Every Thursday for the past year now, Joseph Maina, a father of two, makes his way to the Nairobi Hospice, near Kenyatta National Hospital.
He usually carries with him at least two musical instruments. This Thursday, he comes bearing an ukulele (it looks like a small guitar) and a harmonica, which he proceeds to play for a group of 17 gathered in an airy room — 14 women and three men who clap and sing along to the music.
In this group of 17 are terminally ill patients, most suffering from cancer — breast, liver, cervical, stomach and penile cancers.
All the patients, apart from one who is on her first visit, know each other and are familiar with one another’s story — stories or pain, despair and hope — that bind them.
The number of patients vary every week, depending on how well they are feeling. Music is therapy; it cheers them up, Maina says.
“I have been teaching for 10 years now. I offer private lessons in schools, homes, even offices. This is what I do for a living,” he says.
The idea to volunteer at the hospice was suggested to him by a client. “She pointed out that music was therapy. When I taught her children, she told me they were happy; why not consider volunteering my skills in hospitals?”
This is what motivated him to do a general course in palliative care at a clinic in Westlands, Nairobi. He wanted to understand how to interact with the patients he came across while playing for them.
“Music heals and uplifts; it is a language on its own, and it does not matter whether the listener understands the language or not because it communicates with the heart,” he argues.
He should know because on several occasions, he has played to patients admitted in hospital or bedridden at home and seen them respond positively.
He also teaches children with attention deficit disorder how to play musical instruments, a skill that goes a long way to improve their concentration.
He says anyone can learn music, pointing out that his students are between the ages of six and 70 years.
He prepares for his performance at the hospice just as he does for a job. He starts by putting together specific songs, familiar ones that the patients can sing along to, and then plays them.
He is also open to song suggestions. Most suggestions are Christian gospel songs, probably due to their encouraging messages.
Once he is through with his session at the hospice, he stays on to share lunch with the patients.
Maina says that giving his time has had a positive impact on his life, a thing that those close to him have noticed too.
“I have more peace of mind now. My wife also says that I am more patient, jovial and agreeable,” he says laughingly.