Diversity Corridors: Collaborative Practices for Community in Africa

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Diversity Corridors: Collaborative Practices for Community in Africa

Levi Wataka, Musical Director, National Youth Orchestra of Kenya


Levi Wataka conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya, 2016. Photo: Paul Munene, Quaint Photography

Continental Africa’s rapid and at times disruptive development over the past 150 years has led to systemic changes in our concept of, and approach to, life, culture, and economy as we adapt to the “modern world.” Still, cultural expression—including musical performance—has essentially remained traditional. This is especially true from an economic perspective; expressions of cultural heritage are often viewed as less profitable than ventures in agriculture, mining, tourism, or technology. The survival needs of underserved populations in rural areas and settlements across African cities, where basic sustenance overrides concepts of heritage, identity, and culture, have led many to interrogate the arts’ role in building social foundations for community.

Nevertheless, many community-based instrumental music programs have been founded to preserve those very foundations. Though these programs tend to work in isolation, there is much to be gained from creating corridors among them in Africa. Through them, lessons and practices can be exchanged in ways that consolidate individual programs’ spirit and strengths into a synergy of African endeavor. I call these pathways “diversity corridors”—and for arts organizations facing practical and ethical challenges, it is morally imperative that we begin building them.

As the Musical Director of the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya, a Director at the Safaricom Youth Orchestra and Ghetto Classics Organization, and Resident Conductor of the Nairobi Orchestra, I have observed the music for social change movement in Africa for nearly 20 years. In that time, I have come to learn that building on the contributions of individual members is as important as fundraising and publicity. What truly sustains community action programs? Above all, the collective spirit to forge forward together, allowing every member—from youngest to oldest, from beginner to advanced—to contribute to their community in a meaningful way. These advances are slow, but certain; like growing a garden, it takes time and effort for things to take root. And like a community garden, the results are immensely, irreversibly rewarding for everyone.

I have also observed that, in discussing the motivation to establish cultural initiatives for social action, many program founders speak on ethical reasons—poverty, education, security, economics. These initiatives are meant to impact broader social issues, which in turn shape how individuals and families interact with each other in their communities. This is based on the idea that the minor ethical judgments we make in everyday life are intuitive, influenced by ever-changing circumstances, and often unrecognizable in the moment. Only through the accumulation of these infinitesimal micro-ethical moments do we create our current, large-scale ethical landscapes.

But if programs hope to impact social issues in a top-down way, they must also share their learning with each other. For instance, The Art of Music Foundation and the Ghetto Classics program in Kenya, Mbale Brass Band and M-LISADA in Uganda, and Kinshasa Symphony in Congo are successful community music programs who all aim to alleviate socioeconomic, cultural, and educational challenges through instrumental music. A vibrant exchange—a corridor—of direct collaboration between these programs is an ethical necessity to solving collective African problems that manifest in similar ways across the continent. Just as individual member cooperation is the backbone of each program, collaborative pathways will contribute to success on a continental scale as well.

Levi Wataka. Photo: Paul Munene, Quaint Photography.

Diversity corridors may also accelerate progress at the community level, which could result in a collective community movement across Africa in ways that we have not seen before. For example, the Mbale Schools Band performed at the 2021 Whit Friday Championship alongside almost 90 other brass bands from Europe and the USA. The young players from Mbale are likely to attract and inspire support for their program from other brass bands through their participation. Such support usually goes towards much needed resources, instruments, sheet music, teacher training, and even funding through grants.

Across the border in Kenya, the Ghetto Classics project was represented alongside youth from Switzerland and Mexico in an exchange program held in Lausanne in January 2020. This visit also led to efforts by players in Switzerland and Mexico to support Ghetto Classics in different ways. There are many more initiatives in schools, churches, and universities in Africa, where collaborations with counterparts in the developed world pursue wholesome human expression, dignity, identity, and meaning for the underprivileged. But there are not as many corridors between these programs within Africa.

The term “diversity corridors” is an invitation for Africa’s community music projects to actively collaborate in thought leadership. These projects were established to fight against very real challenges; understanding and sharing those challenges will help us all to make a larger difference sooner. Diversity corridors may also open between European and American partners, whose situations are largely similar on their side of the world, and who have taken up the noble task to support programs in less economically affluent parts of the world. Lessons learned from an exchange in Nairobi can be shared in London, with experiences from Kinshasa. And together each partner’s efforts will go a longer distance than they would alone.

As we enjoy the stories of our Sistema-inspired counterparts from across the world, this is an invitation to reach out to each other. To choose coalition over isolation. To open corridors between us, through which stories, lessons, challenges, successes, solutions, and social harmony will travel new pathways home.


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