Songs for Kenya

Jan DeGrass / Arts and Entertainment Writer / Staff writer
October 5, 2012 01:00 AM

Honours student Faith Musanga at her graduation Aug. 24 from the University of Nairobi.

A group of singers from the Sunshine Coast is making a difference to a village in Kenya. How this came about has a lot to do with the power of music, because singing is a huge part of the African culture. It also has to do with a Coast resident, Karen Stein, who visited the rural, impoverished village of Isecheno, Kenya in 2007 while volunteering in Africa.

When she returned to Canada, it took a while for her to re-enter this society.

"It's not just jet lag," she said. "It's spirit lag." The memory of the lack of resources stayed with her: no beds or household necessities, no food for some children, lack of fresh water and no chance of further education, particularly for girls.

Stein loves to sing and began a community song circle on the Coast that meets weekly in which she teaches a few African songs, along with joyful songs in English and other languages. That's when singer Vicki Beeman heard about her. Beeman has also spent time in Africa volunteering at an orphanage, and she wanted to help.

Stein and Beeman alternate the Song Circle sessions, which now take place in both Gibsons and Davis Bay. The song evenings are designed to be free flowing, they said. There are some weekly participants and often new faces who may attend for a while, as they like.

"We're dishing out Vitamin H," Stein laughs. It's all about Harmony - some may come for the joy of singing and others because they are wounded and need the uplifting experience. There is no pressure and no sheet music to learn. If you turn up to sing, you may be asked for a suggested donation of $7 and these are the funds that go to the Kenyan project.

The song circle is committed to providing a feeding program at Isecheno's primary School for orphaned children plus any child who goes hungry at home. This is a winner - not only do kids get a meal but it is an incentive to attend school where the group has also provided textbooks and supplies. Two years ago it was their intention to start a sustainable agricultural program for the school to grow beans and maize, the staple of the Kenyan diet. Crop failurethrough drought brought that program to a close. But it was through the school that the singing group learned of Mama Henrietta. She was the school's cook, and after four hours a day of tending a fire, the smoke had damaged her eyes. Henrietta also took care of orphaned children whose families had died from war or disease. When a student brought Henrietta's important role to the group's attention, they quickly raised funds to buy the mother a bed, mattresses for the children, chickens and a cow. Other programs have also begun: a school cultural class in which students of grades 4 to 8 spend after-school time learning their own songs and dances, led by a teacher who is sponsored by a modest donated honorarium.

Stein keeps in close contact through e-mail with Africans who can witness that funds are distributed fairly. Some of her closest connections are those students who have moved on to higher education because they have been helped by private donors from Canada. Through the e-mails and photos that Song Circle participants receive, they can understand more about the lives they have touched.

Anderson Esaranda, for example, a 23-year-old, has been in communication with the group for years now and spent his summers volunteering in Isecheno. He has recently switched from studying engineering to attending courses in diplomacy and disaster management, crucial for Africa's future. He writes: "It's here where we directly encounter the woes of Africa and the plight of the African.For the first time in my life, I have realized that actually Africa is standing at the threshold of guillotines."

Singers have also followed the progress of Faith Musanga, who graduated last August from the University of Nairobi with honours in applied mathematics, but not before confronting obstacles to her education including the sexual advances of a professor. The group collected funds to allow Musanga's mother to travel by bus from her village to attend her daughter's graduation day.

Making this donation feels good for both sides. "You get the blessings back," Beeman said.

To get involved with Community Song Circle, contact either leader: Vicki Beeman at 604-885-7177 for gatherings in Davis Bay or Karen Stein at 604-886-9319 for gatherings on alternate Wednesdays in Gibsons.

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