Article By: JOANNA IRELAND Special to the Bethlehem Press
In 1984, Uganda’s civil war had been raging for several years, with hundreds of people killed in the rebellion against the Ugandan government and over 400,000 left homeless. Ray Barnett, who first visited the country in 1977, saw extreme poverty, starvation, injustice, disease and violence.
In 1984, while traveling through the war-torn country, Barnett was stopped by a young boy who needed a ride. Barnett offered the child a ride, learning that the boy had lost both parents in the war, had no home in his destroyed village, and wasn’t even sure where he’d get his next meal. During the trip, the young boy sang with joy and hope, and Barnett was moved by the beauty expressed by someone who could see the positives even in such dire circumstances.
Barnett thought about ways in which he could shed light on the war’s effects on Uganda, and especially its children, and the African Children’s Choir was born as a way to raise awareness and money to educate the continent’s children.
In the 32 years since its inception, over 52,000 children from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana have received financial support for their education through the choir.
The choir’s main goal is to ensure that Africa’s children receive educations because its founders know that helping Africa’s most vulnerable children today will provide them with the skills to help Africa tomorrow.
Training & preparation
The organization collaborates with community leaders throughout Uganda. While the leaders aren’t staff, they work with the children and identify those whom they see as a good fit. Teachers, pastors, local government people who know the community, the slums and the families know exactly who needs help to pay for schooling.
Between 50 and 70 children are invited to music camp weekend where they audition by demonstrating their drumming, singing and dancing talents. They’re also evaluated based on their ability to get along with the other kids and their behavior, says Kyle Serquinia, one of the choir’s coordinators and chaperones.
Leaders choose 20 children from the original group to attend the organization’s training academy for four and one half to five months to learn other dances, songs, and drumming. Teachers assess their educational levels, and while all Ugandan students speak some English, the academy provides intensive training in the language – and quite a bit of American culture, too.
The students are introduced to many differences between the two countries, like America’s four seasons. Uganda has two seasons: a rainy season and a dry season. The students learn about – and are quite excited to experience – autumn, winter, spring and summer once they’re here on tour.
A favorite topic includes learning about American foods, and, according to Serquinia, students are quite eager to sample pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, lasagna and other foods of which they’ve never heard when they arrive in the states.
“We spend a lot of time working on behavior while the students are at the training academy to make sure they listen and are well behaved,” Serquinia says. “We travel to so many people’s houses and different places that it would be impossible to do the tour if they weren’t well behaved. We hold them to an extremely high standard, and provide them with the skills to meet that high standard.”
impact of education
Serquinia is traveling with one of the two groups that will spend seven months touring in the United States and three months touring throughout the United Kingdom.
“I had the opportunity two summers ago to visit Uganda and see firsthand the work of the African Children’s Choir in Uganda,” Serquinia says. “I met so many young adults, now in their 20s and 30s, who were once children in the choir, who came from the worst slums, and who were provided with an education through the choir.
“These adults are now teachers, doctors, lawyers and case managers. They’ve started their own nonprofits – and they wouldn’t have had these opportunities to earn a college degree without the choir’s help.
“Now they’re educated and helping others,” he says.
Serquinia fell in love with the children. He saw the primary elementary school, funded by the African Children’s Choir, and saw how well the children were taken care of.
All students in Uganda go to boarding school – but the slum schools aren’t able to provide the opportunities and supports available at the better schools. The choir school provides three meals a day; the students have nice rooms, a library, a computer lab – so many things missing in the majority of Uganda’s schools.
“Most of the schools, especially in the slums, don’t have computer labs,” Serquinia says. “There is no library and only a few rooms, usually with 50 or 60 kids in a room.
“The real answer for Uganda to grow is for other countries to go in and help make those changes, so children can get a good education and then go back to help their country grow,” he says.
Serquinia is one of seven adult chaperones, including one licensed teacher, who accompany the group. The children receive about 15 hours of schooling a week, using the churches in which they perform as their classroom.
The challenge of ensuring they each get the education they need is only exacerbated by the fact that at some point during their elementary years, all the children have missed significant amounts of schooling, either because their families couldn’t afford to send them to the more expensive boarding schools which provide the best training or because their lives have been constantly interrupted by civil unrest.
Serquinia says the children return to the African Children’s Choir Primary School (ACPS) when they complete the tour, where they study until grade seven. When they “graduate” to the next grade, Uganda’s education system works much differently than the United States’. Students’ families must pay for tuition for three trimesters, books, supplies and uniforms. Because the best schools are boarding schools, parents also pay for room and board.
Tuition, paid at the beginning of each trimester, ranges from $25 to hundreds of dollars each term, and while $25 sounds insignificant, the families who live in slums often earn only a few hundred dollars a month, and that income must stretch to pay for rent, food, utilities, other necessities, and often the schooling for four or five children at a time.
“I didn’t realize until I visited the slums that most of the families don’t own their own homes,” Serquinia says. “So the families are renting and have so many other expenses. Many families have only one parent. Some kids on the tour are orphans or don’t even live at home, but with extended family or older siblings, because there isn’t enough room in the house or there’s too much poverty.”
Poverty is the rule, not the exception. Often up to 10 or 11 people live together in just two rooms.
“The African Children’s Choir’s mission is to help kids go to school and be change makers in the community through education – and that’s foremost: building up change makers to significantly change the community and rise above poverty,” Serquinia says.
“Our goal is to bring awareness to the western world – to show everyone the beauty and potential of these African children. We see all the problems and the issues in the media and movies, but our concerts show the beauty, passion, power and joy.
“Africa is full of joy and love – including these amazing children and the adults they become, who are bringing and doing such good things for Africa.”