Cynthia was enchanted. Wherever Sophia Serghi's guitar went in the Kenyan schoolyard, Cynthia was there to pluck at the strings, sing and hum.
A little over a year ago, Cynthia didn't even know how to use her limbs, let alone her voice. Born with an autism-like disability, the child was shunned by her family and chained to a bed in near-total darkness. Finally, she was rescued last year and brought to live at a public school in Kibera, Kenya's largest slum. There, she turned a plastic bucket into an impromptu drum, but that was the extent of her musical training. That is, until Serghi and her guitar showed up.
Serghi, an associate professor of music at William & Mary, met Cynthia and dozens of other children with similar stories during a week-long service trip to their school this summer. During the trip, Serghi helped construct a kitchen, participated in family interventions and taught music classes. Now that experience is serving as inspiration for the music professor's compositions, and she hopes to bring William & Mary students back to participate in ongoing work at the school.
'Outside the self'
Serghi's interest in the school began when she ran across a friend's Facebook photo that included Wangari Maathai, the recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Her organization, The Greenbelt Movement, was working in conjunction with non-profit organizations Cross-Cultural Thresholds and Drug Fighters to rebuild a public school in Kibera that had burned down about four years ago.
A previous group had built showers at the school, and a second group was forming to rebuild the kitchen. Serghi said she signed up in part because she was interested in Africa's music, but she also wanted to do something "outside of the self," she said.
She and eleven other volunteers from around the country traveled to Kenya at the end of June to begin their work.
For part of the day, the group worked on rebuilding the kitchen, which was key to getting the Kenyan government to supply food to the school.
"If there's a finished structure that is approved, then the government will provide food for the school," said Serghi, adding that previously the school's founder, Agnes, raised money to provide the students one meal per day.
"For most of these kids, that's the only meal they'll get in a 24-hour period," said Serghi.
Once word spread through the community that the kitchen was being constructed, people started showing up to help.
"So we'd work, and then we'd leave at 4 o'clock. We'd come back the next day and there was that much more done by those folks," said Serghi. "They got really into it, and without them we would never have been able to finish it."
When they weren't building the kitchen, the group of volunteers also taught various classes at the school, including math and music.
Serghi taught the children some nursery rhymes and English songs. She brought with her a guitar, flute and mandolin as well as 300 kazoos that turned out to be a problem because of the proximity of the tent where music was taught to the rest of the classes going on.
"So the older kids were trying to do math and English, and I'm in my tent handing out kazoos to 6 year olds," said Serghi. "I thought I could control the situation, but it was a big, big mistake. For two hours it was a big commotion -- but of course they loved it."
But Serghi wasn't the only one teaching music. One day, when she had finished her lesson early, she asked the students to teach her something.
"So they started and it was a like a jukebox. It just went on and on and on," she said. "And it's this complicated rhythmic stuff, and it's impeccable and it's joyful and they're so happy to do this and so happy to teach us, and it was really a back and forth. I think my teaching part was a very basic thing. I thought it would be more, but I really got more out of it than they did."
Along with the construction and the classes, the volunteers also helped the school conduct some home visits and interventions for children who were being abused or neglected.
"Most of these children come from really horrific backgrounds," said Serghi.
During one such home visit, Serghi went to the home of a little boy and girl from the school who had AIDS. They, along with several other children, were living with an elderly grandmother who was also suffering from AIDS. Among the children was a girl in her late teens who had recently had a baby as a result of being raped. She was engaged to be married; however, according to her tribe's customs, she was not allowed to bring any previous children into her new marriage. But her husband-to-be said that she could keep the child if she got a job and supported it.
Serghi was moved to action by the visit, and "I basically adopted the entire family," she said. She is working with a social worker there to send the family money for food, medicine, tuition and other needs.
"And if the mother actually abandons the baby, I will intervene," she said.
Serghi said that the mix of experiences on the trip was bittersweet.
"We had these great moments and then moments of absolute desperation," she said. "I mean, who are you going to rescue first?"
But she also recognized the difference that just a week of work made at the school. In the end, the kitchen was built, and the students held a concert under Serghi's musical direction.
"The reward was watching this thing come to life, but also getting to know some of these kids," said Serghi.
Serghi said that she hopes to take a group of William & Mary students to the school next June to continue to help the school during its rebuilding process. In the meantime, she is writing songs about the children who touched her during the trip. She plans on doing a show where she displays a photo of the child, tells his or her story and then plays his or her song.
She is already done with the song for Cynthia. The girl who was enchanted by the guitar blossomed more than anyone could have guessed by the end of Serghi's week with her.
"By the end of the week the teachers themselves were calling her ‘Miracle Cynthia' because she was walking with almost no limp, she was playing on the swings, going down the slide, dancing with every single chance and while I was doing the music class she was constantly glued to me, strumming the guitar and singing out loud," Serghi said.
"She found her voice, and she's an amazing musician."