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The Talented Choir That Never Had A Music Lesson

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From humble beginnings to the limelight in  Hollywood, their success is for every ordinary African with big dreams and a bigger mission.

From the dusty rural Moutse village in South Africa’s Limpopo province to the bright lights of Hollywood, the Ndlovu Youth Choir have proven there can be no impediment to global glory if your ambition is great and your passion greater.

When this group of young boys and girls came together, little did they know the world would rise in unison to applaud them. Late last year, their turn as the finalists of America’s Got Talent, a televized American talent show competition in the United States created by Simon Cowell, earned them prowess and praise.

So when an opportunity came to meet them at popular South African restaurant Nando’s in the suburb of Lorentzville in Johannesburg, during a launch event last month, I seized it with conviction and my camera.

The choir’s co-founder and choirmaster Ralf Schmitt started from the beginning, about how he got involved with the group at the opening of the amphitheater in the village of Moutse.

READ MORE | Soweto Gospel Choir: Three Heavy Grammys And A World Singing Their Praise

What started out as a mission to serve the community ended up becoming an even greater force – on the world stage.

“This is the same village that raised the Ndlovu Youth Choir powered by the Ndlovu Care Group. The group was doing amazing work with HIV awareness and treatment in the early 2000s and the amphitheater was built for the community to gather, receive information and do drama workshops around HIV/AIDS.”

Schmitt was contacted to do music for the opening in 2008 because of his track-record in the industry, as he was also part of the internationally-renowned Drakensburg Boys’ Choir.

“I’ve always loved choir and singing. I went on to study music and it worked from day one. I started conducting school choirs and worked with young people. I love composing, I love conducting, I love performing and I love teaching and the medium of a choir allows me to do them all,” he enthuses.

These young people can be the beacons of what’s possible in a rural community.

Ralf Schmitt

He had originally suggested they start a brass band but because of their location in Limpopo, far from big city Johannesburg, it would have been difficult for the teachers and trainers to regularly access and develop them.

The choir became the obvious choice as part of the orphans and vulnerable children’s program at the Ndlovu Care Group.

The horrific HIV pandemic had left many orphaned and the program was meant as a healing curriculum for the community. It became so successful that when it came for the participants to leave school, they were not willing to leave the program as they were unable to find employment or afford secondary education.

Schmitt says thus an idea of transforming the choir into a platform to generate an income for unemployed youth was born.

READ MORE | The Choirboy Inspired By Criminals

Today, the choir boasts about 40 members and includes a job creation program for the older singers who do most of the performances.

The choir has also started a home schooling program for learners – a full-time tutor travels with them locally and internationally.

“When we turned professional in 2018, it took about six months to get us going. I called a few people I knew in the industry and bookings were coming in slow,” recalls Schmitt.

“We needed a product and the arrangement we did of a Zulu version of Shape Of You by Ed Sheeran, brilliantly translated by Sandile Majola and Sipho Hleza, went massively viral on social media and had 25 million views and that got the nation’s attention and that was the first time we got serious publicity and bookings started flooding in.” 

Soon after, the choir performed live for a South African radio station and that’s where America’s Got Talent heard the Zulu arrangement and made contact and asked for videos.

He remembers he couldn’t get the videos out to the producers because of service delivery protests in the area. The choir conductor was blocked by an angry mob with burning tyres and rocks, but that didn’t stop the choir from performing at the Derby Theatre miles away from home.

“I am so pleased that these young people can be the beacons of what’s possible in a rural community, every single one of them are from that community and not anyone went and studied music at tertiary level, all that is produced is raw talent and they never had a music lesson in their life. As the artistic director, I try very hard at preserving that talent because that’s the magic,” he says.

The first time they got on stage, he recalls thinking that the audience didn’t know them; they probably just saw the group as kids from a rural community in South Africa.

However, the warmth they received was unforgettable. Whereas, in comparison, the experience at America’s Got Talent was intense and draining, but exhilarating, he recalls.

