Life-changing doesn't begin to describe Nicole Kukieza's experience in Kenya.
The Seneca Valley High School Class of 2009 graduate recently visited the African country for two weeks, from July 5 to 21, as part of the Art of Music Foundation. She was able to participate due to a fellowship granted to her by the Fund for Teachers Fellowship.
Located in Nairobi, Kenya, Art of Music was founded in 2009. According to its official statement, Art of Music has a “mission to promote the performance and appreciation of art music in Kenya and use its transformative power to change lives, particularly of those living in underprivileged areas of the country.”
Art of Music has two programs: Ghetto Classics and the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya.
Ghetto Classics involves more than 500 children in the Korogochu neighborhood of Nairobi and more in the surrounding Kiambu and Mombasa areas. The program uses recorders and music.
The orchestra has children from all over the country involved.
During her time in Kenya, Kukieza focused on both groups. She went to various slums and low-income areas to teach children the recorder and, with the orchestra, she prepared her students to play for former President Barack Obama.
“The kids were just so eager to learn and hungry for knowledge,” Kukieza said. “I never really experienced anything like that before. It was pretty incredible.”
Kukieza said the children were happy to have a visitor, someone to whom they could show off their country.
“They channeled that excitement through wanting to learn,” Kukieza said. “It was pretty amazing that, despite their circumstances, they were excited to learn. They are so proud of their country.”
Despite being in one of the more dangerous parts of Kenya, Kukieza said she never felt unsafe. She was on school grounds at almost all times. However, she admits that at first, she was nervous about traveling all the way to Africa. Her nerves were soothed rather quickly, she said.
“The media paints this picture of Africa, specifically East Africa, as this giant third-world nation,” Kukieza said.
“Those fears and concerns were unfounded. There are certainly differences between the United States and Kenya, but I never felt unsafe. We traveled to some of the most dangerous places in the country, but I was so welcomed in every part,” she said.
Kukieza said her experience was “eye-opening” and that she left Kenya with a greater perspective of the world.
“It showed me the importance of education,” she said.
After learning from Kukieza, 20 students had the opportunity to travel to Poland to participate in a music festival.
“It was incredible to be with them as they were getting ready for the trip,” she said. “Most of them never thought they'd get on an airplane and travel to a different country. Seeing how all of that was achieved through music and education was so validating. Music and education in the arts does matter.”
“Music will take you places, and it was cool to see that firsthand.”
The other 20 students in the orchestra that didn't go to Poland played in front of Obama. One of the pieces they performed was only practiced one other time.
“I wasn't sure how it was going to go, but their level was so high that they were able to play this piece a second time and get it correct,” Kukieza said. “I received so many compliments on how well it sounded, but seeing their faces for how proud they were of themselves, that was my favorite moment.”
The piece was also played at a community showcase in Nairobi.
Kukieza said she's excited to bring her experience in Kenya to her students at Britt Elementary School, in Snellville, Ga., for the upcoming school year.
“There's a huge importance on having music in your life,” she said.