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A violinist at work with African cancer children

Last month, Slipped Disc readers helped with advice, support and solidarity to send London violinist Joanne Watts to Africa to spend her free time working with sick children. Here is her inspirational report:



I travelled to Tanzania to have an adventure. I’d always wanted to work with children in some way or other, but did not know how this would take shape. I was looking for a charity with a small project where I could really do my thing and work with the children in the way I wanted to. The people at the charity Children in Crossfire immediately trusted me with what I wanted to do.
The children I was working with are on a children’s cancer ward at Muhimbili hospital in Dar Es Salaam. I wasn’t prepared for how advanced their cancer would be! But of course no-one knows how to diagnose cancer in Africa, therefore it gets to a much, much more advanced stage before treatment is found. I had no idea that I would be meeting children with tumours so big that it doubled the size of their face, or stomach. So many children had eyes removed, or amputations. This was new to me that cancer can be a visual thing. Quite a shock and quite a lot to take in, although it didn’t take me long to no longer see these deformities and just see the wonderful personalities I grew to love. One aspect of the the Charity’s work is to educate about detecting the symptoms of cancer. Any cancer diagnosed late will kill you. Caught early and with the right treatment you have a chance.
There is no paediatric oncologist in the whole of Tanzania!
There are no surgeons to perform these dangerous operations.
The operations are carried out by student surgeons, and the children know this. they therefore become terrified of going into theatre as many don’t make it through the op.
There WAS a wonderful Irish paediactric oncolgist, Dr. Trish. She along with Children in Crossfire started to get the deperately needed drugs to the hospital and began to see the survival rate rise from 1 in 10 children survivng to around 5 in 10. In the west it’s 9/10. Dr.Trish, herself now fighting cancer, has gone home to Ireland, which leaves the ward with no oncologist again, and the survival rate falls.
The charity acknowledge the need to school the children while many of them are spending months to years at the hospital. So that’s where I came in. My plan was to do lots of music workshop’s followed by arts and crafts and lots of fun and games along the way. We had face painting day, jelly day, letter writing day. I’d brought letters and photos from English children, and they wrote replies for me to bring home. It didn’t take me long to realise that even though I had prepared so much, I had to almost change things on a minute to minute basis. Every day there was a slightly different group of children, depending on who felt well enough to come down to the classroom.
Some came even thought they really didn’t feel well, just to give their parent’s a break and they just lay on the floor. Other’s would be really energetic and full of beans. Their ages range from 1-16. Then there was the language issues. So as you can see anything I had planned would easily have to go out the window while I tried to involve everyone there that day. A big challenge that I gradually got my head around.
It’s funny how when you open yourself up to new experiences other opportunities find their way into your life too. I met, through a bizarre connection the local violin teacher in Dar. He invited me to come and give some master classes to his young violinists from the International School. This I did and he also told me how he and his wife Mary had built a children’s home about an hour out of Dar. They had also built 4 schools in the area. Truly incredible people. They have 9 children of their own!
I immediately asked if I could come and visit the children’s home and have some music fun with them. They performed some songs and dances for me, then we sat outside with my violin and a couple of drums. They were so receptive and quick to get anything I threw at them. It was hugely eye opening in so many ways. They had all come from the most horrific circumstances, but were now in a happy healthy family of 23 children. It just proved to me how ill the children at the hospital are and how I was still maybe expecting too much from them. I went back to the hospital with new ideas and a new work attitude.
It was also a great experience working with the pupils from the International school. Hugely privileged children, but still very worthy of my time and enjoying every bit of the music we made. We put on a small concert at the end of my stay and raised money for both Children in Crossfire and Kidzcare Tanzania.
I got in touch with a friend of a friend who runs a studio in Dar. He happens to work with all the local pop stars. The sort of names that the children, doctors and teachers all knew. So I asked him if he thought one or two of them would pop over to the hospital one afternoon. Well that escalated to 8 pop stars giving up their time to do a concert for the children. We had a big early Easter party. It was one of the highlights of my trip. I played with the singers in the concert, which was fantastic fun. To see the children’s faces as they met their idols was something else!
Going up on to the ward to play to the bedbound children had been something I’d really wanted to do, but  struggled with it the first week. It was so overcrowded, full of flies and sights that I’d just need to get used to. Gradually I felt brave enough to go onto the ward and play to the children or paint the mama’s nails. It became my favourite place to be. I would sing silly songs whilst strumming away on my violin or show them books or pictures and videos on my phone.
The first time I met little Kelvin he was crying and crying because he felt so rotten. I kept asking his mama if he wanted me to carry on and she said yes, so I did. By about the third visit he became much brighter and asked me to play faster and faster. He smiled such a huge smile I nearltybit straight threw my lip to stop my tears. The following day the Doctor came and found me to say Kelvin had been asking if the singing lady was coming to visit him that day. He loved my visits. I really do believe that I made a difference to his well being! God that’s why I’d come wasn’t it?
I have many story’s like Kelvin’s, like the little boy who had just had both his eyes removed. He sat completely still in absolute silence. I struggled to think of how to reach him. So I just held his hand and played games with his fingers while singing silly songs. He’s one person I did not want to let go of on my last day. Would anyone else have the time or the inclination to sit singing 10 green bottles whilst playing with his fingers. So valuable, I really believe this.
I did finally have to say goodbye. There was feisty, clever and funny Yasiri who I struggled to say goodbye to. He is 14 and had been my right hand man in the first week or so. His drumming was excellent and he really helped me get the songs and ideas across. He is also an excellent artist. He has had his leg removed and I am determined that as soon as he is well enough I will raise the money for a new leg. The last couple of days he was not well and didn’t make it down to the classroom. It’s hard to see them on them on bad day’s like these, being sick and feeling rubbish.
On my last day I sat in the bloods and canula room with the children as they waited for their turn. Yasiri was there waiting. He has so much scar tissue and is quite badly puffed up, so it took the Doctor about 15 attempts before he found a vein that would do the job. His thumb was the only place left.
These children are so brave and courageous. I am not medical and cannot help in that way, but I know without a doubt that bringing them music does help. There is nothing else that speaks to people in the same way! I thought I knew that before – there is no doubt now!
Here is a letter I received from the charity on my return home. I hope you see as I now do that I must go back. There is so much more to do, But this time I have to raise the funds to get me there. Please help me if you can.
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  1. Jo Watts says:

    Hi all. The letter from the charity I am referring to is on my blog. Go to the posting titled ‘please read’. Thank you

  2. Jo you are an inspiration! X

  3. Jo, your story is very inspiring. I know that the children benefitted greatly from music,an international language. They also benefitted from having contact with a human being who cared for and about them. Blessings to you and your work.

  4. Rosalind says:

    What an inspiring journey, incredibly moving. I do hope that you’ll be able to continue your work with the children, who have obviously have their difficult lives so enriched with your presence and music.

  5. As someone who hopes to work with kids in Africa, I found your story truly inspiring. I have always had a love for music because of the universal beauty and emotion that can be found within it regardless of any type of barrier. I think this testimony speaks volumes to how even the littlest of things can make a difference in the lives of those who desire hope. I was touched by the stories of the children who experienced joy from your music even through the evident pain they were feeling.

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