“It was nerve-racking when the music went down and the lights dimmed and Gabrielle Union [American actress] screamed ‘you are going through!’ and everyone just lost their minds. It was special we were through to the live finale.”

Thulisile Masanabo is one of the senior members in the choir who also assists with wardrobe. She has been with the choir since 2013 when she was 16 and very shy.

READ MORE | ‘Don’t Be Afraid To Bend The Rules’ – Miss Universe

“I used to stand at the back of the row at the beginning. As the years went, I began to gain confidence and moved to the third row, then second, now, I’m in the first row,” says Masanabo. 

She opened the song Africa by Toto wearing bright yellow garments to a noisy and ecstatic American crowd.

Looking back, she chuckles saying she had auditioned singing the South African national anthem.

“I was on my way back from school and Sandile called me in. He was standing outside and just calling people in to audition. He didn’t want to know if you can or cannot sing,” Masanabo says of her recruitment into the group.

All members of the choir are under the age of 30; among them, is 25-year-old Majola who helped arrange the Zulu version of Shape Of You.

He joined when he was a 14-year-old school boy accompanying his sister to the auditions.

“I was invited inside to try my luck on August 23, 2009,” he recalls vividly.

“I first traveled internationally with the choir in 2011 to Holland and the performance was average, it was not as nice as we perform today.”

He says the choir upped his self-esteem and he now can communicate better with people and perform more effectively on stage.

One of the songs instilled in him was written by Schmitt titled Believe dedicated to the choir.

 “The message was for us, but now, it’s for other young people as well. They should never stop dreaming,” says Majola.

This young group of music-lovers is testament that believing and dreaming big can indeed make you cross borders.

Their journey was from a tiny village, to grabbing the limelight in one of the globe’s biggest talent search shows. The world is now truly their stage.

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We have grown past the stage of fairy-tale. As women, we have one common front and that is to succeed. We have to take the bull by the horn and make the change happen by ourselves.

– Folorunso Alakija, Billionaire Businesswoman

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“The best view comes after the hardest climb.”

– Unknown

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Covid-19 In Kenya: ‘We Are No Longer Dreaming’

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Kamweti wa Mutu with his two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, with their Golden Retriever, Nalia, pictured at their home in Nairobi; image supplied

Kenya is perhaps one of the quieter domains of the global Covid-19 pandemic. However, as its hold intensifies across the country, Kenyans, from all walks of life, have found themselves not only preparing for the worst but also taking stock of the impact it has already had on their lives.

By his own admission, Musa Esevwe, a 49-year-old sculptor and entrepreneur, had never, in his life, experienced trouble with his sleep. That is until Covid-19 arrived in his hometown, Nairobi, in mid-March.

Within the space of a week, a national curfew was announced via Presidential address. Not long after, as confirmed cases jumped to 91, a partial lockdown was imposed around the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, restricting the movement of people in to, and out of, the city.

Travel was tightly regulated and international flights temporarily suspended. The few who do manage to make it to the country, by road or sea, must endure a mandatory two-week quarantine, at the border, before they can obtain official approval to proceed to their final destination.

Meanwhile, inside Kenya’s borders, lives changed overnight. Intensive lockdown measures severely hampered trading for both informal vendors and businesses, causing upheaval in some areas. In April, small business owners clashed with police over the forced closure of their establishments, in Nyeri, a busy provincial hub in Central Kenya.

Schools have been shut since March and, while official numbers are yet to be published, thousands have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Those, still fortunate to be in employment, have had to transform their homes into offices.

“It is like a very bad dream that we are living in now. The happiness and security we once had has gone… we are no longer dreaming, even for those who can still sleep,” says Esevwe whose own business, which was heavily dependent on the disposable income of the middle class and occasional tourists, has been destroyed by the pandemic.

Along with Esevwe, among the hardest hit are the nation’s families, who, for months now, have been confined to their houses.

