Margaret Wambui, who scavenges in the dump for a living, was so excited to see her 16-year-old son, Simon Mungai, play the trombone that she was the first audience member to arrive. He remembered the exact day he joined the Ghetto Classics program. “It was February the 2nd 2014,” he said. “I remember that day because for me it is like my second birthday.”
Martha Aluoch, 19, agreed. “Elizabeth is like a second mother to me,” she said, packing up her violin after the concert. “What I find here, it is hard to find at home.”
Ms. Njoroge, 45, is a mother figure to the teenagers of the Ghetto Classics program and orchestra, and she is also one of the leading figures for getting young people across Kenya involved in classical music through The Art of Music Foundation, which she created in 2009. The Ghetto Classics orchestra has about 80 members from roughly the ages of 14 to 20, and there are over 600 children from Korogocho and five other poor communities who participate in the Ghetto Classics music education program. In January the Ghetto Classics education program will be expanding to the coastal city of Mombasa.
She also founded the Kenya National Youth Orchestra, or K.N.Y.O., and runs the Safaricom Youth Orchestra, or S.Y.O. The K.N.Y.O. — which started in 2010 and is made up of young people from across the country who are from 14 to 24 — meets three times a year for intensive rehearsals and a few concerts, including a performance in July 2015 at the state dinner held for President Obama. On Oct. 23 the K.N.Y.O. performed with over 250 children from six schools in disadvantaged areas of this city as part of New York’s Carnegie Hall Link Up, a global program that teaches music to young people by having them play with local orchestras.
The S.Y.O., which was formed three years ago by telecom company Safaricom’s chief executive, Bob Collymore, practices every Saturday at the company’s headquarters here. It includes 18 members of the Ghetto Classics orchestra, children from middle-class and wealthy Kenyan families, and expat children. They hold a number of concerts throughout the year including performing at February’s annual Safaricom International Jazz Festival.
“Elizabeth is the indefatigable visionary for the power of classical music in Kenya,” said Eric Booth, a New York-based arts education specialist who has served on the faculty of Juilliard and the Lincoln Center Institute, and who introduced Ms. Njoroge to the people behind Link Up.
Ms. Njoroge grew up near this city and fell in love with music when she began piano lessons at 4. “Music was encouraged until I started my A Levels,” she said, referring to her last two years of school. “That was when I was told ‘no more.’ ”
She studied biochemistry at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada (where she was a member of the school choir and took singing lessons) and had what she calls an “existential crisis” before she began pharmacy school at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.
“My voice teacher in Canada said to me, ‘You need to study music,’ so when I got to Glasgow I went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and picked up a prospectus,” she said with a chuckle. “For one week, I really thought I was going to go for it, but I did not have the guts.” Instead she sang in choirs in her free time, in Glasgow and later when she moved to London to work in hospitals.
When Ms. Njoroge moved back here in 2003, she was struck by not only how few classical music options there were but also how they seemed to mostly focus on the white Kenyan and expat communities. “I think at that time the Nairobi Orchestra had one black person in it,” she said.
She started holding recitals for friends across the city, began a classical music newsletter and then a glossy classical music monthly magazine.