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Good Vibrations: Music Therapy Reaches Ugandan Students

You wouldn’t automatically pair music therapy with hearing impairments, but, in Uganda, BMS World Mission worker Bethan Shrubsole is doing just that.
“We use the instruments they can feel – they feel vibrations – and we sign songs to the rhythm,” says Shrubsole. “I don’t know how they hear it in their heads but they look like they really enjoy it.”

Shrubsole and Moreen, a Ugandan lady who Shrubsole is training in music therapy (and who is involved with Jambo! café), teach at Rukoki School twice a week.

Rukoki, a government primary school, is one of fewer than 40 schools in the country, which cater to children with special education needs.

None of the children has had an easy life.

“One week I asked the group to think about the difficulties of being a teenager,” says Shrubsole. “I was answered with a 45-minute response signed by a 17-year-old boy. It spanned from when he was 3 years old and could still hear up to the present day. He told of witchcraft, forced labor, family members beating and starving him, suicide attempts and eventually a happy ending where he is now in school reading and writing.” 

Each pupil has a different story, but most are yet to be told to the staff at Rukoki School. The pupils turn up and register, but sometimes no one even knows their name. 

Shrubsole and Moreen run two music therapy groups in the school, each with six children, and one integrated sing-sign choir with 50 singers.

One of the music therapy groups is made up of children who have hearing difficulties, most of whom are completely deaf, and the other group is of children with learning difficulties.

There is no upper age-limit for pupils at Rukoki, as many have to delay their education because their families can’t afford the fees. So, Shrubsole’s primary school pupils actually range in age from 10 to 23.

In a country where everything is taught by rote, the opportunity to learn creatively and use your imagination is rare.

For these pupils, many of whom naturally get left behind in the schooling system, music therapy is giving them the chance to learn academically, to develop their ability to process their emotions and to approach the world in a more abstract way.

Shrubsole and Moreen are using all sorts of creative techniques – as well as music – to help their pupils.

“We use drama, imagination games and the vibrations of instruments to make things move,” says Shrubsole. “I’ve started trying to create a story with them too. At first the story they came up with was ‘the giraffe, called giraffe, was eating and a cow came and started eating the grass.’ But week by week they’re getting better. Last week, one of the boys created a new character – an angry bird!”

Learning to create and to imagine, Shrubsole’s and Moreen’s students are getting the opportunity to express themselves – and best of all, they seem to love it.

Sarah Stone is a writer for BMS World Mission. A version of this article first appeared on the BMS website and is used with permission.

Editor’s note: A BMS blog post written by Bethan and Gareth Shrubsole about their music therapy ministry is available here.