The lockdown period has been particularly difficult for Kamweti wa Mutu, an international development professional and amateur nature photographer, living in Nairobi. Currently out of work, and with his wife, now the family’s sole breadwinner, stationed in Tanzania, he’s had to play multiple roles to keep his household afloat.

“The quarantine order [on March 13] was sudden, but commendably prompt, meaning it was a somewhat tough transition getting our two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, settled into home-schooling routines. After a week, we [had to] put our house-help on leave, with some pay, so as not to place [any] undue risk on either her or us,” he says.

Prior to the pandemic, Mutu was actively looking for work. However, the economic turmoil set off by the virus is now a cause for concern.

“I have struggled to find full-time employment for a while [now] but my family has been very supportive with understanding and prayers. The kids have a good grasp of this, in light of the pandemic, but it’s not [yet] getting them anxious. As a household currently on one income, this aspect is a grave one. Most worrisome is my wife losing her post [because of the pandemic], or worse, one of our family members falling ill,” he continues.

Perhaps the most traumatic impact of Covid-19 on the family is their separation. With travel into Kenya currently restricted, Mutu’s wife won’t be able to return until her consultancy with an environmental organization in Tanzania concludes.

When she does, it will probably have to be by road as international flights are suspended. After crossing the border, she’ll have to spend 14 days at a quarantine center, receiving a special permit to enter Nairobi only once she tests negative for the virus.

While this has added an extra layer of anxiety to their situation, the family is choosing to focus on the bigger picture, insists Mutu.

“We have talked a bit about this, and what it would mean for a normal life, even beyond the current situation. However, we have not delved deeply into worst-case scenarios other than how Covid-19 is devastating other families and societies. We have stocked up on enough essentials including non-perishable foodstuffs, water, face-masks, and power to last us a while.”

Elsewhere in the city, Sophie O, who asked that we change her name for this report, is also finding life under lockdown a challenge. The 30-year-old Marketing Manager works for a major multinational in Nairobi and is doing her best to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of being based from home.

“It’s been quite difficult especially because I have three children; a nine-month old, a two-year-old and a six-year-old. It’s been hard for the two-year-old to understand that I am ‘at work’, he keeps barging into [work] calls and expecting us to play. Now, I have to keep my camera off during conference calls although ideally, as a standard, it would have to be on,” she says.

With schools now closed, and most students across the country taking classes virtually, many parents, especially those with younger children, are burdened with the added responsibility of home-schooling. In this, Ms O admits that she is struggling.

“Personally, I’ve really done my best just keeping track with all the lessons they have to do. I think probably if I didn’t have to be ‘at work’, I could have done a better job in terms of being there for my daughter but it’s quite a challenge. You have to work because work pays the bills and work also pays the school fees,” she says.

Factors, firmly out of her control, are also impacting her productivity.

“The practicalities of working from home, like having a workstation, I have had to figure out. But with the internet… some days it’s good, some days it’s bad, and some days you have a blackout and there’s nothing you can do!” she laments.

The experience of both these families hints at the wider setbacks being faced by businesses and the Kenyan economy, as a whole. From Nairobi, Edwin Macharia, Global Managing Partner at multinational advisory firm, Dalberg Advisors, has been leading a fortnightly webinar series advising African leaders and policymakers on how best to respond to the ongoing crisis. He insists that they must appreciate the severity of the pandemic’s impact and act accordingly.

“Our job [on the webinar] is to make sure that [leaders] are sufficiently shaken and begin acting appropriately. China bought the world a couple of weeks to prepare and get ‘ahead of the curve’ in terms of intervention but, unfortunately, that jolt wasn’t hard enough in some places. This is very quickly moving from being a health concern to actually being an economic concern,” Macharia warned attendees in early April.

