Eighteen children are bouncing around in a stately room, waiting to meet Laura Bush. They're singing Christmas songs, yelling about their love of spaghetti and meatballs and generally mugging for the cameras, which are there to capture their interaction with the former first lady. Their behavior is typical of young children, but the lifestyle of these kids, who belong to their African Children's Choir, is anything but typical where they're from.
The African Children's Choir was founded in Uganda in 1984 by Canadian missionary Ray Barnett. According to Heidi Moen, the choir's tour leader, Barnett was inspired by a young boy whom he'd given a ride in his car. Both of the boy's parents had recently died and yet he sang to Barnett the whole way. "He thought, 'Wow, after losing everything this child still has hope. He still has a future,'" Moen says. "That inspired the African Children’s Choir to come to be, to show the Western world the potential of the African child if just given an opportunity."
Children are invited to join the choir based on need, and when they are not touring, they attend a boarding school in Entebbe, Uganda. During a special holiday performance at the George Bush Library last night, Erin Bernhardt — who directed a documentary about the choir, Imba Means Sing — said that the children in the choir would not have been able to attend school past first grade, but the choir sees them through high school and often beyond. The choir is currently touring with its 45th group, and has educated over 52,000 children from seven African countries to date.
After introductions by Bush, the children took the stage of the library's auditorium for a high-energy, hour-long performance of song and dance. Their well-trained voices beautifully handled an array of songs in their native languages as well as English, including "This Little Light of Mine," "Amazing Grace" and "O Holy Night." For each, one child would step forward to lead.
The professionalism of the young choir once they walked out on stage, wearing matching festive orange and blue outfits, was mind-blowing. The children spent the bulk of the time on stage alone, whipping seamlessly from a song to a traditional Ugandan dance to a drum performance. At intervals, Bernhardt and choir trainer Barnett Twesigomwe got up to speak about their experiences with the children. During one segment, each child was encouraged to tell the audience what they would like to be when they grow up. "A pilot," one boy said. "The president of Uganda," a little girl said. The not-quite-full auditorium, which smelled strongly of perfume, responded with enthusiastic applause at every step.
Twesigomwe still remembers the impact that being invited to join choir number five in 1989 had on his family. "After my father died, my mother had nine of us to look after. She didn’t know where school fees would come from and a friend told her about the choir. She had to walk for three hours to where the choir was and ask them whether they could take me up," he says. "By that time they were auditioning the choir in that area and I got a chance because I enjoyed sing and dancing and I felt comfortable joining with other children."
The families of the children visit them several times a year at school in Entebbe. When they return home on breaks, staff from the choir looks in on them, and clothing and food is sent to the entire family throughout their time at the school. "They’ll never be home again in the sense of extreme poverty," says Bernhardt, who released Imba Means Sing, for which she followed choir 39, in March 2015. On tour, the children give about four performances a week — to about 100,000 people a year total — and receive English lessons to complement their immersion in an English speaking culture.
The choir call all of the staff uncle and auntie. It truly is a family — so much so that Twesigomwe never felt homesick, even leaving his entire birth family behind to go on tour at a young age. "While I was on tour it was very adventurous. I enjoyed the host families; meeting people; seeing these awesome roads and buildings and lovely food," he says. "I wasn’t really thinking about home at that time because I had my family with me. We first lived together as the African Children's Choir before going on tour, so we went as a family."
He says he didn't know what to expect before making his first visit to the U.S., but he felt he was "already in America" at the African Children's Choir primary school since they provided him a comfortable home, food and an education. Alumni of the choir have gone on to be everything from chefs to doctors to lawyers to farmers to musicians. Twesigomwe graduated with a degree in tourism before he decided to return to work with the choir. "Now that I’m touring with choir 45 I can already see that they will achieve what they say they want to be when they grow up," he says.
Sometimes opportunities for the children to learn about their dream jobs come up when they're on the road. During the Tuesday presentation, a clip from Imba Means Sing was shown in which the boy who dreams of being a pilot was invited to participate in a flight simulator while on a tour stop in Atlanta. Many of the children aspire to use their skills to improve life in their hometowns. "They say, 'I want to make it better there,'" Twesigomwe says. "We see them working in the communities, we see them working in slums."
Moen has been the tour manager of the African Children's Choir for the last three years and she says that each choir is different, but the 45th choir is a particularly exuberant bunch. She enjoys watching each child's transformation throughout the tour. "When they come to America they’re quite timid and shy and their eyes are being opened to a bigger world," she says. "Things that they never knew existed now exist. Washers and dryers are mind blowers to them because that’s something that’s a chore for them back home. ... Through their performances, through solos, through different speaking opportunities for the children, they gain confidence."
Film producer Bernhardt became acquainted with the choir after college. She was working for the band Dispatch and preparing to move to Africa as part of the Peace Corps, when the choir performed at one of the band's Madison Square Garden dates in 2007. She began following them then, and produced a film for CNN about the choir before she set to work on Imba Means Sing.
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"When I met the kids, they totally turned my perspective on life and the world upside down, and I’ve been wanting to tell their story every since," she says. All of the profits from the documentary will go to build an international high school, also in Entebbe, where the children featured in the film will be able to attend.
One moment that Bernhardt remembers particularly touched her was when she watched one of the children, Nina, return home after tour. Bernhardt and the choir chaperones had been worried about the possibility that she would be forced into prostitution when she was sent back to the slum where she lived. But Nina's reaction completely changed her perspective. "Seeing her enter Katanga, Uganda, with that much joy — she was more excited there than she had been at Disney World," Bernhardt says. "Your life is never the same after you see that."
During her time at the microphone Tuesday, Bernhardt said that one reason the choir has been so successful is that unlike many '90s TV ads calling for financial aid to Africa, which focused on the continent's plight, the choir instead showcases Africa's beautiful and rich culture as a way of inviting people from around the world to participate. Heidi Moen reiterates this. "We show a different side of Africa," Moen says. "A lot of the time you see the poverty, you see the hopelessness of Africa. The choir comes and shows the hope, the potential, the joy these children bring and that they have in their everyday lives back home."