Kenya. Nairobi-based charity Kenya Children of Hope estimates that 63 percent of the homeless children within the city have been living on the streets for up to five years.
While only 20 students originally enrolled in 1998, the number of pupils at the Magoso School has soared to over 500 in the past two decades. Wangala accredits the increased enrollment in the school to the no-cost tuition and the unique educational dynamic offered through art and music.
The musical students of the Magoso School are now widely celebrated across Kenya after winning first place in both gospel choir and string band competitions last year at Kenya’s annual national music festival.
Enrollment has reached such high levels in the past year that the Magoso School has started to turn away pupils. According to Wangala, many of the students are orphans who previously were living on the street or working in homes as hired help. Now the school is housing over 60 homeless children.
“Life here is hard. Bad things happen, young boys get beaten up by the older homeless people and we fight for food,” a haggard homeless youth told BBC Reporter Pumza Fihlani in Nairobi.
Wangala, who is the oldest in her family of 19 siblings, faced her own personal tragedies after the unexpected death of both of her parents when she was only 20-years-old.
Inspired by her own personal struggles during her younger years, Wangala decided it was time to fight back against the growing epidemic of impoverished youths turning towards prostitution and crime for survival. She succeeded in raising the initial funding to open the school after selling shirts along the train tracks that travel through Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi.
Wangala now sells handmade bags and clothing to donors and visitors of the Magoso School in order to pay the salaries of the 21 teachers currently employed. In addition, both the World Food Programme and many private Japanese donors who previously visited the school continue to fund the school’s operating costs.
Professor David Akombo, Director of Music Education at Jackson State University in Mississippi, has been studying the complex connections between medicine and music therapy within Kenya.
“Mental illness is a growing health problem in Kenya, and research continues to show that music therapy can help to change that. The government needs to invest in producing more music therapists who can help victims of social upheaval – especially children, who are led into crime, drug addiction and suicide,” he says.
“I left school after my father died and my mother couldn’t afford to take me to school, I thought it was easier to go out and take care of myself,” homeless 13-year-old child, Neville, told Fihlani during a nighttime interview in Nairobi.
Despite the fundamental role music plays in many of the local cultures across Kenya, Akombo explained that accepted recognition of music therapy as a professional field has not yet reached this East African nation.
He argued, “Music and healing is an old tradition practiced in Africa for millennia; it makes sense for it to be revised with modern scientific methods.”
Antony Mwangu, who was homeless in the Kibera slum for over three years, says he experienced extreme hunger and violence every day. He says that witnessing the brutal killings of seven other homeless children by the police in Kibera at a young age was the catalyst for his entry into the study of music therapy.
Wangala, who discovered Mwangu hiding in a field near a Magoso School drum performance shortly after witnessing the traumatizing event, said, “That was like his home, a field. He was one of the street boys. Then he came to me and asked me, ‘Can I come to your school?’ I told him, ‘It is OK, you can come to my school any time you want.”
Mwangu, now 21, is serving as a music therapist at the Faraja Cancer Clinic in Nairobi and at The Nest, a rehabilitation center designed for the children of imprisoned mothers. He is just one example of how the Magoso School is educating students in a field that will provide them the opportunity to further the spread of music therapy in Africa during their adult years.
He says, “When people asked about my story before, I used to cry when I was telling them. But now I can narrate my story when laughing. I believe that through music, I’ll be able to transform society.”
– James Thornton