Second Chance At Life With Music Crossroads

I've always believed that people deserve a second chance. It's my philosophy when it comes to friendship but I also think it applies to society wide - including ex convicts.

It's easy to write those with a criminal past off as somehow different to ourselves. But the truth is that in poverty stricken communities people are often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Breaking the law is wrong, but so is not trying to understand why people make certain desperate decisions.

Tolerance, open-mindedness and curiosity are hard to come by these days so I admire anyone who embraces those qualities. This is why I was beyond excited to visit an NGO called Music Crossroads Malawi. They offer past offenders an opportunity to turn their lives around, something most of them never dared hope for.

The Music Crossroads programme was started in 1995 and aims to empower youth through the medium of music. It currently operates in five African countries - Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In Malawi their operation relies on festivals, competitions and daily training session at their state-of-the-art teaching centre.

Their main goal is to support the development of the music industry in the culturally rich southern African region. But, with the support of the European Union (EU) they are also changing the lives of past offenders.

Not everything in the programme's repertoire is directly music related. They also run a series of workshops, life skills and professional training. The areas range from welding to sewing and jewellery making.

But today I want to focus on the music academy the programme runs in Lilongwe's vibrant Area 23 district. The building is a buzzing hub, alive with sound and activity. There are people sitting inside padded recording studios, children practicing traditional dancing underneath a giant white tent and teachers rushing about.

I have always loved music. I sang in a choir for eight years, took private singing lessons (as well as violin and keyboard) and performed in a few musicals. I was even the lead singer of a band called Daybreak while I was in high school. I remember getting together with the guys one afternoon after class and trying to record our first song.

We were sitting in a lofty apartment in a leafy Viennese suburb but our set up was rudimentary. We had to take turns, recording each instrument with an old battered microphone. We also had to keep our voices down to keep the guitarist's neighbour from coming over and shouting at us for disturbing her peace.

Here, on a dusty side street in Lilongwe, I was met with a very different reality. Although its surroundings would never give it away the academy's equipment was some of best I've ever seen. Sound labs with mixing boards, fully furnished studios and all the space you need to truly learn.

The wide array of instruments blew my mind as well. Brand new guitars lined up against the wall, shiny drum kits and free standing midi keyboards. It was any music lovers' playground but still had a distinctive Malawian feel to it, just like the songs they were playing.

The Music Crossroads programme now reaches 5,000 young musicians aged 15-25 and an audience of 50,000 throughout the country through various festivals and outreach activities. Naturally not all of these are people who had run-ins with the law but the difference to this minority's life has been tremendous.

"When I was released from prison I got a call on my mum's phone," 23-year-old Samuels told me. "I've been here for eight months now and it's helped me a lot. I was someone who you'd look at and think 'when he gets back he will get in trouble again'. But now I'm no longer a troubled person. I will no longer steal from someone's property. I will just earn my money through music." He wants to open his own studio and continue to play the bass.

Past offenders are not the only beneficiaries of Music Crossroads' charitable endeavours. The second group are persons with albinism. The condition, while relatively rare, can be a dangerous ordeal in Malawi.

There has been an alarming rise in the number of attacks on these people over the past few years. Their bones and body parts are believed to hold magical powers. According to various superstitions they can bring money or increased potency. It sounds like a horror film - local killers targeting a person to harvest their bones - but it's the terrifying reality many persons with albinism in Malawi live with.

I asked William, a young man with albinism what being at the school meant to him. "Music is my life," he told me. "So if someone took away the spirit of music from me I would be dead. Thanks to the programme I believe I will develop music into my career and fight for the voiceless. Now I've got a voice and I can fight for something else, maybe HIV/AIDS or gender-based violence. I want to reach people and for them to hear my message."

I was at a loss for words. Clearly this EU-funded initiative is making an incredible difference in its students' lives. For both persons with albinism and people with a criminal record, the music programme is a way to integrate into their local communities and get an education they may otherwise never gotten access to.

The academy's graduates are more than mere hobbyists. Some have gone on to become professional recording artists while others run their own recording studios or teach music. When I asked William about his plans after graduation he was optimistic.

"I have very big dreams. I'd like to become one of the biggest superstars in the world," he said to me at the end of our interview. It's easy to be cynical about a young person's dreams, but you never know. I'm certainly confident that Music Crossroads is giving him all the support he needs to carry him forward on his journey into the future.

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