On several occasions-when people see Ugandan children of various ages on a stage – out of the country, say in Europe or USA – dressed in uniform, singing gospel songs, and dancing, the assumption is that it is Watoto Children’s Choir (WCC). That is how African Children’s Choir (ACC) have found themselves being labelled Watoto Children’s Choir a number of times, the latest being the time they performed during Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London.
The fact that both are African children’s choirs, with a similar age group and type of music they sing, is the major reason for the confusion, Ibrahim Kiyingi, the programme coordinator of ACC explains.
“We are both Christian organisations, both looking after children, both after the cause of helping the African child and empowering them through education. I think that’s why people confuse us,” he adds.
Kiyingi is among the beneficiaries of this Christian-founded organisation, which began on the premise of majorly helping the disadvantaged from Africa’s less fortunate homes and suburbs.
“After the loss of both my parents I was chosen to join. I went to school and graduated as a computer software engineer. I came back to help,” Kiyingi said as he prepared the 24-member group who performed at a concert at Hotel Africana, during the Tumani Awards gala night.
The organisation is all fruition of efforts by Ray Barnett, an Irish minister, who travelled to Uganda in 1984 to see, first-hand, what he could do to alleviate the suffering of children in post –Idi-Amin Uganda.
Barnett says he was inspired by the singing of one small boy, who was to lead a legacy of choirs that have now travelled the world and grown in number, 39 to be exact, since 1984.
“We formed the first ACC to show the world that Africa’s most vulnerable children have beauty, dignity and unlimited potential,” Barnett explains his objective in starting the choir.
His dream has come true. Over the years the children’s choir has made its mark in the west, singing and representing Uganda on international stages with gospel and traditional music, even sharing the stage with international artistes.
A little known choir, formed in 1984, of selected orphans and vulnerable children is now an international brand.
Nine-year-old Julius Mugambya tells how he joined. “I joined ACC in 2008 when I was six years old. They were choosing children to join the choir so I was lucky to be chosen from Mityana. I am a dancer and vocalist. They chose me because I had the right attitude they were looking for,” he explains.
And what might the right attitude be? Scott Lambie, says that they are grooming the children to be leaders so they need to have the capacity to be such.
The opportunity to join found Lydia Inzikuru in church. “I joined in 2008 from Arua. I was at church when a group came and said they wanted 11 children from Arua. We went for practice and I was chosen. And we came to Kampala,” the 11-year-old pupil recounts.
She adds, “We trained for nine months and then we went to America. I love America because we travelled for one year and came back to school. I go to school at the ACC School in Entebbe. I am a singer. Before I joined, I didn’t know about Jesus but now I have learned and embraced Christ.”
The African Children’s Choir covers seven African countries, namely, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Nigerian, Rwanda and South Sudan.
At the moment they have 130 pupils in Uganda at a school they set up, African Children’s Choir Primary School in Entebbe.
According to Benet Twesigome, the child rights coordinator, the organisation has different centres and locations that they work with, mainly with schools and churches.
“When a church or school we work with identifies children, we actually go and visit and meet the parents or guardian of the children to find out whether they are needy. We do a lot of background checks to see whether they are the children we are looking for.
“We are mostly looking at children of seven to nine years then we can enroll them and begin looking for sponsors for them. So we audition children based on their capabilities to sing and dance and cope with school while on tour, meaning that they should be able to actually sing and be in school at the same time,” he says. This is a rather tall order, especially for the young children. This is why, Twesigome says, the children chosen have to have the qualities of being able to learn.
“We have teachers that travel with them on tour so that they do not miss out on school even as we are on tour. We have our own schools but we also help the children from different schools. When they qualify, they are left in those schools and they will be supported while there,” he says.
When a child is enrolled, they are initiated into a system of the programmes that the organisation runs, that is music and dance. So, the children study during the morning and then practice music and dance in the afternoon.
The financing of their studies is done when they travel out of the country to perform in different countries. Stella Nabatanzi one of the children recalls the trip to England, where she and others sang for the queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II, at her Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
She also talks about the perks that come with being part of the ACC, “They pay school fees for us and we go out of the country. I have one brother and both my parents. The choir has changed my life because we are poor. Because they [ACC] pay my fees, my parents can pay for my brother.”
Nabatanzi is one of the voices that represent the plight of thousands of vulnerable children in Uganda. Ironically, their plight helps them attract support in this organisation.
Twesigome says, “Different organisations and individuals sign up and make a commitment to sponsor these children.” He would know as he has been one of these children.
“As a little boy, seven years old, my mother happened to hear about the African Children’s Choir because they had a branch in Kabale. I auditioned and was enrolled. I was in Primary One, about to join Primary Two. In the 1980s, it was not easy for my mother who had a family of nine to raise and she had been looking for someone to help,” he recollects.
He was educated right from primary one until he graduated with a diploma in Tours and Travel from Cape Town- South Africa.
Apart from getting children to help educate, ACC has other programmes.
“One of them is working with the different schools, like those in the slums and other areas that need help and we bring life skills and music into their daily programme,” Twesigome explains. “For instance we work with St Paul’s in Mulago, Bukoto Community School, St Nicholas in Kalerwe area, Grace Fellowship in Kivulu, and in Entebbe we work with Nkumba Christian School. These are all primary schools.”
He says these programmes help children become active in school as evidenced by the fact that the days when they work with the schools is when the schools will register the highest attendance.