Images of the dire situation of Africa’s children are familiar ones to western audiences, as relief agencies use them to generate donations to help this impoverished population.
Human rights activist Ray Barnett decided to try a radically different approach to aiding the continent’s children.
Almost three decades ago, Barnett had a particularly poignant experience as he was evacuating a young Ugandan boy from his war-torn village. In the midst of this traumatic situation, the boy began to sing, and that sparked an idea for Barnett. Instead of depressing images, he wanted to show the beauty, joy and potential of these young children. In 1984, he founded the African Children’s Choir, a nonprofit organization that takes the songs of Africa’s youngest citizens to the world.
The African Children’s Choir became a hit, performing on “American Idol,” with Alicia Keyes and for the Queen of England at her Diamond Jubilee Celebration. The choir has even been nominated for a Grammy.
The choir comes to the Capital Region on Friday, when eight boys and eight girls from Uganda take the stage at Proctors for a special Christmas performance.
Before going on tour, the children go through a process of selection and training. Churches in Africa identify families with children who might make good candidates for the choir, and those children attend open auditions. From there, the choir selects a group of 50 children who attend a “selection weekend,” where staff gauge how well they interact with other children and how they feel about being away from their families.
African Children’s Choir: An African Christmas
WHERE: GE Theatre at Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 7 p.m., Friday
HOW MUCH: $30
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
The organization also does home visits with the 50 children to ensure they are choosing children who would most benefit from participating in the choir. From there, the choir makes its final selection, and those children train for five months before they go on tour.
The group performing at Proctors makes up the 40th choir. The children and their two African chaperones arrived in the United States in January and were met by five western chaperones. They have been touring through New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Maine and Canada.
For the first half of the 90-minute performance, the children will be dressed in bright, colorful traditional African costumes. They will perform traditional African music in their native languages, some numbers accompanied by recorded music and others a capella. Five of the children are drummers, and they accompany some of the selections while the other children sing and dance.
For the second half, the boys are dressed in tuxedos and the girls in fancy dresses, and they’ll perform some well-known Christmas carols. During the performances, audiences will learn about some of the differences between Christmas here and in Africa.
While the children are giving audiences a glimpse of the potential for African children, they are also learning something about the possibilities for their own lives. Once selected for the choir, the children’s educations are paid for through the end of college or university.
“For a lot of the kids, that would not have happened,” said tour leader Catherine Wake.
Their experiences in other countries allow them to see things they never would have been exposed to in Africa and demonstrate what the future can hold.
“Now they know that if they put the work into it, they can go to school and become what they dream to be,” Wake said.
When they first arrived in North America and were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, the answers were “pilots, doctors and teachers.” Since they’ve been here touring and staying with host families, those answers have expanded to include dentists, social workers, lawyers, comedians and astronauts.
“The world is being expanded by what they see,” Wake said.
The organization’s website is full of success stories of former choir members. For example, Dr. Robert Kalyesubula, a member of Choir 2, lived in a house with 10 other children, didn’t attend school and had nothing to eat before he was selected for the choir. After his tour, he went back to school and eventually on to medical school and a master’s degree program in internal medicine, all completely funded by the African Children’s Choir. Now he is one of only three nephrologists serving a population of 30 million Ugandans, and he works in the village where he was born.
While only a handful of children are selected each year for the choir, the money they raise through the concerts helps thousands more. To date, the organization has educated 52,000 African children and provided aid to 100,000 more.
The parent organization of the African Children’s Choir is Music for Life, which operates literacy, farm, relief and other programs in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, South Sudan, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana.
Choir 40 will finish its North American tour in March, then head to the United Kingdom for 10 weeks before returning to Uganda.