Young voices perform songs of hope

African Children’s Choir makes a stop on MI

By Nancy Gould-Hilliard
Mercer Island Reporter

Children and their music are powerful transmitters.

So discovered 800 Mercer Islanders on Nov. 25 after watching a choir of 8- to 10-year-olds from Uganda “let their little lights shine” through high-energy dance, a cappella song and drums — using every fiber of their muscles and souls.

This African Children’s Choir of 26 kids and eight adults visited Mercer Island on a 13-month tour away from their plateau homeland racked by civil war, AIDS, malaria, drought and poverty. About 75 children are chosen each year, trained and tutored on the road.

Three choirs of about 25 each then tour other countries and raise funds for the welfare of as many as 7,000 African children. Many choir members have been orphaned by losing one or both parents.

Sponsored by the MI Presbyterian Church, the kids overnighted with local families. Eliana Maxim, MIPC children’s ministries director, described a sumptuous African-Caribbean meal prepared for the choir by her brother-in-law chef: lamb stew, spicy chicken, rice and red beans, tropical fruit salad and mango punch.

It was later learned that the African kids’ favorite American foods are hamburgers, French fries and pizza. Their culture doesn’t like to eat mayonnaise or combination meat and cheese sandwiches.

“The choir waited patiently with full plates in front of them, until the blessing could be said,” said Cheryl Storey, director of MIPC music ministries. “As they pray together, you can see their sincere devotion to a God who has sustained them despite extreme situations.”

Their ebullience is not confined to song and dance. During breaks and in MI homes, the children were playful, showing interests in soccer, chess, Monopoly, Legos and “sliding down carpeted stairs on their bellies.” All of the children spoke English as well as one of 42 African dialects. They expressed pride in their homeland, especially its beauty and friendliness, said the hosts.

“They taught us about being humble, grateful and respectful,” said Rosie Seeks, who hosted three boys and the director. “After eating, they always asked ‘Aunty, may I please be excused from the table,’ and they left a precious thank-you note, signed by all.”

“Excuse me, Aunty, but what does ‘fantastic’ mean?” one boy asked her upon hearing that word after their performance.

Another three boys bunked at Sam and Melinda LeClercqs, “leaving a huge impression for such a short time,” said Melinda. “They were so at ease, going downstairs and playing air hockey and reading books with our kids.”

The boys were “incredibly good-natured, polite and self-sufficient, taking care of their own clothes, showering, making beds and hand-writing their thank-you notes. I guess I learned it doesn’t take a mother to teach respect and self-discipline,” added LeClercq.

The children knew they were expected to be in bed at 8 p.m., to rise at 5:30 a.m. and had to remind their hosts. Other ground rules: no kissing, lots of hugging; no asking about families or schools, most of which have trauma attached; no watching TV or eating sweets and junk food. Mercer Island’s Don Costa found himself hopelessly trying to explain “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to the Costas’ three Ugandan guests as he read to them that evening.

Now in its 23rd year, the African Children’s Choir and its alumni have become a professional organization, staffed in part by several former choir members. Others are now teachers, nurses, medical professionals, lawyers, technicians and contributing adults of all walks.

“They have the procedures and performances down to a science,” said Storey, who also hosted them at Cross of Christ Church in Bellevue, where she worked several years ago. “They’ve achieved a disciplined touring routine that not only polishes their musical performance, but their studies, cultural courtesies and schedules. The result is a quality gift of music that moves people.”

In MIPC’s case, a free-will offering of $10,700 now goes to Music for Life, the company that administers the program. MFL raises more than $1 million a year, according to its publicist Dawna Hodgins.

Next stops for this choir are Tukwila and Bellevue. Earlier, they were on “American Idol” and the “Jay Leno Show.” They regarded these performances as “just another show” — until they saw the replay on TV and got excited.

In another month, the kids will return to MFL Primary Boarding School in Kampala. A new million-dollar academy is also planned in Entebbe, and the choir supports a teachers’ training college in South Sudan.

While church hosts agreed that the children stole their hearts, MFL publicist Hodgins said they “represent hope for other children in desperate situations, that they too may learn and grow beyond their circumstances.”

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