Stories, Not Statistics: Fact-Checking the Impact of Nairobi’s Ghetto Classics

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Stories, Not Statistics: Fact-Checking the Impact of Nairobi’s Ghetto Classics

Ginanne Brownell, author and journalist, London, U.K.


Celine Akumu, second from left, tutors a clarinet practice in summer 2018. Photo: Ginanne Brownell.

A number of years ago, on my way back to London from Tanzania, where I had been researching a potential book, I stopped in Nairobi, Kenya to report out a story for The New York Times about Elizabeth Njoroge, the founder of a youth music program, Ghetto Classics (GC), in one of the city’s most dangerous slums. What I learned about Elizabeth and her program was so powerful and inspiring that I decided that this, instead, was the book I needed to write.

Charity Akinyi and Jimek in rehearsal, Wroclaw 2018. Photo: Jimek and Emalka Ziabska.

Over the last six years, I have gone to Nairobi several times to report out my book. At first, I viewed it as a straight-up narrative nonfiction about the founding of Ghetto Classics and its unlikely growth and reach (over the years, the orchestra has played for the likes of Pope Francis, Barack Obama, and Queen Mathilde of Belgium, and the students have jammed with everyone from South Africa’s Hugh Masekela and Mali’s Selif Keita to American saxophonists Branford Marsalis, Kirk Whalum, and David Sanborn). But I quickly came to realize this was an arts program that was not only changing the community in obvious ways—keeping kids off the streets and away from many of the pitfalls of poverty—but also teaching young people everything from organizational skills to time management.

Over the years, I saw firsthand how young people were benefiting from being in GC: many of the students were getting better grades in school; some of the older students were also getting experience tutoring the younger kids; and over 20 of the GC alums had found jobs in Nairobi’s music education scene. I also saw how their experiences with GC were having multiplier effects on their families, who were playing roles in helping to change and shape their community, from working on poverty alleviation to trying to get the dump closed.

At times, reporting out this book was complicated, in terms of delving into sensitive topics (in a place like Korogocho, domestic and gender-based violence, abuse, crime, and addiction are rife) and issues around child protection. Perhaps an even more important complication was that there was very little statistical evidence to show just how GC had changed the lives of young people. As a journalist, I rely on statistics and percentages to back up my research. But Ghetto Classics, a small not-for-profit arts program with modest financial support, simply doesn’t have the resources to spend on that kind of research.

After tree planting, musicians at St. John’s Korogocho. Photo: Stephanie Schiller.

In fact, many of the anecdotes that were shared with me were impossible to fact-check. Sure, I could verify the dates for concerts or big events where the student orchestra played. But often I could not verify stories: that someone’s sister had died from AIDS; that someone switched from one instrument to another; or that a student’s behavior in school had improved.

Could Ghetto Classics claim that they have saved lives? Anecdotally, there were certainly many examples that suggested this was the case. And while many of these young people could possibly have changed their circumstances of their own volition, being involved with GC has clearly set them on a different trajectory. That the program was founded and is run by a woman has helped give a sense of agency to the girls and young women students. And many young men and women in the program have found mentors who have encouraged them not only in their music but on their education and career paths as well. During Covid, a number of GC students—empowered, one could argue, by their GC experiences—helped set up community initiatives that included visiting the elderly, creating a new vegetable garden on the property where they rehearsed, and setting up a food provision program.

I had to come to terms with the idea that some stories would have to be taken at face value, and then figure out how to present them so that readers would understand they were based on what I was told, not on what I could actually verify. Although many stats didn’t exist, just being at a rehearsal on a given Sunday could make even the biggest cynics question their critiques.

Based on everything I saw and experienced on my visits, I believe that Ghetto Classics has been a game-changer for its students and for the wider Korogocho community, and that its impact will likely be felt for generations to come.

Ginanne Brownell’s book Ghetto Classics: How a Youth Orchestra Changed a Nairobi Slum is available on Amazon.


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