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Published: Thursday, 10/11/2007

Children helping children: African choir's goal is to raise awareness of poverty and AIDS

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The African Children's Choir performs at 7 p.m. Sunday in the Valentine Theatre, 400 North Superior St. Tickets are $31 to $39 from the box office, 419-242-2787.
The African Children's Choir performs at 7 p.m. Sunday in the Valentine Theatre, 400 North Superior St. Tickets are $31 to $39 from the box office, 419-242-2787.
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The African Children's Choir, which performs Sunday at the Valentine Theatre, travels the world entertaining audiences with exuberant renditions of such songs as "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," "O Happy Day," and traditional African numbers "Ujesu" and "Babambulele."

But it was sadness and suffering, not the bright smiles and joy seen on stage these days, that inspired the founding of the choir in 1984.

The Rev. Ray Barnett, a human rights activist from Ireland, visited Uganda that year and saw a nation devastated by dictator Idi Amin's tyrannical reign. There were an estimated 150,000 orphans in the country, and most of them were starving to death, according to Red Cross reports.

Mr. Barnett came up with the idea of organizing a choir of orphan children to sing in North America and Europe to raise awareness of their nation's plight.

"I thought, if we could take a group of these beautiful children to the West, that would surely raise money to help their country," Mr. Barnett said.

It was supposed to be a one-time endeavor, but the choir was so popular and Uganda's needs so severe that the choir has continued to tour and record ever since.

One of the children who was chosen for the first choir in 1984, Elsa Mugyenzi, is now traveling with the choir as a chaperone.

"I was 9 and had no mom and I was not going to school, actually because of poverty," Ms. Mugyenzi said in an interview. "I was in the choir for 15 months, we toured North America, and after the program I went back [to Uganda] and went to school. In 2000, I started traveling as a chaperone."

She remembers how dire her situation was when she was chosen from the 500 children who auditioned.

"I was not in school, and even getting food, just the basics of life, was hard, almost impossible," she said.

The children, most of whom have lost at least one parent, now tour with the choir for one year, after which they return to their homeland and attend boarding schools operated by Music for Life, the parent organization of the African Children's Choir.

Most of the singers still come from Uganda but some are from Rwanda, Sudan, and other troubled African nations, Ms. Mugyenzi said. Back in its founding years, oppression, war, and famine were the main reasons that children became orphans; today AIDS is the major contributing factor.

"The real mission of the African Children's Choir is to let the world know that there is hope for African children," Ms. Mugyenzi said. "Every child has a right to food, clothing, and education. And I think the choir is kind of carrying that forward."

She described the concerts as "high energy, emotional. You rarely find somebody in the audience who isn't in tears. You can tell when these children are on stage, they're so happy, there's so much love. People are totally impacted by the performances."

Mr. Mugyenzi said the children travel with tutors and must complete their school work while traveling.

In the past, the African Children's Choir usually performed in churches whose members provided overnight housing for the children, but on the current tour the concerts are mostly in halls and the choir members are staying in hotels, Ms. Mugyenzi said.

Last month, the choir sang at Carnegie Hall for the Clinton Global Citizen Awards ceremony, which also featured Tony Bennett, and also at the Liberty Medal ceremony honoring U2 singer Bono for his work in fighting poverty and disease in Africa.

Ms. Mugyenzi is one of 11 chaperones watching the 22 children on the current tour, which begins tomorrow in Asheville, N.C..

"You know, children are children," she said. "They have their moments. It's exhausting but it's fulfilling. The chaperones come and volunteer their time and just love the children."

The one thing all the young choir members look forward to is a visit to one of America's famous fast-food eateries, according to Ms. Mugyenzi.

"Of course they love McDonald's. Their favorite food is fries and milkshakes," she said with a laugh.

The African Children's Choir performs at 7 p.m. Sunday in the Valentine Theatre, 400 North Superior St. Tickets are $31 to $39 from the box office, 419-242-2787.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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