Marsha Gusti, founder, kwaYa

What's important in life is sharing love and sharing knowledge. If you’re doing one of those two things, it’s worth you being here ...

Marsha Gusti is a lady with big dreams. Following the tragic death of her son, she resolved to make her time on this earth count. Marsha is the founder of kwaYa (Swahili for ‘choir’), a charity that provides opportunities for individuals from different cultures to perform and engage in cross cultural musical exchanges and participate in altruistic life-changing projects. Her charity works closely with the African Children’s Choir, which is performing at Twin Towns on Saturday June 13. The Weekend Edition Gold Coast caught up with Marsha to chat about cultural barriers and changing lives.

Tell us how kwaYa came about?
It started in 2010 with an idea that I got while I was walking around Burleigh hill. I had been bringing choirs together in southeast Queensland for cultural exchange with Aboriginal communities and this voice came into my head and told me that I needed to go to Africa. I went home and googled ‘Africa’ and ‘choir’ and the African Children’s Choir came up. I sent them an email asking if they would like a bunch of Aussies to come over and sing and bring some money for some projects and they agreed and kwaYa was born.

Can you tell us about some of kwaYa’s achievements?
When I started kwaYa I was adamant that the charity was going to be 100% volunteer run with 100% of every dollar that was raised to go to the projects. We’re very proud to say that kwaYa has grown to include 250 members who are all volunteers, we’ve organised five trips to Uganda for 170 Australians and have raised $310,000 for the African Children’s Choir.

Can you take us back to the first trip?
We went over there thinking we would make a difference but as soon as we came back we found that we were the ones that had changed. Not because we witnessed abject poverty, which we did, it was because we saw an inherent joy in these people, something that I think the west has forgotten. Despite the fact that they hadn’t eaten all day, they could still smile and interact with you on a really joyous level and I remember thinking what is it that they’ve got that we’ve lost? I’m really cranky by morning tea if I haven’t had something to eat and no one wants to talk to me but these kids push past it and are genuinely happy. I call the trips to Uganda the big red onion tour because about half way through all these layers start falling away from people they’ll just start crying without knowing why. It’s a fascinating thing to watch and I feel very grateful and blessed to be part of it.

You’re coming to the end of the Under One Sky Australian Tour with The African Children’s Choir, which saw you travelling up the east coast of Australia on a 49-seater bus. What have been some of the more memorable experiences from the tour?
The bus breaking down twice was fairly memorable! We were sitting on the side of the road for four and a half hours waiting for the breakdown service to come to us but even that didn’t wipe the smile of the kids’ faces. Most children would be complaining but that doesn’t happen from these kids, they have an innate gratitude for everything they are experiencing.

One of the great aims for the project is to connect cultures through song. What is about music in particular that you believe transcends cultural barriers?
The first time I walked into a choir was about eight years ago and for me, and I’ve noticed a lot of other people as well, there is a real harmonic healing that occurs. That’s the only way I can put it. It’s just a bunch of people standing together singing but barriers fall away, you can have a lawyer standing there right beside a homeless person and they become equal in the room. There was actually some research done that found when people sing together, their heartbeats actually end up syncing up. I didn’t believe it at first but then I did some more research and it’s true. I lost my 25-year old son in 2012 and that was one of the hardest journeys I’ve ever travelled and am still travelling but going to choir every Monday is what got me through. Healing through harmony.

What has being part of a choir meant to you?
When you stand in that room you feel loved, you feel connected and you’re not alone. It’s brought me back to a place of questioning my purpose and what I’m doing here. I’m working my heart out with the African Children’s Choir because if I can make someone else’s life a little better than I feel like I’ve done something worthwhile. I have come to a conclusion that what’s important in life is sharing love and sharing knowledge. If you’re doing one of those two things, it’s worth you being here.

What is your blue-sky dream for kwaYa?
We’re actually raising funds now to build a new choir training academy in Uganda and if we can achieve that, it will allow the choir to bring in paying people from outside the organisation which then moves them into a self-sustaining role rather than relying on donations. In Uganda there is a real difference between the rich and the poor so if we can access those more well-off people and charge them for world-class education, then the organisation can support those who can’t. I am very proud that these kids are being shown that if you work hard enough you can create an income for yourself. So far, the African Children’s Choir has educated over 52,000 children in the last 30 years.

You have already achieved so much and changed countless lives. What are you most proud of?
We were in Taree in New South Wales recently to hold a workshop with some of the local Aboriginal kids who have had their culture beaten out of them and as soon as they started telling the African kids about their culture, their land, where they came from and their language, they were so proud, their faces were glowing. There was one boy in particular that I was told had never participated, he just sat grumpy in the corner but he was up with the biggest smile on his face and doing everything. For me, that would be the epitome and the highlight of everything that we’ve worked towards. These kids are beautiful together and in many ways they are so similar but then so different.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt on this journey so far?
People are different and you can’t change anyone unless they are willing to change. Some people have come on tour to Uganda and they come home and remain unchanged and that’s okay. My biggest lesson is that you give love and you give opportunity and it’s up to them to take it on.

Is there a particular experience or memory you could share with us, that really affirmed why it is you get up and do this every day?
Seeing the change in the Australian travellers when they come back from Uganda and seeing the joy on the kids’ faces. I could write a full page on why I do what I do. I’m 62, I don’t know how much longer I am going to be here so I am determined to make sure that I make every minute of every day count. That was a little thing that my son left with me was ‘make it count Mum’.

Do you have a motto or any words to live by?
Make it count.

What’s next for kwaYa?
There are so many exciting things in the works! One of them is to establish a cultural exchange for young African kids who have just graduated high school and are contemplating their university career to do some job shadowing in Australia. They would be billeted in a home and the student would job shadow their host whether they are a lawyer, a shop keeper, a teacher, whatever for a couple of days so they get an idea of what it’s like. After they are finished university we’d also like to offer a three month internship in their field of study. Once the graduate goes back to Uganda they are more likely to be employed because they are worldlier and have more experience.

How can people get involved and support Kwaya?
If people are interested they can come to Uganda and experience it for themselves. They can host kids on the next trip to Australia, business owners can get involved, there are a million ways people can be involved. Get in contact through the kwaYa website and we’ll find something for you. Just remember we’re 100% volunteer run.



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