Tony Were says the children of the African Children’s Choir are “lovable little rogues.”
But before you think he’s unhappy with them, in the next sentence, he says, “They’re awesome and such a joy to work with. They are the best-behaved children you’ve ever seen.”
Were, whose wants everyone to know his name is pronounced “wary,” and not how it looks, is one of the tour’s choir conductors or chaperones. He’s the only man, working with seven women. There are 19 children on the tour — 12 girls and seven boys.
“When we started the tour, they were ages 7-10,” Were said. “Now, they’re 8-11. We have birthday parties every three-to-four months.”
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The children, most of them who have lost a parent or both, through civil wars in their countries, effects of poverty or disease, are from some of the poorest countries in the world.
Each child is chosen for their academic and musical potential and also the needs of their families, Were said.
“People in the Kenyan and Ugandan offices have staff who go out and determine the location and the needs of the areas,” he said.
There are four choirs that tour in North American and Europe, Were said. There are children from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Ghana, Sudan and Nigeria who sing in the choirs.
From choir member to chaperone
This year’s tour features the 37th choir. More than 800 children have been in the choir over the past 26 years.
Were is from Kenya, and was in the 35th group of the African Children’s Choir.
The proceeds from the tours are funneled back to the Music for Life Primary School, a boarding school, in Uganda. After the children leave the tour, which usually lasts 18 months, they go to the school.
“I was a former choir child, from 1990 to 1993,” Were said. “I decided to do four (tours) because I didn’t want to go to school. But you need to get going in school. I was reluctantly walking to class.”
After graduation, he went on to become a radio journalist for about four years before going to work with the African Children’s Choir.
Former choir members have grown up to be doctors, lawyers, engineers and lead other professional lives. Were said.
Now, 29, he’s feeling his age. After trying to keep up with them on the soccer field, the children tug on his beard, and say, “Oh, Uncle, you can’t play soccer anymore.”
The children call the chaperones “Auntie” or “Uncle.”
How the choir started
In 1984, a Canadian human rights activist named Ray Barnett was in Uganda, investigating cases where Christians were being persecuted.
One day, his vehicle was flagged down by a young boy who asked for a lift to the next town.
Through a translator, the boy said his parents were killed in the civil war and he wanted to go to the next town where he hoped to find a place to sleep and get something to eat.
The boy sang the entire time.
“When he (Barnett) flew back to Canada, he couldn’t shake the image of the boy singing,” Were said.
The joy and hope of that young boy compelled Barnett to start the African Children’s Choir and the Music for Life school.
Twenty-six years later, the school, which was originally a three-story building in the middle of Kampala, has moved to a site near Lake Victoria. Through funding and donors, the new school, can board 400 students.
Were says this all happened because of a chance meeting between a young boy and a civil rights activist.
Each child is different
Were says he can’t pick out his favorites.
“Every child has his own way and his own love ‘language,’ ” Were said. “There’s the hugger, the quality-timer (who wants one-on-one time), there’s the service person (who wants to help the other children). They are all lovable and unique in their own little way.”
They trained for five months before going on tour.
“I’ve been with them 18 months and have seen them every single day,” Were said.
The chaperones also act as their teachers while on tour. One subject is English, so the children will know how to speak the universal language, Were said.
In six weeks, the tour will end and whole company flies back to Africa.
The children with families will spend Christmas with them; the others go back to the boarding school. In January, school starts in earnest for all the children.
“They go to people who love them and care for them and feed them in a kind of a family environment,” Were said. “They get regular meals, training and love in a safe place.”
Sandra Okamoto, firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-571-8580.