African Children's Choir prepares for U.S. tour


United Methodist News Service
NASUTI, Uganda -- A slender young woman stands behind the audience – well out of the limelight.


Twenty-three pairs of little eyes watch her every move. She smiles, they smile. She enunciates each word; they pay close attention. She sways. She directs. She cradles the children in her capable hands.


"Auntie Lydia" is the conductor and manager for the Hope for Africa Children's Choir and Academy.


Lydia Namageme knows how hard these children's lives have been, and she loves her charges. When they need a hug, she's there. When they need a little tough love, she is there for that too.


Namageme serves as the right hand of Tonny Mbowa, the choir director. She lives with the children at the United Methodist school that has rescued them from lives of poverty.


The 23 children live together night and day and are preparing for their "first ever international tour." The highlight of the tour will be two performances at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, on April 28 and 29. After their performance in Texas, the children will tour and sing at United Methodist churches in Arkansas, Georgia, Wisconsin, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee until the end of July.


Namageme and Mbowa have a deep spiritual connection with these children because they were once orphans. They were rescued and made part of the African Children's Choir, founded by Ray Barnett in 1984. That choir is still saving and training children today. The choir has gained international recognition and performed in some of the world's most prestigious halls.


"I traveled to the U.S., Canada and Europe at the age of 9 in 1986," Mbowa says. Seeing the western world and finding so many loving and caring people helped make Mbowa a tender champion of suffering children.


 A new life
When Bishop Daniel Wandabula heard about Mbowa, he called to ask if he would be interested in forming a children's choir.


"The bishop told me about the project and I was on board," Mbowa says.


Namageme and Mbowa grieve over the children left in the camps.


"I believe the children we take from here are few but if we teach them the right ways of God like the Bible says –'Teach them my ways and when they grow they will never depart from them' – if we teach them love, they will bring back love to this community," Mbowa says.


"I try to refresh these children's mind," Namageme says. "I want them to have a new life, happiness and a future." Getting an education and a chance to see more of the world is going to help them "make the best of their lives," she says.


Looking at 6-year-old Moses Labankeni, Namageme smiles and shakes her head.


"When he first came to us he could not talk – not at all – not until we played with him, told him stories. He started eating well. He is coming back to a good posture; he is really in good condition."


Namageme knows it is a major accomplishment when a child from one of the internally displaced persons' camps can do something as simple as look up at someone when they are speaking.


Looking around at the huts dotting a plundered countryside, she says the people have been beaten down by 20 years of a vicious civil war. Parents don't have time to nurture and care for their children, she says.


Is this heaven?
The teachers at the academy are trying to prepare the children for coming to the United States.

"They are very excited. They have started counting the number of planes in the sky," Mbowa, says laughing.


Ask the children about the upcoming travel and they smile, wrinkle their noses and say they are really excited. They know it will be different, but as Mbowa says, "It is beyond their imagination.

"There are going to be like, ‘Wow, are we in heaven or what?'"


In the meantime, the children are studying hard. Their English vocabularies grow each day. Every day also means learning new songs, new dances and new manners.


The well-behaved group has learned what Mbowa calls "the magic words": "thank you," "excuse me," "good morning" and "good afternoon." They are also learning the practical stuff like girls go to the "ladies' room" and boys go to the "men's room."


"We teach them to be good ambassadors and share Jesus Christ with the rest of the world," Mbowa says.


"We are opening the world to them."