I was excited to be invited to Africa to teach & play the oboe in an Easter concert in Kampala, Uganda. About five years ago I visited South Africa and taught oboe and bassoon as a volunteer with the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra program, but I had never been to Uganda & I was really unsure what I would find there.
I began my adventure in South Africa where I met up with my good friend Penny Fraser who plays Principal Bassoon with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Penny and I first met as young musicians in Sydney, performing with the ABC Sinfonia, and Penny has been living and working as a professional musician in Johannesburg for around thirty years.
On my first day in Johannesburg, Penny took me to Soweto to teach students from the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra (JYO) Program. I taught a young oboe player how to play fork F and took some beginner bassoon students for their weekly lesson. Soweto is an urban settlement or “township” next door to Johannesburg where black people live. This is a hangover from the South African policy of “apartheid” or racial segregation and Soweto is still very much a black area with a lot of poverty and disadvantage. Penny and I were the only white teachers at the JYO music school that morning and I was thrilled to see so many local children learning & playing musical instruments of all kinds. The JYO music program appears to have funding but the money is inconsistent. Penny teaches for months at a time without being paid & gets a surprise when her teaching money eventually arrive.
In Johannesburg people live behind electric barbed wire fences and have bars on their doors & windows. When driving in the car, valuables are kept out of sight and musical instruments & and handbags must be put in the boot of the car. On our trip to Soweto, we drove on back roads to avoid traffic jams and police road blocks. We drove through red traffic lights without stopping in places where car-jacking is known to happen. Penny checks the traffic daily to find the safest route to travel. In spite of this, Penny loves her job in the Orchestra, the people, the colour & vibrancy of South Africa.
After a brief visit to Johannesburg, Penny & I flew to Uganda in Central Africa. We arrived safely in Nairobi but were prevented from boarding our connecting flight to Uganda. No reason was given but it seems that Kenya Airways had over booked & moved us to another flight departing seven hours later. Hot and exhausted we waited at the uncomfortable Nairobi airport and arrived in Uganda at 2 o’clock in the morning. Our Orchestra conductor Nicklus Kiberu, also waited all night at the airport in Uganda to meet us and drive us to our accommodation in Kampala. This was memorable journey as it was very dark and pouring with rain. We took back roads as Nicklus was concerned there might be bandits on the main road. We nearly had an accident when our car swerved wildly to miss a crazy person walking in the middle of the road in the pouring rain. We finally arrived, exhausted at our guesthouse just before dawn.
The next day we were delighted to find we had a lovely view of St Paul’s Cathedral from our balcony. And, on the other side of the guesthouse, was an amazing view over the city of Kampala.
We took a day to recover and then we met our students and taught some lessons at the Rafiki Foundation Orphanage. Diana, James & Brian were very keen to learn & so excited to have teachers who play the oboe & the bassoon. They usually have lessons with Nicklus Kiberu, who is a conductor and violinist and teaches regularly at the Orphanage. Nicklus is more than a just music teacher to his students as many of them are orphans.
The Rafiki Foundation Orphanage is the home of Diana pictured above. Diana is seventeen years old and in year 11 at school. Diana loves playing the oboe and achieved a credit in her ABRSM exam last year. She is studying hard at school as she wants to be an aeronautical engineer. James is also a very keen oboe player & he works as a graphic designer. He is 26 years old & enjoys playing in the orchestra in his spare time. Brian, the bassoon student was one of the keenest young players I’ve ever met. The instruments these students use are very old and in poor condition. They leak badly and don’t play low notes. A pad fell of James’s oboe onto the floor while we were having a lesson & we picked it up & stuck it back on again. But the students persevere & do their best to achieve regardless.
The day before Easter was our first visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral. We had a woodwind sectional tutorial and a full orchestra rehearsal with the soloists. While we were waiting for the students to arrive, Penny and I took refuge from the heat of the sun inside the Cathedral. The weather was exceptionally hot & humid. There was a choir singing and a confirmation service was in progress. There were more than fifty young girls dressed in white and as many boys taking turns to receive the blessing of the Bishop who was in full ceremonial dress. The parents were also beautifully dressed in suits and colourful full length dresses. It was clearly an important day for these Christian families as confirmation is seen as a rite of passage in this community.
One morning, Penny & I went looking for a café and got lost walking on the streets of Kampala. We ended up flagging down a motor cycle taxi known as a Boda-boda. This was a lot of fun as we both piled on the back of the motorbike but perhaps not the safest way to get around. The traffic in Kampala is incredibly bad & it can take over an hour to drive a just few kilometres, so it’s not surprising that Boda-boda’s are a popular means of transport as they can drive around the traffic jams. People just flag down a motorbike & hop on the back, along with their bags & children. It’s common to see entire families riding on a motorcycle in Uganda.
At the Good Friday Concert at St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Bivuga Sinfonia played Bach, Handel & Mendelssohn. The concert was well received by a mixed black and white audience and afterwards we were treated to a delicious meal of traditional food wrapped in banana leaves.
Our second concert was at the Rafiki Foundation Orphanage outside Kampala, the home of a large number of the orchestra members. Our audience was made up of local people from the village & the orphanage. There were many small black children who waited happily for over half an hour for the concert to start as the cello soloist was delayed in traffic. The orchestra members got tired of waiting and wandered off the stage, but the small children in the audience sat quietly in anticipation as they had never seen anything like an orchestra concert before. It was such a worthwhile experience!
After the second concert, Penny and I spent another week in Uganda. We travelled near to the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We saw wild chimpanzees in their natural forest habitat and stayed at Semliki Safari Lodge in the savannah beneath the beautiful Rwenzori Mountains of the moon. We went on open safari drives through the lush green grasslands and saw abundant wildlife, antelopes, buffalo and one afternoon I shared the pool with a thirsty black and white Colobus Monkey. We took a boat trip on Lake Albert which was still, like glass in the early morning, and teeming with birdlife. We saw a rare Shoebill & watched local fishermen at work in small boats out on the lake.
Uganda is a beautiful & colourful country with some stunning scenery and amazing wildlife. But life is hard for many people in Uganda. I will remember most the beautiful smiles and the kindness & generosity of the people we met. We were looked after so well & our visit was very much appreciated.
Nicklus Kiberu dreams that the Bivuga Sinfonia will one day play at a professional standard and he has started by training the children from the beginning. Nicklus is working to raise enough money to continue the classical music program & to foster the talent of the young people of Uganda.
Linda Jane Stacy BMus, GradDipMus, MTeach
Oboist and Oboe teacher, Sydney, Australia