Why would a Salvation Army band in Sweden be called “The Africa Brass”?
That’s a story that begins with Ulf Lydall, a Salvation Army soldier (member) who was once the bandmaster of a church in Sweden, the Jönköping Corps. Ulf and his wife, Ingrid, along with his brother and sister–in–law, were on vacation in Africa, and their last evening was spent in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
Before the trip, an email to The Salvation Army in Africa yielded an invitation for the group to meet the brass band at the Kibera Corps, located in Nairobi’s largest slum. Resources are extremely limited in Kibera, where most of its 170,000 residents lack basic services, including electricity and running water. The Kibera Corps has 1,000 members, most of them from the slum. The brass band, which had been running for about two years when the Swedish vacationers arrived in September 2010, had 45 members but only 17 instruments.
When the guests asked what the band needed, the reply was, “A check in U.S. dollars so that more instruments can be bought.”
The Swedish former bandmaster and his wife went back home deeply affected by meeting the bandsmen; their need did not die away from their memory.
Lydall decided to make an appeal in Sweden for instruments and to open a bank account to aid the Kibera band. He also formed “The Africa Brass,” made up of musician friends from The Salvation Army and other churches, to spread interest and involvement as widely as possible and to influence businesses to sponsor the Kibera project.
With help from people from all over Sweden, the Africa Brass bought or collected more than 40 instruments. But Lydall found that sending them from Sweden would be cost–prohibitive, and there was some concern over whether the instruments would actually reach the band.
The solution to the problem was simple: the Swedish Africa Brass would travel to Kibera with the band members carrying instruments. About 25 band members made the trip, an intensive, 10–day adventure. When the group arrived, the Kibera Band was already there, greeting them with flowers and music.
The first Saturday, at the Swedish band’s hotel, band members handed over 10 instruments from Sweden to the Kibera players; they were instantly unpacked, with extreme joy. On Sunday, the Africa Brass marched through another slum, Makutano, where the Salvation Army has a corps and a band with only three instruments. The Africa Brass donated six instruments to help build the music program.
After busy days visiting another church, the Quarry Road Corps, and its Girls Center as well as the Kabete Children’s home, the Africa Brass went back to Kibera again. This time, the band members got a close look at the Salvation Army’s Primary School for children ages 3 to 6 and the dire poverty in the slum. Most people live in one room, about 100 square feet, and that small room often accommodates as many as 10–12 people. Yet it was here in Kibera that the massed band practiced and marched to do open–air meetings.
The Swedes spent one day at the Nairobi Central Corps, one of the largest Salvation Army churches in the world, where the Nairobi Central Band joined the Africa Brass and the Kabete Corps and Quarry Road Corps for a huge massed band number.
The Swedish group’s final day was once more at the Kibera Corps, where the two bands played together. When offering time came, an old woman gave a goat that was sold by auction. An Africa Brass member, Göran Lundberg, bought the goat, then promptly donated it to the Kibera Primary School.
The members of the Africa Brass were already feeling nostalgic that day, wondering if they would ever see their new friends again. Before the last number the band played, Bandmaster Major Kjell Karlsten said, “Thank you for letting us play these instruments during our tour.” There was no response. No one understood what he meant. Then Karlsten said, “Because these instruments are not ours.” Still no reaction. Then he said, “They are yours!” It took a few seconds, but then it sunk in.
Karlsten says, “The reaction after that is impossible to describe—a lot of shouting, jumping, and a lot of tears.”
He came away from the experience forever changed. To see so many children living in the muddy alleys of Kibera was hard, he says. To be unable to help them was even harder. But, he adds, during the entire project, the Africa Brass tried to think this way: “Nobody can help everybody, but everybody can help somebody.” For Karlsten, Ulf Lydall, and the Africa Brass, this will not be the end of the Kibera Project.
“They need all the help they can get,” Karlsten says.
Major Karlsten provided the material for this article.