Africa is changing, and this is how you know: A career day at a high school, Lupita Nyong'o Effect, and the opera

It points to the growing popularity of classical and jazz music among the youth, who are stereotyped as only liking the loud, noisy, "annoying" stuff.

A FORTNIGHT ago, a number of us old girls of Alliance Girls High School in Kenya went back to our former school for a career day.

We were there to inspire the students and give some career advice – but mostly, it was a day to be stared at by teenage girls, which, I think, is as big an inspiration as anything we could have said. Our mere presence gave them hope that there is life after the banality of boarding school.

I was speaking to a group of about thirty 14-15 year olds students in the morning session, and to a bigger group of about three hundred 15-16 year olds in the afternoon.

Now, for those who may not be familiar with it, Alliance Girls is one of the most prestigious girls secondary schools in the country; the competition to get in is incredible – I have seen parents camp every day at the principal’s office for weeks, just to get a word in edgewise.

The students are drawn from every corner of Kenya, and many of the girls there were the best in their district, county or even the country as a whole in the primary leaving exams.

It means that the school has produced a long line of prominent old girls in its 67-year history. Many were “first woman in Kenya” to do such-and-such: first woman cabinet minister (Nyiva Mwendwa), first woman presidential candidate (Charity Ngilu), first woman head of the civil service (Dr Sally Kosgei), first woman judge of High Court (Lady Justice Effie Owuor), even a First Lady (Lucy Kibaki)… you get the point.

What girls want

To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting any surprises. Girls from Alliance (myself included, when I was there) typically want to be oncologists or endocrinologists (not mere “doctors”), aeronautical or mechatronic engineers, and more recently, actuarial scientists.

Even law isn’t so highly regarded, maybe because it doesn’t have a fancy qualifier – except one girl I heard say she wants to be a human rights lawyer.

I presumed they would regard me as a somewhat interesting curiosity, but ultimately journalist doesn’t have the razzmatazz of paediatric neurosurgeon.

Everything was pretty much going according to the script – half the room raised their hands when asked, who wants to become a doctor?

But I was in for a big surprise when we later asked them to write down any questions they had and pass them forward. Nearly three quarters of the questions were directed to me, the journalist, as opposed to the doctor and researcher I was sharing the panel with.

Several notes had girls saying wanted to be writers, journalists, actresses, film directors, playwrights and novelists, but they were afraid of disappointing their parents, as they had been told that a career in the arts was a “waste of time”, and that there was “no money in that”.

One 14-year-old even told me that she was very disappointed and cried every day since she got accepted into the school, because her dream was to go to an international/British system school and follow in the footsteps of her hero, Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o (but at least was happy that my being there had shown her that all is not lost).

This was incredibly shocking to me – it’s like being disappointed you got into Harvard or Yale.

This is how you know the world has changed; if a girl in that type of school wants to be an actress – I think it is safe to say that Kenya now has its first, real celebrity. Call it the Lupita effect.

It signals a small, yet perceptible shift in the “acceptability” of the arts as a proper career, and can be related to the growing popularity of classical and jazz music among the youth, who are stereotyped as only liking the loud, noisy, “annoying” stuff. 

Safaricom Youth Orchestra

A few weeks ago, the all-girls Moipei Quartet made history as the first non-Americans to sing the American national anthem before a major basketball game, when they sang at the NBA playoffs between the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers in April.

The Quartet – made up of 20-year-old triplets Mary, Magdalene and Marta, and their 18-year-old sister Seraphine – are classically trained musicians famously known for their operatic vocals, and have already been performing for over a decade.

Last year, more than 150 teenagers in Nairobi auditioned to join the inaugural group of the Safaricom Youth Orchestra, 63 of them between ages 10 to 18 were accepted. What’s amazing is that students from all corners of the city turned up at the auditions – from the fanciest schools to those deep in the slums.

Still, Kenya is late to the party. South Africa has a long tradition of classical music and opera.

Pumeza Matshikiza is one of the new generation of young, black opera singers who burst into the limelight with her debut recording Voice of Hope, and, especially, with her performance at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last year.

A few months ago, I watched a documentary on Serge Kakudji, a Congolese opera singer from Lubumbashi, who has been transfixing audiences in Europe; the biography on his website says he fell in love with opera as a young boy, listening to cassette tapes of opera recordings in his room, and at just 17 composed and performed “Likembe Opera,” the first opera in Swahili.

The documentary Rêve Kakudji highlights then 20-year-old Kakudji’s return to his hometown where he gets mobbed on the streets like a real rock star, and people cry when he sings.

It’s astonishing to see that kind of passion for an art form that has been described as “typically associated with high-class Europeans in funny costumes who sing notes that annoy and baffle the average joe.” But Africa, just like my former high school, is changing.

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