Saturday, 29 January 2011


I was having dinner with a family of a child I have been teaching piano for a couple of years. Let us call the ten year old, Philip. Philip lives with his single mother and the father who is separated from them helps paying for the gifted boy to become a world famous pianist one day. The business of investing in children with talent is every parent’s concern. Children stars in the music industry have become the norm. Forty years ago American singers Michael Jackson or Donny Osmond, both of whom were huge celebrities in the 1970’s was a rarity. I remember listening to Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five while still in secondary school and feeling envious. His song Maria gave us goose bumps and made hair behind my neck stand like I was being glared by a hungry lion.

Lions rarely eat people unless they have not been able to hunt for ages and that Maria song by the late Michael Jackson tortured me immensely. Here was a fellow teenager, three years younger than me belting out a tune and sending shivers across the world. So was Puppy Love by Donny Osmond.
Back in 1973 we did not have television in Tanzania; the radio was the only source of entertainment. The excellent thing about Radio Tanzania those days was playing all music genres. It did not matter whether it was the great Um Kulthoum from Egypt, The Beatles, Mbarakah Mwinshehe or Miriam Makeba.
I believe I have grown to appreciate all kinds of music (Jazz, Taarab, Reggae, Soukous, etc) partly thanks to Radio Tanzania. Therefore as I sit having a light dinner with Philip and family, I cannot help reflecting on why parents want their off spring to succeed.
Soon however, someone special is on TV. It is Justin Bieber the sixteen year old Canadian singer and current superstar.
“Who is that?” Asks Michael’s fifty seven year old uncle. Most people over forty have a problem catching up with so much information and the internet.
Justin Bieber is a perfect example of how the internet can catapult someone into stardom nowadays. Two years ago he was discovered by Scott “Scooter” Braun an American talent manager because he had his music on You Tube.
I observe Philip’s mum wiping tears of laughter because her brother has confessed he does not know You Tube.
“I don’t follow this stuff,” he growls.
“James,” goes on the laughing woman, “does not even have an email. If you mention things like Twitter or Facebook, he will fall asleep.”
Everyone except Philip is roaring with laughter.
Being the only child he is fidgeting with his fork and a piece of roasted chicken.
“Eat!” Mum shrieks.
Philip makes a face.
“You do not like meat Phil?” I ask politely. The boy sneers.
Within seconds there is a mood swing; the jovial room has changed, uncle James goes out for a smoke, Philip’s mum is clearing the table looking worse than an angry snake.
Let me explain something more to you dear reader.
Philip is a tough mountain.
His mother loves him to bits; she makes sure he does his school work on top of private piano, swimming and tennis lessons.
The boy is gifted.
When he is in the right mood he plays whatever you teach him. If he is not (and that is most of the time) you have to push him up the hill. I spend my classes with him talking, playing, trying every trick in the book to make him learn; yet, it is always donkey’s work. So many times I have given up telling his mother I cannot teach a child with no desire, but the mother always says:
“I do not want him to end up in the streets with gangs and bad boys.”
Ma Phil wants the best for her son. She is ready to pay with time and money (assisted by the absent father).
This is a typical scenario of children in rich countries. They have food, education, resources and possibilities yet blind to the value.
According to the World Bank, 500 million people are living in abject poverty; amongst these 15 million children die of hunger each year. The World Health Organisation states that a third of the world lives in wealth, another third underfed and the last third, starving.
UNICEF estimates that 1.3 billion people (majority of humanity) exist on a dollar a day. Such statistics are always brought into focus as I teach in the developed world and witness parents struggling to give their children unappreciated opportunities that would be prized in poorer societies.
“That’s the way things go,” goes a line from Hurricane, by American musician, Bob Dylan.

-London, Sunday 23rd January, 2011.

Same article appeared in Citizen last week.

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