Mutinda Mukenia  Photo: Marie Mulli

More than 15 years after it was first introduced, music therapy is not as popular in Nairobi’s medical field as it is in developed countries. So, it is only a series of serendipitous incidents that led Mutinda Mukenia to discover his passion.

In Kenya, music and the arts in general are not considered a viable way to earn a living. That’s why when Mutinda was in primary school he, like every other child, wanted to be a doctor. But, “My grades, though not bad, were also not that good, and so I sort of gave up on the dream,” he says. “I probably wanted to be a doctor so as not to disappoint my family.”

Jobs with a good income and security were prestigious and good grades was the way to get them. As a result, many teachers encouraged pupils to focus on their studies. There were, however, some outliers, like the head teacher who came into Mutinda’s life in his last year of high school.

“The principal believed if a student worked hard but still could not get good grades, then they should focus on discovering their talent. He believed every child had something they were good at and should perfect that. So I seized this opportunity and focused on music.”

Mutinda was so determined that after completing high school, while still a teenager, he went against his parents’ wishes and pursued a career in music. They refused to pay for guitar and piano lessons because they did not see how it could support him, so he asked a friend to teach him. He would go to the church when it was empty and use the instruments to practise for hours. Then he looked for lessons online and perfected his skills. But it would not be smooth sailing; his unyielding character would be severely tested working as a music therapist in a country that pays people in the arts a low wage.

An emotionally demanding job

Not every musician can be a music therapist. The job is emotionally draining and Mutinda thinks that only those called to bring healing to the sick can persevere. “Sometimes you are working with someone you know is going to die. But you have to be there to encourage them.”

Music therapy involves singing, playing musical instruments, composing or listening music to reduce anxiety, improve cognitive function, promote physical rehabilitation or enhance interpersonal communication. Were it not for a chance meeting with some foreigners Mutinda would never have thought of such a career.

“While jamming with some friends at a public park designated for musicians, I met some students from the Berkeley University school of music who were pursuing a degree in this subject. They are the ones who pointed out that I could make a good music therapist.”

A couple of days later, by a stroke of luck, he met a childhood friend who invited him to sing at the only hospital with a music therapy department.

Mutinda walked into the hospital that day not expecting it to be any different from any other gig. “Unfortunately, I was taken to the renal unit. I took one look at the litres of dark red human blood and felt nausea. I had to cover my mouth as I ran to the toilet to prevent the vomit from soiling the floor.” The sight was so traumatizing that Mutinda quit. “But I was so idle that after two days I decided to go back.” This decision would change his life forever.

“Before playing at the renal unit we had been at the high dependency unit and a lady who was now in the renal ward told us that she could hear us singing when she was at the HDU. She said the music gave her different perspective about her condition. She was always thinking about death, but the music made her realize that she needed to fight. After a week in the ward she was discharged. That’s when I realized the power of music.”

Low pay, but there are other rewards

After his friend quit, Mutinda continued playing for the sick. He was paid very little so walked to and from work, which took about one and a half hours, and skipped lunch to save for replacing guitar strings when inevitably they broke. Now, years later, he makes more money than he did starting out and is able to live more comfortably, but the pay is still below standard.

“Many musicians quit music therapy because of the low pay. They prefer to record albums and perform at concerts instead of – what they perceive as – wasting their talent in hospitals. A musician can make in a couple of hours what I get in a week.” The field also lacks a training school as well as mentors, in fact most of what Mutinda has learned is self-taught.

It is said there is no one so poor that he has nothing to give, and no one so rich that he cannot receive, and this accurately describes the relationship between Mutinda and his patients. Some notice the effort he makes to comfort them when in pain and they are grateful. These relationships have gone on to flourish long after the patients leave hospital. A woman who was soothed by his music while going through labour was so grateful that she continues to keep in touch three years on and even sends pictures of the baby regularly.

“When they get out of hospital, some people invite me to play at their children’s birthday party or family gathering. I realize they give me the job not because they desperately need someone to play but to support me. I play for about an hour then they invite me to eat and bond. Others call me regularly, to find out how I am doing. I realize they are emotionally supporting me. So that’s what keeps me going. It assures me that I am in the right place.”

Mutinda introduced music therapy in one other hospital and even though it operates from the marketing department, this is still progress. He dreams of starting a centre that provides healing solely through music as well as mentorship programme for young people looking to get into music therapy.

Marie Mullli is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker living in Nairobi, Kenya

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Marie Mulli is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker living in Nairobi, Kenya.