Elizabeth Wamuni Njoroge is a classical music performer and a director of the Art of Music Foundation – a foundation that uses classical music to make a difference in the lives of young Kenyans. She has touched many lives and provided opportunities and exposure to slum youths through the foundation’s music project. Elizabeth also runs the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya (KNYO), which brings together musically gifted youth from all parts of the country. Hers has been a life of constant change and learning to fulfill her purpose as she aims to make an impact in the lives of others. She walks ESTHER KIRAGU through her inspiring life’s journey.
Elizabeth Wamuni Njoroge grew up on a farm in Kiambu. Her mother was a farmer and her father a civil servant who has since retired and is now farming. “Mine was a normal childhood,” says the last born of four siblings in a closely-knit family. She also adds that she grew up surrounded with love in a musical family where they all played the piano and sang in the house for fun.
In primary and high school Elizabeth played the piano and was also a music prefect but she didn’t consider pursuing music professionally. She went to Muthaiga Primary School before proceeding Kenya High School for her secondary education.
“On completing my secondary school education in 1989, I joined MacMaster University in Canada for a Bachelors of Science degree in Biochemistry, which I completed in four years and then proceeded to Strathclyde University in the UK in 1994 to study Pharmacy,” says Elizabeth. She completed her Pharmacy degree in 1997 and started working as a pharmacist in the UK. She never lost her passion for music while pursuing her academic goals and kept it alive by joining various singing groups as a pastime.
Life on the fast lane…
“Working in the UK was great since the job had a decent pay, the career was respectable and I enjoyed doing it. I actually made a life there and was my own person but as time went on I began to feel isolated and missing home,” says Elizabeth. Although she often visited her family in Kenya, she always felt like a stranger in her own country – coming in and going.
“I was missing out on the lives of my family especially my parents who were growing older. At one time my father’s health was not very good and I started questioning my absence from home. In 2002, I took a sabbatical leave from work and came home to spend three months with my family. When it was time to return to the UK, I wasn’t enthusiastic about it. I wanted to stay in Kenya,” she explains.
She returned to the UK where she had a job and a home but her mind was in Kenya. She was convinced that she would make a greater impact in Kenya than in the UK. After a lot of soul-searching she decided to quit her job and return home. She landed back in Kenya in September 2003 determined to touch the lives of other people.
She joined the corporate world in 2004, first working at the audit firm – Deloitte and Touché and later joining United States Agency For International Development (USAID) as a consultant where she worked for two years. She later moved to Management Sciences for Health (MSH), a USAID funded non-governmental organization that deals with pharmacy related activities.
After two years she moved to Acacia Medical Centre as a project manager where she remained for another two years. Despite earning a decent income, she felt unfulfilled in her career but was at peace that she had made good use of her education when she decided to leave the corporate world and venture into more exciting things.
Music is food for the soul…
“In 2007 while still working in the corporate world I started an online newsletter – Classics – that outlined musical events taking place in Nairobi. My aim was to demystify classical music, which was my passion, and also inform people where they could find good classical music,” Elizabeth explains. The newsletter had sections that featured Kenyan musicians and music composers. This online newsletter later metamorphosed into a magazine that was available in newsstands.
She single handedly managed the magazine often doing interviews, writing the articles, pitching for advertising, as well marketing it. “Although I never really intended to work on the magazine full time, I eventually left my job to put all my energy there. Not only was it demanding but also overwhelming, especially because some of the things I needed to do were new to me. The magazine business went under after a short two years, but nevertheless was a great learning experience for me,” says Elizabeth.
After the closure of the magazine business, she moved to Capital fm radio where she hosted a show featuring classical music. Safaricom sponsored the show, which aired on Sundays between 9.00pm and 11.00pm. In addition to her work at the radio station, she launched The Classical Evening Club to cater for classical music lovers. The club organized social evenings where classical musical lovers would gather to enjoy concerts by different performers. The club still hosts monthly events in Nairobi and this has really popularized classical music in the city.
“I think I have played a role in changing the face of classical music in Nairobi and hopefully beyond,” says Elizabeth.
Living out her purpose…
In 2009, Elizabeth began the Art of Music Foundation whose offices are in Hurlingham, Nairobi. The foundation aims at using the transformative power of music to change lives, particularly the lives of those living in underprivileged areas of Kenya. One of the achievements she draws great pride in is a project in the slums of Korogocho, Nairobi, known as Ghetto Classics. It began in 2009 and involves over 300 children from Korogocho slums aged between 10 and 19.
