The 16 young members of the African Children’s Choir pounded drums, blew on horns, whirled and danced frenetically and sang with a cheerful majesty that fit the setting for their Sunday morning performance, the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Buffalo.
The enthusiastically received performance was the first of two shows in Buffalo for the choir, which is on a one-year tour of the United States to raise money to help children in Africa who suffer the effects of war, poverty and disease.
The boys and girls in the choir, all elementary school-aged children from Uganda, travel by bus, stay with host families or organizations and are promised a free education upon their return to their home country.
The choir members miss their families but they’ve gotten to see snow, eat pizza and hot dogs, connect with audiences and get exposure to the wider world outside their home communities.
“It’s opening their eyes when they’re here,” said Catherine Wake, the choir’s tour leader.
The choir that stopped in Buffalo is one of two African Children’s Choirs now touring and performing in this country – and it is the 40th choir established by the Music is Life Institute since Ray Barnett formed the organization in 1984, Wake said.
Children are selected for the choir based not just on their ability to sing and dance but also on how much they would benefit from participating in the program, which will pay the full cost of their education through college.
This is an important consideration, even at the primary level, because many of the children come from families who can’t afford school fees or the cost of a school uniform, Wake said, while a few have lost loved ones to the conflicts that rage in parts of Africa.
Hope Linda Nakiyimba, a 9-year-old choir member from Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, said she and her mother found out about the choir through their church. She said she’s glad she was accepted into it “because when you get in the choir, you don’t pay money for school.”
After months of training, including instruction in English, the children in Choir No. 40 – eight boys and eight girls, between the ages of 7 and 10 – and eight chaperones flew to this country in late January, beginning their 12-month tour as ambassadors for their home continent.
Another member, 8-year-old Joshua Bugembe Samuel, said the choir has visited North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York, and he pronounced the state names quite well indeed.
He said he’s still getting used to winter in the northeastern United States. “I like heat,” Joshua said, though Hope said she liked seeing snow for the first time.
Joshua and Hope both enjoyed eating hot dogs for the first time. Asked what she didn’t like, Hope turned to chaperone Alyssa Figueiredo to ask for the name of a green food item the children tasted.
“Pickles?” Figueiredo said, and Hope nodded as she made a face.
The trip to America is opening a new future for the children. Before the tour started, when the children were asked what they want to be when they grow up, they primarily expressed interest in becoming pilots or doctors, Wake said.
Now, they talk about teaching, working as dentists, playing basketball or various other careers, she said.
“Their world is being broadened,” Wake said.
Sunday, the choir performed for about an hour at the First Presbyterian Church on Symphony Circle. The performance was choreographed by former choir members, who also designed the children’s costumes.
They perform a mix of traditional African songs and dances as well as gospel songs such as “Amazing Grace” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
Good salespeople that they are, the children at the end of their show held up the CDs, DVDs and T-shirts that are sold after every performance to raise money for the choir.
Souvenir sales, sponsorships and the generosity of their hosts help cover the cost of the choir’s travels and support the Music is Life Institute’s work with children in Uganda and six other African countries.
The tour, which provides a teacher to keep the choir members from getting behind in their studies, is scheduled for 12 months but could last as long as 18 months if it is extended.
Later Sunday, the choir planned to perform at St. Columba-Brigid Church, where the choir members and their chaperones are staying for the next several days.
The choir will perform at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Kenmore United Methodist Church, 32 Landers Road, and at 6 p.m. Friday in Mount Zion Baptist Church, 1334 Calumet Ave., Niagara Falls.