The lighthearted, colorful song and dance subsided, the glistening smiles faded, and a more somber, serious tone commanded the stage.
The lighting shifted, individually spotlighting each child as he or she spoke.
“My mother left me in the hospital,” 12-year-old Steven told the audience. He never met his father.
“That was the worst year of my life,” Mariam, also 12, said, explaining the year her father and mother died.
“All of my family is dead,” another boy said.
Audience members brushed away tears Sunday in Expressway Assembly of God, where churchgoers gathered for a special service packed with a sometimes heart-rending, other times spirited and fast-paced performance by Uganda’s Watoto Choir. With weekend performances at Expressway Assembly of God, Alden Mennonite Church and Victory Assembly of God, Western New York was the choir’s latest stop on a months-long tour across the United States to raise awareness about the plight of Africa’s children.
Children are often relegated to scrounging for food in Ugandan villages afflicted by HIV/AIDS, choir leader Brian Katongole said, adding that all of the children who belong to the choir were abandoned or orphaned. By adopting the children, Watoto Church provides shelter and a stable upbringing until the children reach early adulthood. The choir is one aspect of that experience, with each child granted a one-year leave from school to perform.
“This choir is the face of our organization,” Katongole said. “They’re the voices for the voiceless in Africa.”
For 13-year-old Winnie Nakate, the whirlwind tour has exposed her to surprising aspects of American life – skyscrapers, big and small cars, and her favorite American food, chicken. Onstage, she likes watching the happiness dance across audience members’ faces as her troupe members shake their hips and make sharp, rapid movements to the drumbeats’ quick tempo.
“I love it, because when we dance, we touch the hearts of many people,” said Winnie, who Sunday wore a long, sky blue replica of a gomesi, a traditional Ugandan concert dress. A beaded red and green headband was behind her ears, and a feathered band around her waist.
During the choir’s performance, church member Antoine Davis’ lanky 6-foot frame rose from the pews and began swaying to the music’s quick pace.
“The music just makes me want to get off of my feet and start moving and start dancing,” the 25-year-old said after the performance. “The music just moves you from the inside, and it’s hard to just sit there.”
The choir danced and sang in coordinated movements throughout the approximately one-hour service, with crowd participation as the morning progressed. For the finale, four boys dressed in cheetah-print pants jumped onstage with individualized drums, a white handprint painted across their exposed bellies. The remaining members of the choir eventually burst onstage and into song, with the girls swaying their skirts while proudly echoing “My Africa, my Africa.”
While the morning was equally informative and emotional, it was also humbling for church member Debbie Kufel and her husband, who hosted choir members in their home over the weekend. Kufel said she has hosted members from the choir four times.
One year, she said, a child pointed to a water dispenser and asked, “What is that?”
The interaction reminded Kufel of how fortunate she is and how different her living conditions are, she said.
“We receive as much as they do” from the visits, she said.