At the time, despite relatively low levels of confirmed cases, African economies were already feeling the pinch with stock markets plummeting and currencies devalued. A few weeks later, as the threat escalated, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) declared that a funding gap of $100 billion needed to be filled in order for governments to battle the pandemic, and its consequences, across the continent.

“The long-term economic effects will become more apparent in the coming months. Inputs not available locally will be inaccessible due to tighter border controls, while markets, for producers serving several industries, will be diminished, leaving many households without a sustainable income,” predicts Macharia.

If they are to have any hope of success, Macharia emphasizes that responses to Covid-19 in Africa will have to be a collaborative effort.

“Flattening the curve demands that governments, institutions, and business leaders are intentional in how they implement their response strategies. Organizations will need to go beyond [their] usual business continuity planning while the public sector needs to re-model institutions in order to slow down the current trajectory of infections while ensuring long-term resilience.”

An example of these wider response strategies are already at work in a number of Kenyan hospitals. Dr Michael Mwachiro, Secretary-General at the Surgical Society of Kenya, is currently stationed at Tenwek Hospital, a faith-based teaching and referral hospital in Bomet County, 230 kilometers west of Nairobi. On May 13, the county recorded its first Covid-19 fatality, at Longisa Hospital, the only public referral hospital in the area.

“We’re now seeing more community-transferred cases in Kenya. I think the advantage that we may have had [compared to] other parts of the world is that we were watching as things were unfolding and, because of that, we had a bit more time to prepare [as a country], and put some measures in place. But if you read the news, or listen to the radio, you’ll hear people complaining that we should have intervened earlier but that’s a difficult thing [to do] if you look at how many stakeholders are involved along with the nature of our economy and public health system,” he says.

Part of these preparations, Mwachiro says, included immediately training the country’s health workers on Covid-19 procedures along with introducing measures preventing the movement of people from hotspots in major cities into rural Kenya, where a bulk of the population lives.

“Nairobi and Mombasa already have containment measures in place. The bigger concern is that, if Covid-19 moves out of the cities to other parts of the country, the effects would be much scarier. These [rural] areas are where the older people are, who are much more vulnerable.”

In addition to the supplementary training for medical personnel, some elective procedures and non-essential surgeries have been put on hold so that all available resources can be committed to fighting the virus at hospitals. However, besides preparedness, maintaining the morale of doctors and nurses will continue to be an ongoing concern throughout the crisis.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well,” he says.

Some medical professionals responding to the crisis, in parts of the country, have had to make the difficult decision to live apart from their families as they work to contain the virus. But the taxing nature of their work, coupled with extended periods of isolation, means that counseling and support services will need to be made available to them as the cases continue to rise.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well.”

As it stands, Kenya, like most of the continent, has not been as badly hit when compared to epicenters in Europe or North America. However, this may be due to the fact that the worst is still on its way. In May, the World Health Organization estimated that up to 190,000 Africans may be killed by the pandemic, at its peak.

With Covid-19 due to exert immense pressure on our public health systems, it does offer some important lessons for the future, explains Mwachiro.

“What this outbreak has brought about, for us in Africa, is [the fact] that we need to invest more in our healthcare systems. This has been said so many times… there have even been a number of strikes [in Kenya] by various stakeholders, all of them trying to highlight these issues. This is a good wake up call. I honestly believe that, if we had spent more on health [before the crisis], it would have gone a long way in helping us to be better prepared. Hopefully, once this [pandemic] resolves, we can keep the momentum going and we can continue looking inwardly for solutions.”

Naturally, Covid-19, with its grim predictions and disruption of lives, has many Kenyans worried about the future. Nevertheless, the challenges of the moment are being met in stride. Families have quickly adjusted to new ways of living while their leaders seek sage advice on how best to address the crisis, and doctors continue to make sacrifices, day in and day out, as they brace for the worst.

Perhaps, most important of all is that, in the pandemic’s wake, hope has become an obstinate presence in all quarters of Kenyan society.

– Marie Shabaya

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