By Jesse Masai

Kenyan Nicholas Mwashimba, 46, and his Japanese wife Yuka Itakura, 36, remember where it all began.

The couple first met at Heslington Church in York, England, which was an Anglican/ Methodist congregation. They were both attending the University of York for master’s degrees, Nicholas in audio engineering and Yuka in humanitarian aid.

A HIKARI School of Music teacher works with a cello student

While Nicholas had grown up in a deeply Christian and musical family at the Anglican Church of Kenya’s Terinyi congregation in Mbale Parish, Taita Taveta Diocese, near the Kenya-Tanzania border, his turning point was while he was teaching music in 1998 at Greensteds International School, Nakuru, on the Kenyan floor of the Great Rift Valley.

He reminisces: “I was taking teams around for tours and realized that as the Head of Music, I had power to build or destroy my students and audience through music. That is when I became more serious about faith. The conversion led me to review the music I listen to and teach. I also began looking for songs that build people up and benefit those who perform them.”

Yuka, on the other hand, grew up in a Buddhist / Shito family in Japan. Having suffered a broken home with a violent father, she was at one point suicidal but committed her life to Christ while in university in 2005. At Church, she picked up learning the flute and always sang in its band.

She set off her career to be a humanitarian worker but when she got married to Nicholas, she dedicated her career to supporting his passion and goals because she did not want to get her own marriage wrong.

She joined him at Greensteds in 2011.

“It was a difficult choice to make initially, because I have a lot of passion in helping others. However, today we achieve this through HIKARI School of Music by supporting various charity organizations. I am grateful to God for teaching me the right way,” she says.

Having noticed several artists from their home town of Nakuru moving to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, 163 kilometers (about 100 miles) away, the couple had in 2012 resolved to establish the school. Based on Matthew 5:16, the vision for their social business was to “Let Your Light Shine,” grounded in the belief that everyone is born with a talent that ought to be nurtured and discovered.

In 2017, they both resigned from formal employment to focus on the venture. Two years later, they opened a branch in Nanyuki, 182 kilometers from their Nakuru base, where they were have been providing lessons to students in several local schools.

In addition to offering a variety of traditional music lessons (piano, ukulele, violin, cello, viola, saxophones, guitars, drums, flute, recorder, and voice), the school has been offering classes in music theory, photography, videography, and music production, as well as several languages (Spanish, French, Japanese, English, Kiswahili, Maasai, and Kikuyu).

They have inked international music tours, including to Japan, the United Kingdom, United States, South Africa, Austria, and Australia.  The couple has nurtured and produced international musicians, including Vanessa‌ ‌Mdee,‌ ‌Tero‌ ‌Mdee,‌ ‌Yvonne Darcq, Haimie‌ ‌Armide‌ ‌and‌ ‌Vanessa‌ ‌Pym-Kaime. One‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ alumni‌ ‌ ‌recently joined the Sony‌ ‌Records‌ stable in‌ ‌New‌ ‌York.‌ ‌

“We have been providing local employment and community service to approximately 20 young musicians in Nakuru alone,” recalls Nicholas.

The couple also started HIKARI Gospel Voices (HGV), drawing choristers partly by offering free recording sessions. HGV has an extensive repertoire, drawing from both contemporary and African traditional culture.

The choir has visited the Alexandria Cancer Center, Nakuru, to lead worship sessions with patients, while the school has partnered with a local ‌girls’‌ ‌probation‌ ‌hostel‌ ‌to‌ ‌provide the residents with musical instruments and instruction. At Nakuru’s Trinity Chapel, the Mwashimbas have enhanced the congregation’s musical standards in worship by providing training in singing, instrumental performance, sound engineering, photography, and videography.

In the face of COVID-19, the couple halted physical classes at HIKARI’s two campuses on March 15, 2020, resulting in a drastic reduction of the number of students.

“We had to shift to online lessons and reach out to clients from abroad. This required us to quickly learn how best to conduct online lessons and train our teachers, some of whom left because they found online teaching too challenging. We recruited new staff members and installed various systems to guide our team on working remotely but in harmony,” says Nicholas.

Communication with members of staff was initially challenging because of the stress occasioned by suddenly having to stay home, as well as not meeting regularly and physically. Soon, however, the team was offering online music and language lessons to students from Kenya and beyond, including tutorials on the school’s YouTube channel.

“We currently have students from Kenya, Rwanda, Japan, Belgium, Australia, the United States, and Singapore. Our effort has been featured on a Japanese TV show, which aired in June 2020,” says Yuka.  After the media appearance, the couple embarked on its first free Zoom guitar lesson in an effort to provide prospective students with an opportunity to experience online learning.

“Ever since, we have gone on to register many new students and with online lessons being the new ‘norm,’ there is great potential.  We believe this is the way to go. Our lessons are of great quality and we believe that we can compete with other music and language schools internationally,” adds Yuka. Desiring to change the common perception that Africa needs help or handouts, the couple has since built a network of students and people who support their vision worldwide, amidst plans to resume physical lessons in Nakuru.

COVID-19, they now say, has made them stronger. “It is a learning process and there is nothing wrong in adjusting as you go along. Start small and grow big. One does not have to borrow huge loans to start a business. Always think of the sustainability of your business, which eventually helps you make a long-lasting impact in society,” says Nicholas.

Communication, they add, is key. “As we work in a joint venture as a married couple, talking about issues before they get out of hand is crucial. Learn to laugh about small issues and let go,” says Yuka.

The Mwashimbas are currently working with the United Kingdom’s Legatt Trust to establish outreach programs in two troubled communities which are still recovering from a series of clashes after Kenya’s violently disputed 2007 elections. Children from both will take part in three yearly concerts held by HIKARI School of Music in association with HIKARI Gospel Voices. The children will also be given an opportunity to record their music at the HIKARI studio, producing CDs that can be sold to raise funds for their own projects.

“Through music, these children have found a way of healing pain in the past and finding hope in the future. This is also an opportunity for these children to discover and grow their talents,” says Nicholas.

At the Magoso School in Kibera slum, Nairobi, the couple is separately planning to offer an internship program for their alumni who are musically-talented. The Mwashimbas already support vulnerable children at the slum, alongside the Garden of Siloam, a special needs children facility in Limuru, 30 kilometers from the Kenyan capital.

Jesse Masai is a freelance journalist based in Limuru, Kenya.