African children sing their way to better lives

The African Children’s Choir was on a bus “headed somewhere in BC.” “We’re going someplace called Watson Lake,”…

The African Children’s Choir was on a bus “headed somewhere in BC.”

“We’re going someplace called Watson Lake,” said one of the chaperones, his thick accent barely audible above the buzz of children’s voices.

He just started to talk about their adventures coming up the Alaska Highway, when the cellphone cut out.

The African Children’s Choir has been to Whitehorse before, but it’s a first for this group of children.

Between the ages of seven and 11, the 26 young singers all have one thing in common.

“They come from extreme circumstances,” said choir publicist Dawna Hodgins from Vancouver.

“They come from extreme poverty or are AIDS orphans.

“Many have lost one or both of their parents.”

The children’s choir was inspired 23 years ago by one young boy in Uganda.

In the early 1980s, human-rights activist Ray Barnett flew to the war-torn country to try and help the persecuted Christians.

While attending underground church meetings, Barnett heard tales of torture and murder.

Feeling helpless, he left the country after only a few days to continue his aid work in the Soviet Union and Middle East.

Then in 1984, driving to a conference in Vancouver, Barnett heard a horrifying newscast on the radio — 150,000 orphan children in Northern Uganda were starving to death.

Barnett flew back to Uganda.

He found street children begging for food and rummaging through garbage in a desperate attempt to stay alive.

During the visit, he picked up a little boy who was walking toward the nearest city.

The boy sang the whole way.

That’s when it hit him.

Barnett would bring some of these children to the West to raise awareness about the Ugandan crisis.

That same year, he brought the first African Children’s Choir to Vancouver.

More than two decades later, the choir operates schools in seven different African countries.

“Every year hundreds of children audition for the choir,” said Hodgins.

Only 25 get in.

After five months of training, the singers head to the West to tour for 12 to 15 months.

There’s some culture shock, said Hodgins.

“Little things we take for granted like microwaves and washing machines, they’ve never seen before,” she said.

“And they think bath tubs are swimming pools.”

The organization tries to maintain the children’s culture as much as possible, added Hodgins.

“So when they’re staying with host families they don’t watch TV, because there won’t be any TV when they go home to Africa.”

Sometimes the host families form special bonds with the children, said Hodgins, citing Stella.

Until a few months ago, the little girl was almost completely deaf.

She ended up staying with a doctor and his family in California.

The physician performed surgery on Stella’s ears with donated equipment.

Now she can hear, said Hodgins.

This year’s choir has been to Disneyland, visited the San Diego Zoo and has been on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

“They’re on tour, but they’re still kids and we allow them the opportunity to still be children,” said Hodgins.

After a year touring abroad, the children return to one of the choir schools to finish their primary education.

The organization then pays for their high school and college classes.

“We had kids in the choir who are now doctors, civil engineers, journalists, social workers, pastors and teachers,” said Hodgins.

A number of the graduates have also returned to work with the African Children’s Choir as chaperones, administrators and fundraisers.

“All our funding comes from donations,” she said.

There are now three children’s choirs touring the world, and a fourth is supposed to start up this winter.

The children sing gospel, traditional music, some recognizable children’s songs and contemporary pieces.

On Sunday, the African Children’s Choir will be singing at the Yukon Bible Fellowship at 10:30 a.m. and at the Yukon Arts Centre at 6 p.m.

Admission is by donation for both shows.

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