PORT ORCHARD — Here’s fair warning to those planning to attend the African Children’s Choir performance at the First Baptist Church of Port Orchard on Sept. 26 — prepare to be charmed out of your seats by a smiling, joyful collection of nine girls and eight boys who have traveled half a world to North America from their impoverished homeland in Uganda to sing in churches across the western United States.
These children, ages 7 to 10, can’t help but lift the hearts of concertgoers with their abundance of charm, tuneful voices and youthful energy as they perform a program of traditional spirituals and gospel songs, and well-loved African children’s music and dances.
But as much enthusiasm and energy the youngsters share with their audiences during this nine-month tour (including six months along the West Coast), in return, they are reaping the benefits of meeting people from a world away, as well as seeing and experiencing things they otherwise would never be able to at home.
The youngsters haven’t yet graduated beyond elementary school, but the choir members undoubtedly recognize their lifelong fortune in becoming part of the organization, said Tina Sipp, choir director of the African Children’s Choir for the past three years. She’s been with the choir, sponsored by Music for Life, a Christian-centered parent organization, for 15 years as it has educated and provided life direction for more than 52,000 children during its 34-year existence.
While music performed by these traveling singers and dancers has nourished the souls of American audiences over the years, the experience of traveling throughout the country, staying with host families and seeing new things has helped elevate these children’s lives well beyond what typically would have awaited them growing up in Africa.
Education is the key
Music has been the catalyst, but education has been central to transforming the children’s lives. The African Children’s Choir program has for several decades recruited families that could benefit from its assistance and helped select children to become members of their traveling choir. The children are then enrolled in the organization’s sponsored schools free of charge. Uniforms and school supplies are also provided without cost.
“Without an education, it’s very difficult to become self-sustaining [in Uganda],” Sipp said by telephone from Bellingham, where the choir was preparing for its upcoming concert in Port Angeles Sept. 19.
Financial help is critical. The average yearly household income in Uganda is $1,600.
“But if one person in the family can receive an education, that’s tremendously helpful for an entire family. That’s the piece that’s missing. There are all of these bright and beautiful children who are very capable and have all kinds of potential, but just don’t have the opportunity. We’re trying to provide the opportunity for that potential to be actualized.”
Before the children take to the road on tour, they begin learning English at the organization’s training center in Uganda.
“After about six months, not only have they learned and memorized a 60- to 90-minute music program,” Sipp said, “but they also are conversant in English — to the point where you can have a very lovely conversation with them. And, of course, when they’re here for the nine-month tour, their immersion in English really skyrockets their proficiency, as well.”
After the group of children arrives before the start of a tour, the choir director said their immersion into Western culture begins — quickly. It starts with getting the children properly clothed. Sipp said that when they arrive along with a small group of volunteer chaperones, the children bring nothing other than what they are wearing.
“We have people donate all the clothing and shoes and toiletry items in their host family bag,” she said. “The very first thing we do is outfit them. They get all these new clothes. Just last night, we gave them their Sunday shoes. You just couldn’t imagine the excitement in the air over the simplest of things, like pencils and school bags. It’s quite exciting for them and they know this is really a special time.”
At each performance stop, the sponsoring church provides host families for the children and chaperones.
“They stay in that home from one to three nights,” Sipp said, “depending on how long we’re going to be in that spot. That’s the fun of it. At each place, there’s something unique to do, whether it’s to go to the beach, horseback riding or swimming, or going to the zoo.”
But it’s not all adventure and play for the kids. They regularly engage in schoolwork that keeps them on track to advance academically when they return to Uganda after the tour. That’s noteworthy since the children’s association with ACC doesn’t end when they get home. Sipp said the young students’ education and financial needs will continue to be paid for by the organization through to the university level.
“It’s not just a tour and they’re done,” she said. “This program helps launch them into adulthood with great character, with faith and with opportunity.”
The choir director said the word “profound” doesn’t overstate what impact the program has on the lives of the children and their families.
“It’s really changing the trajectory of these lives by 180 degrees … They just get a picture of what they could someday become. They now know they can do something, and they have a completely different lens to look through their life.”
Sipp shared a story of a young girl from Uganda who joined the choir years ago when she was 7. Living in extreme poverty and raised by her grandmother, the girl’s world was confined and her outlook oblique. Never having gone to school, she was uncertain why the African Children’s Choir even wanted her to begin.
After touring with the choir and studying at school years afterward, the girl later earned the highest examination score in her grade level in Uganda. She received a presidential scholarship, followed by a full-ride scholarship to an American university in Vermont.
The young woman, who had just completed her first year of college, visited Sipp at her home recently.
“She was completely driven to study neuroscience because she wants to understand how the mind works,” Sipp said. “She sees that the education system in Uganda is limited and that it uses a rote memorization system. She wants to change that and help children be able to learn well.
“Talk about transformation. She’s making the most of her opportunity and applying herself so diligently and in such a disciplined way, that it’s been full circle for her and a beautiful thing to see.”