BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE | FROM THE SUMMER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Group excursions to Africa to see exotic animals and experience different cultures are not a new phenomenon for Westerners. But when the whole group has ukuleles, that’s a bit of a different tune. It’s even more unusual when the group donates ukuleles to schools and teaches kids to play an instrument they’ve likely never seen before.
“That’s the secret plan, to invade Kenya with ukuleles!” says Michela Consiglio. She’s been a lodge manager for Sunworld Safaris for more than ten years, and during the pandemic fell in love with the ukulele. When the world started opening up for travel again, she had the wild idea to bring groups of fellow uke enthusiasts to experience the beauty of her adopted homeland. It became a reality when the first trip brought about a dozen strummers to Kenya in November 2022.
“Everybody was telling me it was a good idea, but nobody believed it was going to happen,” says the Sicily-born Consiglio, who moved to Kenya 16 years ago. At first, she really just wanted other people to play ukulele with. That part did happen—each night the ukulele safari group would sit around and write songs about their day. “We wrote a song about elephant poo, ants in the pants, lazy leopard blues, weaverbirds. We took everything nature gave us during the safari to compose music. With a teacher, it was like having a small orchestra, because each of us was playing a different part.”
But from the get-go, her “secret plan” was already in motion. The local kids she met at the lodge that serves as the home base for the tours all loved playing with the ukuleles she has displayed on the wall there. So she enlisted the help of a ukulele teacher she knew of from the Netherlands, Boris Mogilevski, to bring the joy of the instrument to them on a larger scale.
Like many modern uke teachers, Mogilevski gives lessons online to students around the world and has become adept at teaching first-timers how to get the most out of their instrument. He quickly agreed to join the group not only to facilitate for the safari group, but also to help with teaching the kids some basics to get them started on their new instruments, 60 of which were purchased from a small local shop in Kenya and 12 donated by Kala.
“For many of us, I think it became the highlight of what we were doing there,” he says. “All of us wanted to feel that we were there to bring some of our knowledge and skills and share it with the community. Nothing beats the idea of giving and sharing our passion and love of music with kids.”
The group visited one rural school, one school in the capital city of Nairobi, and one nonprofit home for girls who had been in dangerous situations. “I was thrilled that I was able to give back,” says JuliAnne Kaplan, a photographer from California who was a member of the safari group. Not only were the ukuleles completely new to the kids, she says, but in some instances meeting visitors who looked nothing like them was a new experience as well. “They were amazing kids,” she says. Despite some communication barriers, the music lessons started to take hold quickly. “They listened, they really were trying.”
At each school, Mogilevski gave a small performance followed by a group lesson for students and teachers. “The kids and teachers were shown all the possibilities of sound the ukulele can make,” says Leru Adams, a member of the safari group from Oregon who has been playing uke since last July. “It was a spiritual experience as well as a grounding experience.”
“I’ve been teaching since I was 17, and I thought I was prepared,” says Mogilevski.
“On an emotional level, when you enter the school, and you see the classroom and everything is in such a bad condition, you become very overwhelmed with everything around you. And the energy those kids give you is mind-blowing.” His lesson plan quickly went out the window. “You forget whatever you had in mind to do, because the kids, they kind of guide you.” As an example, he described the immediate excitement at the rural school he visited. “The moment I took the ukulele out of the case, 60 kids ran to me and I could barely stand on my feet.”
So far there are trips planned for November 2023 and March 2024. Consiglio says the goal now is to keep bringing ukuleles to the schools, but also to bring more teachers on future safaris—not to teach the students but to educate the educators and keep the music flowing. Right now she’s keeping in touch with the three schools and checking in regularly on their progress and to see how she can help. She’s been sending them helpful online lessons and videos to supplement the lack of in-person ukulele instruction.
Ideally there would be regular ukulele instruction from live teachers, so Consiglio is raising funds to pay expenses for teachers who are interested in coming to work with the kids. She’s also been in touch with a Ugandan ukulele nonprofit to set up a volunteer program to train teachers.
“People bring books, pens, and shoes. But these things will disappear,” she says. “We need to bring skills. Music will stay with them their entire life.”
“In the beginning, I didn’t believe that this was even going to happen,” adds Mogilevski, who is also working on raising funds to bring ukulele teachers to Kenya. “But we pulled it off, we managed, and we are not planning to stop.”