Bosco Segawa was living on the streets of Kampala, Uganda, when he heard a local school’s brass band playing 20 years ago. He was 12. Segawa was captivated and began to see music as a possible way out of street life. After much convincing, the school agreed to teach Segawa and his friends how to play donated instruments on weekends and holidays. Soon, the boys were able to support themselves and even found a sponsor who paid for their housing, which they opened up to other street children like themselves.
Since then, their organization, called M-Lisada(short for Music Life Skills and Destitution Alleviation), has grown to accommodate scores of young people who would otherwise be homeless and vulnerable on the streets of Kampala. And it has support from people far beyond Uganda, including Rochelle Zabarkes, president of the New York-based M-Lisada Africa Foundation.
Child homelessness is a major issue in Uganda. Nonprofit Human Rights Watch reports that children who live on the street are often also victims of police brutality, emotional and sexual abuse, drug use, and addiction. M-Lisada emphasizes the power of both music and friendship, recognizing that getting children off the streets is just the first step in the longer process of rehabilitation. Many children are psychologically traumatized by their past experiences, but M-Lisada provides a supportive place where they can start over.
M-Lisada offers a plethora of programs for the approximately 50 children it houses at a time, as well as for the additional 80 children to whom it provides services and basic comforts, but cannot yet house. Music is the main focus, but dance, acrobatics, sports, and further education in life skills, instrument repair, HIV awareness, and sustainable farming are also available.
Longtime M-Lisada volunteer Gesa Teigelkötter, who is based in Kampala, says that music and the arts “play a very important role in the children’s lives, because first, they don’t get bored so quickly…they are also able to forget their traumatic experiences from the past, and most important, gain a lot of self confidence.” Referring to the artistic and athletic choices offered to the children, Teigelkötter says: “I can also see that they really enjoy what they are doing, because they can choose what they like.”
The children are also eager to give back to the community that helped them. They perform free concerts and raise funds for worthy causes, such as buying a wheelchair for a disabled peer, and even clean the streets in the surrounding area. They visit the elderly and perform outreach to children who are still on the streets, returning to where they used to live to convince others to turn to M-Lisada for help.
As for Segawa himself, he is still there, continuing in his mission to bring music and a better life to Kampala’s homeless youth. Helping him achieve that ambitious goal is Zabarkes.
Ahead, Zabarkes shares her thoughts on music and empowerment and gives Refinery29 a look inside the inspiring program.