In 1984, Irish-born minister Ray Barnett was on his way to a speaking engagement in Vancouver, Canada, when the words of a radio news flash caught his attention: “In Northern Uganda, the German Red Cross estimates that over 150,000 orphans are starving to death”.
Ray was stunned and resolved to return to Uganda immediately. Previously his human rights work with Friends in the West (which laid the foundation for Music for Life organization) had taken Ray to Uganda prior to the civil war, when he had learned about a group of Christians being brutally tortured and randomly slaughtered because of their religious convictions. Despite the dangers, Ray had met with these ‘underground’ Christians and heard their stories of torture, “disappearances”, murder, and of Idi Amin’s oppressive army-state regime. Ray reluctantly left Uganda at that time; unable to do much, but never forgot about his friends.
When Ray returned to Uganda, he found a country in ruins. “The real horror for me came when I was taken out to where government forces held refugees for what they termed ‘processing’,” Ray recalls softly, “It looked like Auschwitz; people were emaciated and I learned that at night they were being dragged out at random and just disappeared.” Children were suffering the most. Orphaned, homeless children were everywhere, rummaging through garbage cans and begging in an effort to stay alive.
The Birth of a Choir
One day, while traveling through some of the dusty roads of rural Uganda, Ray was asked to give a ride to a young boy from his village into the city. The little boy sang during the entire two-hour trip; that’s when the idea of a children’s choir was planted in Ray’s heart. “I thought if we could take a group of these beautiful children to the West, it would surely raise awareness and funds to help them and their country.” Ray acted quickly, forming a team of volunteers who approached churches throughout Uganda to select and train 30 orphaned children for a choir. Later that year, after obtaining government permission and passports to allow the children to travel – a very difficult process in a war torn country – the first African Children’s Choir was off to tour North America.
The African Children’s Choir, which is the trade name for Music for Life Organization, has been touring ever since with a mission to help Africa’s most vulnerable children today, so that they can help Africa tomorrow. Mwai Githinji, the Kenyan office Director for Music for Life, reckons that this has come full circle since the days of the first choir 25 years ago. “It is the most fulfilling feeling, to see a child join the choir from a background of limited potential and through our program; years later see them grow into responsible and empowered adults able to take care of not only themselves, but also those of a similar background.” The process of choir selection starts with children aged between 7 and 11 years attending a Music for Life camp. These camps typically provide a fun and stimulating environment far apart from their usual daily hardships at home. After various tests for audition, a number of children are selected. Choir teams will then spend the next few days visiting the children’s homes to determine their individual needs and suitability for tour life. Their next task is quite difficult; selecting the group of children from various African countries who will form the next African Children’s Choir.
Since inception, a total of 32 choirs have been formed with two choirs currently on tour. In addition two choir groups, the 1st and 2nd choir groups from Nkomazi region in Mpumalanga province of North Eastern South Africa have been coined so far. This area on the Mozambican border of South Africa has been particularly ravaged by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and as a result many of the children in the choir are orphans. It is while on tour that the children are exposed to a world of possibilities. Chaperons, host families and caring professionals accompanying the children will share their wide variety of experiences with the children, exposing them to many ideas while encouraging them to have great dreams.
Jerusha, an African Children’s Choir alumnus answers “Music is the best way to express oneself as a child; it not only helps them to express themselves but is an integral part of the counseling and education process for the children. Through music, the children are empowered to have an open mind with a broader way of thinking while retaining their African culture.” She adds on that “music is universally enjoyed, cutting across all ranks of the global societies.” Through their worldwide acclaimed songs and performances, the African Children’s Choir has shown the world that even the most vulnerable and needy children have beauty, dignity, and unlimited ability. By way of touring, the choir has raised funds for continued development and support of the Music for Life programs. The Choir’s international educational endeavor also provides unique training for the children. After completion of a tour, choir members return to their homelands with the tools necessary for bettering their future. These children, most of whom who come from backgrounds of extreme poverty due to loss of one or both parents, also get a new family in the choir from which they derive love, fellowship and education.
