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Ugandan orphans find their lifeline in dance

September 26, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

For 12-year-old Teddy Namuddu of Uganda, the perfect Hollywood movie would star pop princess Beyoncé Knowles and action hero Chuck Norris. She picks Knowles because she can sing and Norris because he can kick. "I like the kicks," she said the other night, to screams of laughter from her friends. "When he acts in a movie, it's not him getting hurt, it's other people getting hurt."

Teddy's in Los Angeles this week, but it's not her first trip to the United States. Like her idol Norris, she is a veteran performer. She and 19 other dancers and musicians, ages 8 to 18, are traveling together as members of Spirit of Uganda, a troupe that presents traditional East African dance and music. With the group, founded in 1996, Teddy has come to the U.S. eight times.

Other young performers in the troupe have their own favorite things about America: Nine-year-old Miriam Namala, for example, likes Mexican food, especially from the chain restaurant Chipotle, which has a location not too far from the Marina del Rey hotel where the group is staying.

Miriam and the other girls also seemed mesmerized by "The Prince and Me" starring Julia Stiles, on the Disney Channel, as they lounged on beds in a hotel room while the boys watched wrestling and spent time playing the guitar, surfing the Internet or playing cards in a room down the hall.

Bernard Sserwanga likes the tall buildings in New York City. "People talk about America as a paradise, a beautiful country, so I also decided to like it because of the way people talked about it," said Bernard, who grew up in a troubled family in a slum area of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. "And when I came here, oh my God, I felt like I was in heaven."

Francis Lubuulwa, also 18, finds it curious that Americans tend to eat and work at the same time. "So many things make me laugh, so many people eat while they are working," he said. "That doesn't happen in Uganda, but that is the culture here, so it's something new that I have learned. Time is money, so people have to move all the time. It's funny."

Because they are so busy laughing, it's easy to forget why these kids are members of Spirit of Uganda: They are AIDS orphans, ambassadors for the 2.4 million Ugandan children who have been orphaned by the disease in the last two decades. Most members of the group have lost one or both parents to AIDS, have had parents killed by rebels or have seen poverty or disease cause enough family hardship that parents felt compelled to turn their children over to orphanage care.

The dance troupe was founded by Texas banker Alexis Hefley, who first traveled to Uganda in 1993 to live and work with AIDS orphans in Kampala. Upon returning home, she founded the Uganda Children's Charity Foundation and, partnering with Sister Rose Muyinza, who also worked with Kampala-area orphans, launched the Spirit of Uganda dance touring program in 1996. The group now performs under the aegis of Empower African Children, launched by Hefley in 2006.

Although they remain determinedly positive, the young performers never forget their backgrounds. "I have lost both my parents," said Betty Nakato, 17. "I joined the organization when I was in the third grade. Every time we dance, we are sharing our culture, we are sharing with people. After the show, some people are crying. Someone might say, 'You know, I quit my job, but now I want to work.' There is always hope."

On this American visit, Spirit of Uganda has come to San Francisco and now Los Angeles to perform in fundraising galas and events for Macy's Passport, raising money for the Passport Fund, which has collected more than $25 million for organizations involved in HIV/AIDS prevention, services and research.

Spirit of Uganda will perform Thursday night at Santa Monica's Barker Hangar at the 25th annual Macy's Passport Gala. The group will present a traditional East African dance and team up with a group of American children in a performance choreographed by Brian Friedman, a judge on the British talent show "The X Factor," and Peter Kasule, artistic director of Spirit of Uganda.

"I really like to think that Ugandan music is more melodic, that the drums speak the language of the people," says Kasule, 27. "In Uganda, when they dance, they do a lot on their knees, the dance is maintained on the ground. Whereas in West Africa, there is a lot of jumping and aerobic movement."

Kasule's mother died of AIDS in 1989 and his father three years later. After going to live with cousins, he wound up in Kampala's Daughters of Charity Orphanage and, under the direction of Sister Rose, was among a group of orphans who raised money for the institution by performing at weddings, church events and the endless village funerals that attended the AIDS crisis in Uganda.

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