Midway through their performance at First Baptist Church of Christ in Oak Park, the African Children’s Choir stopped to personally thank the host families in the audience for providing them with shelter as they prepared for their performances.
“We’d like to thank all the families for opening their homes to us and giving us refuge during the tour,” said one of youngest of the 20 children performers from the stage. “Your support is greatly appreciated.”
It was a fitting intermission for a group of children that, despite enormous odds they face in their home region of Uganda, Africa, continue to find the inspiration to sing, dance and entertain audiences throughout the United States and abroad.
For 22 years, the African Children’s choir, under the guidance of parent organization Music for Life, has been stealing the hearts and minds of audiences around the world.
The first children’s choir was formed in 1984 by human rights activist Ray Barnett, and has since raised money from their performances for health and educational services for themselves and other children in their African homeland.
“We tour all throughout the United States,” said Stephanie Coleman, tour leader for the choir.
The group, of 7 to 11 year olds, tour about 12 to 15 months, Coleman said. A new choir is chosen every other year by recruiters in Uganda, and is given four months of preparation before staring their tour. Some members continue to perform after their first year.
“The African Children’s Choir has been an institution financing tuition for thousands of children who would otherwise not have been able to access the education they deserve,” said Coleman, who has worked on the tour for about three months. “This is essential in creating change and advancement in Africa.”
This current tour began in Washington, and has included dates in Indiana, Minnesota, Wyoming and New York. The group will perform in Chicago on Sunday.
In there performance this past Sunday at First Baptist Church, 820 Ontario, the children entered from behind the pews as the audience swiftly stood and clapped. The choir took to the stage to begin a rendition of “Natarba” before settling into a unison sway to “This Little Light of Mine.”
During their performance, the choir performed spiritual songs in both English and their native language to renditions of “Oh Happy Day,” “Parapanda,” “Kinakyo,” and “It Takes a Whole Village”. As they performed, the children danced to the beat of bongos, sang a cappella solos and in caroler-style hymns.
The choreography was highly structured as the children oftentimes had to dance perfectly in sync with the rhythms of the drums without accidentally making contact with one another until necessary.
The choir’s sponsors contacted First Baptist Church about allowing the group to perform there Sunday.
“At first I wasn’t sure because we get a lot of requests but unfortunately cannot accommodate everyone,” said church Pastor Harry L. Parker. “However, I did research on the group and was quite taken aback by both their history and their seniority. I also was fascinated to discover that all of the children in the choir were from families unable to pay for tuition to attend school, or orphaned because of civil war, or AIDS. Once I knew the story, I knew their performance here would be a truly unique experience for the attendees.”
Prior groups have performed for Nelson Mandela. The latest group performed at the Oscars ceremony in Hollywood earlier this year.
Along with tuition for its participants, the choir’s fund raisers have contributed to the African Outreach Academy, which provides needs such as a boarding school, a high school that currently serves 3,700 children, and a medical clinic.
Some of the children – at least three at time – stay with American host families for a night prior to their performance.
Helen Standen, one of seven host families in Oak Park, took in choir members before Sunday’s performance.
“I felt the need to prepare my home for their arrival by putting my cats and dog out
of view,” she explained. “In Uganda, they don’t keep animals in the house, so the children seeing a cat and dog in the living room would perhaps scare them.”
“It was truly a pleasure having them,” Standen added. “I felt a bit guilty for all of the things that we had in our home that they had never seen, or had the opportunity to experience. They really made me appreciate what I had that much more.”
Judy Friesen, head of the Children in Worship program at First Baptist, and an avid
listener of the African Children Choir’s recordings, said the children “are all very polite and deeply appreciative despite the hardships they have been faced with.
“They offer to [say] grace, offer thanks for the meal, and are always smiling and laughing,” Friesen said. “I am honored that I had the opportunities to contribute to them becoming the future leaders of their country.”
One of those future leaders, 8-year-old Edimond Kwikiriza, spoke briefly after Sunday’s performance about the sights and sounds in American.
“I liked the washer and dryers and the swimming,” said Kwikiriza, who’s in his third month of touring. “I like singing and people clap. Everyone is so nice to us when we recite. It makes me feel good to be here in America, but I love my home most.”
The choir will perform at First United Methodist Church at Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington on Sept. 3, and will return to Oak Park on Sept. 22 at First United Methodist Church, 324 N. Oak Park. For tour dates and additional information about the African Children’s Choir, visit www.africanchildrenschoir.com.