“The inspiration to start this project came when a friend invited me to an event supported by a sports programme aimed at helping to keep Korogocho slum children out of trouble. This is where I met Fr John Webootsa, a Catholic father who runs a church in Korogocho. Through our discussions, he challenged me to start a musical programme that would supplement the children’s sporting activities. This led to the birth of Ghetto Classics,” Elizabeth explains.
Ghetto Classics began as a choir group but has since grown to include string music and a wind band – a musical ensemble consisting of wind instruments. The group performs every Sunday afternoon. The St John’s Catholic Church in Korogocho has allowed the children to use their facilities for practice sessions. They have perfected their music to the point of being invited to perform at functions and company parties.
Touching lives in the slums through music…
Through Ghetto Classics programme, Elizabeth is working with two schools in Korogocho – St John’s Primary School, a Catholic run school, and Ngunyumu Primary School, a city council run school. With the help of 14 volunteer teachers, they teach the students music at least twice a week and also inspire them to aim high in life to achieve their goals. The music lessons are included in the schools’ timetable for class five and six students who are examined and awarded with certificates upon completion.
“One of the music teachers, Simon Ndung’u, who also runs the primary school music programme at Korogocho grew up in the slum. I have enrolled him at the Kenya Polytechnic to pursue a diploma in music. Simon serves as a great source of inspiration for the students he teaches and through him many have come to really enjoy music and change their attitude to life,” says Elizabeth.
Three very talented children in the Ghetto Classic programme have auditioned at the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya (KNYO), which brings together children from high-cost schools as well as average schools countrywide to compete. This exposure provides an opportunity for students to come together and build bonds irrespective of their socio-economic, ethnic or regional backgrounds.
Elizabeth says that although many of the Korogocho slum students may not necessarily become musicians, the discipline of music that includes constant practice, learning something complex, commitment and hard work equips them with important life’s skills. Through this exposure to music the children have not only gained self-confidence but have also had several opportunities to go to different places, meet, interact and network with people they would probably have never met under normal circumstances.
“The greatest lesson these children learn from this exposure is that they can be anything they want to be in life and that all they need to do is to rise above their present circumstances,” Elizabeth says. Most of the volunteer teachers who teach the children in the programme are currently KNYO students, a relationship Elizabeth nurtures and supports, and is also very proud of.
Elizabeth says she in now more aware of her blessings. “It is easy to complain in life but I have learnt to be thankful to God and not to take things for granted. You learn that you are not the ultimate source of knowledge and that you have to allow yourself to be surprised at life,” she says. She appreciates that life has brought the best and worst in her, adding that she has become more resourceful as well as inspiring so as to translate her dream into reality.
She admits there are times she wonders if she is on the right path and whether she should have stuck on in the corporate world. “At times, especially when I lack enough funding to support my course, I worry. However, the sense of satisfaction I get from what I do, the change I see among the children I work with, coupled with God’s provision through the tough times encourages me to soldier on,” she says.
Elizabeth relies on both individuals and corporate companies to support her through sponsorships and donations. Some of the sponsorships come in the form of buying a table at their annual fundraising dinner, purchasing musical instruments, sponsoring a seat in the orchestra, sponsoring a child’s musical education for a year, becoming a friend of the Art of Music Foundation, or through money donations.
She is thankful to the German and Polish embassies in Nairobi who are her biggest sponsors as well as her family, friends, acquaintances and corporate companies who have stood with her.
Leaving a legacy…
Elizabeth would like to be remembered as one who inspired others to be greater than they would have imagined. She hopes to give the children in Korogocho the tools they need to change their lives.
Elizabeth is a soon to be mum. “I feel very blessed and am looking forward to being a great parent and bringing up my child in the best way I know,” she says excitedly, adding that the children from Korogocho who she works with are her other newfound family.
She is of the opinion that anyone can make a difference from where they are. All one needs to do is look for opportunities around them and use their gifts, talents and what they enjoy doing everyday to touch somebody’s life. She adds that choosing to do what one loves vis-à-vis what pays one’s bills is often scary, daring, and less secure.
“It comes with a price, which you must be willing to pay but it is the most blessed and fulfilling thing. Although it may be difficult initially, you can be sure eventually you will make a success out of it if you don’t give up,” she says in conclusion.
Published on April 2013