Music empowers African Children's Choir

Group was formed when a human rights worker met a boy who wouldn't stop singing

Music empowers African children

April 22, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

When the 23 members of the African Children's Choir prepare to take the stage tonight at St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore, they won't need a pep talk.

No matter how tired they might be from months of performing four times a week, how antsy they might be after the two-hour bus ride from Cumberland, the children - all between 6 and 11 - will be caught up in the moment as soon as they start making music.

"It's their favorite thing. They could be feeling not so good, and they'll start singing and they just love it," said Heather Lytle, tour leader for African Children's Choir No. 26, which has been slowly making its way up the East Coast since its members arrived in Miami from Uganda four months ago.

"I think part of it is they feel heard. They're getting the message they've come to share across. They feel it's a way they can make a difference in the suffering they've experienced in Africa," said Lytle. "It's their empowering moment, and because of that, they're very happy to do it."

The group that is now touring Maryland - the 26th since the choir was established 21 years ago - is made up of children from Uganda, many orphaned, all once living in severe poverty. The 25th choir, meanwhile, also from Uganda, is touring the western United States, and a third, with members from Uganda and Kenya, is expected to start a U.S. tour soon.

The African Children's Choir was founded by Ray Barnett, a human rights worker from British Columbia who in 1984 made his second visit to Uganda - a country whose northern regions were plagued by famine and whose southern reaches were wracked by civil war. While there, a woman asked him to give her son a ride across the country to visit an aunt. The boy sang the whole way.

Back in Canada, frustrated in his efforts to encourage "donor-fatigued" North Americans to help Uganda, the hopeful image of the singing boy came back to Barnett.

From that idea, the first African Children's Choir was formed and, through the non-profit organization Music for Life, it has been raising money for African children ever since.

While winning international acclaim, garnering a Grammy nomination and spreading a message of hope, the choir - which performs a program of song and dance featuring African tunes, children's songs and traditional spirituals - also takes care of its own. Each member is fed and housed until adulthood and ensured a college education or vocational training.

Money raised by the organization - at concerts, through sponsorships and other donations - have also financed a children's home in Uganda, literacy and boarding schools in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Sudan and South Africa, schools and shelters across Africa, and emergency relief efforts.

In its current campaign, the choir is raising money to provide relief in Nkomazi, one of the poorest regions of South Africa, where 2,700 children have lost one or both parents to starvation, AIDS or other illnesses, according to the Music For Life Institute.

Nkomazi has a population of 700,000 people living in 34 impoverished, water-deprived rural villages. About 45 percent of local pregnant women test HIV positive, and most residents rely on water from rivers and boreholes, making them susceptible to cholera outbreaks.

Music For Life, an interdenominational Christian organization, raised $3.7 million in 2003, according to GuideStar, a national database of charitable organizations operated by Philanthropic Research Inc.

The choir's concerts are generally free, though plates are passed for donations.

While on tour, the choir travels by bus and members stay in the homes of families that volunteer to host them.

About 800 children, serving stints of a little more than a year, have been in the choir since the program began.

"Each group usually tours North America for a year, then has a smaller tour in Europe, then heads back to their towns to continue their education," said Darlana Steunenberg, a spokesperson for the choir. Some have gone on to careers as doctors, engineers and pastors.

The choir performed at Central Assembly of God in Cumberland Wednesday night, spent the night at homes of church members, then returned to the church yesterday for schooling. Two teachers are among the eight adults that travel with the group, and classes are held four days a week.

"They were awesome," said Sue Robinette, administrative assistant to the pastor and coordinator of the Cumberland event. "The church was packed and they really had the crowd going. Their energy is just amazing. Everybody here looks forward to them coming, and the people who have housed them before all want to do it again."

Tour leader Lytle said the choir members manage to work in some fun along the way. They visited Disney World, toured the Smithsonian Institution and Washington's monuments and enjoyed the scenic hills of Cumberland.

"They talk and read. Many of them knit and crochet. They listen to music. They love the bus," she said. "The longer the bus ride, the better. It's our family time."

Concert

What: African Children's Choir

Where: St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church, 5401 Loch Raven Blvd.

When: 7:30 tonight

Admission: Free, donations accepted

Also appearing: 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., May 1, Trinity Assembly of God, Lutherville

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