A group of ambassadors, 22 to be exact, will be swinging through Washington County in the coming week, singing and dancing along the way, and maybe, adding a few smiles and giggles.
The Watoto Children’s Choir, made up of 11 boys and 11 girls, is unlike any other musical group. Its members are children who have faced unspeakable horrors in central Africa: abandonment, war, HIV/AIDS and other diseases, desperate poverty, conscription into military service and the loss of one or both parents.
Yet, when they sing, dance and share their stories at churches in Stillwater and Lake Elmo, they will exude an exuberance and joy that belies the tragedies that have shaped their lives.
It is a deeply religious faith that buoys the choir members, and has been helping redirect their lives for 20 years, said Phillip Mugerwa, one of the choir’s leaders who will be accompanying the children on their six-month tour in the United States.
“It’s all through the transformative power of Jesus Christ,” Mugerwa said. “It’s the hope they have in Christ — that’s the only way we can change the lives of these children. They know that God has a plan for them. They know that no matter what they’ve been through, they are not forgotten.”
Children in the choir come to Watoto, based in Kampala, Uganda, under any number of traumatic circumstances, Mugerwa said. Vulnerable women also are welcomed.
In Kampala and two other nearby cities, “villages” are made up of clusters of eight homes that house eight children under the watchful eye of a foster mother. While there, the children get the care and nurturing they desperately need, Mugerwa said.
“We don’t believe in having an orphanage,” he said. The care includes medical attention — including intervention to treat HIV/AIDS, which is rampant across Africa and has orphaned an estimated 14 million children — formal and technical education, trauma counseling and spiritual care.
There are three choirs — one each touring the Unites States, Canada and Europe. The choirs have been to other continents as well, touring for six months before returning home.
All are made up of musicians with a mission, Mugerwa said.
One goal is to share their spiritual message, infused with hope drawn from their stories. Another is to raise awareness of the plight of Africa’s children. The performances and sales of CDs also raise money to keep the Watoto mission going.
Another aim of the program is to raise a new generation of African leaders who are well-educated with a strong moral footing and who have risen above tragic circumstances, Mugerwa said. The touring affords the children a larger view of the world they otherwise could not have.