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Singing Out for Ugandan Orphans : Touring Choir Raises Funds for Children Back Home

July 31, 1986|GARY LIBMAN

John Kiboneka, 13, saw soldiers shoot his father to death at their front door.

The same fate befell 6-year-old Esther Bulyaba's father on the street of their village a few months before her mother died of cancer.

Moses Zimwanguyiza, 13, hid in the bush when soldiers attacked his village. Later, neighbors told him his parents were dead and he spent two years, much of it foraging for food with five brothers and sisters, trying to reach his relatives in a city 70 miles away. Two of his sisters died on the journey.

John, Esther and Moses are among 30 Ugandan youngsters visiting here who lost one or both parents, most in similarly violent circumstances, when as many as 1 million people were killed under Ugandan leaders Idi Amin (1971-1979) and Milton Obote (1980-85).

Ranging in age from 6 to 13, they are singing with the African Children's Choir through Aug. 10 in Southern California to raise money for Ugandan orphans.

Although no firm figures exist on the number of parentless children in the central African nation of 12 million, a Los Angeles spokesman for the Red Cross said that 50,000 may be a good estimate.

The children are scheduled to appear Sunday at 9:30 and 11 a.m. at the Lakewood Village Community Church in Long Beach and at 6 p.m. in the Whittier Area Baptist Church in Whittier.

The strategy of letting orphans sing to raise money for other parentless children was devised on a 1984 trip to Uganda by the Rev. Ray Barnett of Vancouver, British Columbia, who had heard children sing on previous visits there.

In 1984 he saw thousands of starving people in camps and children living in a government orphanage. "The children were living in what looked like a bombed-out vacant house," he said.

He decided that singing children would poignantly dramatize the plight of others.

Joining other Canadian pastors in Ambassadors of Aid, a nondenominational, nonprofit group, he organized a 31-child choir, which raised $281,000 during an 18-month tour of the United States, Canada and Europe starting in September, 1984.

With the money, the Ambassadors of Aid spent $50,000 to buy a home for 30 orphans in the Ugandan capital of Kampala and rented a home near that city for 30 more.

Most of the rest of the money, including a $20,000 medical insurance policy, went to benefit the children in the choir, said the Rev. Alex Palmer of Vancouver, a member of Ambassadors of Aid board of directors.

A second choir began singing in the United States in February to raise money to open three more orphanages.

"We figure we can rent a (large) home and feed, clothe and educate 25 to 30 children for $600 to $700 a month," Barnett said.

Upbeat Religious Music

The children raise money by appearing primarily in churches, where audiences appreciate their upbeat religious music.

Before a recent concert at the nondenominational Christ Chapel in Gardena, girls wearing konsoos , pink, ankle-length print dresses, and boys clothed in bsudis , knee-length white cotton robes, waited quietly in pews, the boys in one part of the church and the girls in another.

An hour before the concert they walked to a room behind the stage where they knelt for half an hour of devotions.

Shortly after the service started, the boys and girls walked separately down two aisles clapping and singing to a rhythmic recording of "Highway to Heaven."

For more than an hour, the smiling children stood on risers, singing 15 foot-tapping hymns. The congregants raised their hands, signifying that they were worshiping with the singers, and applauded enthusiastically.

When the youngsters finished, they exited singing and clapping to the front porch of the stucco church, where they tugged at their choir director, Florence Bagunywa. She picked some of them up and hugged them.

Later the children sat at small tables in a church classroom and happily ate a chicken dinner, periodically flicking colorful balloons tied to lollipops in front of them.

The next day at Biola University, where they are staying in a dormitory, they arose early for their daily classes supervised by Ambassadors of Aid. The youngsters worked quietly in a classroom, the boys wearing white shirts and gray pants and the girls in white blouses and blue jumpers.

As Ugandan teachers stood nearby, they filled English, math, science and social studies workbooks.

Half of them spoke no English when they arrived in Canada in November, but after nine months in Canada and the United States they all speak well enough to carry on conversations in English.

That is not all they have learned. The children saw escalators for the first time at the airport in Kenya, their first stop outside Uganda.

"You couldn't imagine the racket," said choir leader Bagunywa. "We couldn't persuade them to get on--even lifting them on."

Not Eager to Go Home

In all, however, they have grown comfortable in their American surroundings and will be disappointed to return home.

Moses Zimwanguyiza recalled that when he was at home "soldiers came to my house and stole everything and if you don't give them the things they want, they kill you."

In this country, he said, he has enjoyed "the rides at Disneyland and how people show us love."

"At the time I lost my parents," he said, "I was so sad, but now I'm not."

"At the time they left Uganda the turmoil was there--the shooting and the killing," Bagunywa said as she joined the children at dinner after their concert.

"They love it here. It's peaceful. There's plenty of food. Everybody loves them. They don't see violence. They don't see gunfire."

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