The choir’s music is mostly a blend of traditional, spiritual and contemporary African tunes. It features well-loved children’s songs, hand clapping and dancing. Nearly every performance is concluded with a thunderous standing ovation. A marvelous by-product of the concert is the inspiration the music brings to virtually every listener. In spite of the tragedy that has marred their young lives, the children are radiant with hope, musically gifted and wonderfully entertaining.
The Gift of Education
Education is key in the transformation of the children and since its inception in 1984; the African Children’s Choir has helped to establish numerous schools in various African countries. This emphasis on education is evident in that new choir members are selected every year so that previous members may return to Africa and have their schooling completely funded by the tour activities of the choir. These determined children work towards the goal of attending university programs and becoming valuable, productive citizens of their homelands. Choir members also serve as ambassadors for all children in Africa who have become orphans because of the AIDS pandemic. The Music for Life Organization has also been instrumental in financing tuition for thousands of other children besides choir members who would otherwise have no access to an education. “We recognized early on that education is the key to long-term change and advancement in Africa”, says Choir Founder Ray Barnett. “It’s the children who will become the leaders of tomorrow and can make the difference. By helping one child at a time, we can move mountains”.
Partners in Success
The African Children’s Choir owes its success to the general congregation that children have performed to over the years. They have been the ones who through their donations, child sponsorship and the like, have seen the vision of the founders come to its fulfillment. Other cadres of support have been the Choir’s alumni, various Christian organizations and chaperones who have undertaken to be primary caretakers of the children while on tour. Mwai Githinji appeals to corporate players in the region to partner with Music for Life in its quest to offer a better future for Africa’s most vulnerable children. “Through corporate support, we would be able to expand the program to cover more children and regions”, he says.
The Testimony of the Alumni
David’s family migrated from the Ukambani region of Kenya in 1990 and settled in the Kibera slums of Nairobi. This coincided with Music for Life’s entry into Kenya and when the auditions came knocking, he gave it a try, among hundreds of other aspiring children. The rest, according to him, is a life changing experience which can only be attributed to God’s grace and the generosity of audiences wherever the choir performs. David holds a degree in business administration. Another alumnus, Jerusha, adds to David’s testimony, “No words can explain the impact the African Children’s Choir has had on my life. I not only became part of a big family which mentored and monitored my progress but I also got a quality education.” Brought up in a rural Maasai community in the Narok area of Kenya, she holds a degree in information technology and counts herself lucky to have joined the choir. Her peers, in comparison, never had a chance to pursue education with some being married off at an early age in line with dictates of the Maasai culture. True to the spirit of the African Children’s Choir, she currently mentors children in her rural home while at the same time is a guardian for the current crop of choir members. Jerusha and David, two of the many accomplished individuals who are beneficiaries of the Music for Life initiative, currently serve as full time employees with the African Children’s Choir.
Despite this success, the Music for Life organization has encountered some challenges in its operations. Notable among this is the fact that though it has pledged to cater for the cost of schooling these children, the cost of tertiary education has gone up. This, notes Mwai Githinji, “is one area that we will request for both individual and corporate support to ensure that these children realize their dream careers.” Another area of concern is in ensuring that these children retain the values and character they attain while in the African Children’s Choir. The organization endeavors to achieve this through continued mentorship and monitoring of the children in and outside the choir program.
A Globally Celebrated Choir
In the past, the choir has performed at many prestigious concerts and popular television shows including American Idol, The Ellen Show, Live 8, Jay Leno, OneXOne and Good Morning America. They have also performed alongside a number of well known artists and musicians including the National symphony orchestra of Belgium, Michael Smith, Bono, Will Smith,Wyclef Jean, Bobby McFerrin, Mariah Carey, Chantal Kreviazuk, and Josh Groban to name only but a few. Soundtracks by the choir include those for Warner Bros’ ‘Blood Diamond’ and the documentary ‘Running the Sahara’. The choir has also performed before Queen Elizabeth, former President Bush, Kofi Annan and President Museveni.
The Future of the Choir
As future choir groups are formed through this successful program, their sustainability and impact on target children will only be possible if more corporate and individual partners come on board. Ray Barnett has served as the holder of the vision and the innovator of the choir’s work but there is still more to be done. Through diverse forms of partnership, helping one child at a time, we can move mountains.