Sounds of joy
Esther Nuwahereza and her friends loved seeing snow for the first time in their lives.
The 9-year-old girl from Entebbe, Uganda, and the rest of the African Children’s Choir performed in Great Falls, Mont., where the white stuff fell like magic.
“We made snowmen, and we had a snow fight,” Esther told the News-Press by phone from Harrisburg, Ore., another stop on the choir’s concerts at churches in the western U.S. When asked whether she was good at snowball battles, Esther replied honestly with an extended “Nooooo.”
But she’s clearly having fun during her international travels, and she shared her dream: “I hope to be a nurse.”
She’s on her way. Her participation in the African Children’s Choir means Esther will have her education paid for through the university level. The choir, which performs a mix of traditional hymns and African songs and dances, makes children’s dreams come true as it shows them the world and raises money for their and other African youths’ education.
The children are bringing their sounds of joy to the South Coast. The African Children’s Choir will perform at 7 p.m. Jan. 30 at Montecito Covenant Church, 671 Cold Springs Road, Montecito.
The concert is free, but donations are welcome, and a video during the concert will show the nonprofit efforts by the choir, whose parent organization is Music for Life.
The African Children’s Choir has educated more than 52,000 children in seven African countries and helped hundreds of thousands of people with its relief and development programs. It has established Music for Life Centers to teach music and dancing to children who aren’t in the choir, as well as 15 primary schools, a secondary school, a vocational skills center and a teacher’s training college.
“In our choir, we have some who want to become nurses and teachers. We have a boy who wants to become an architect, and others want to be a journalist, a fireman, a doctor, a fashion designer,” tour leader Janelle Hoekstra told the News-Press by phone from Harrisburg, Ore.
“We have a lot of different goals from these children, and it’s really fun to know these goals are in their reach,” Miss Hoekstra, 25, said.
Ray Barnett of Vancouver, British Columbia, started the African Children’s Choir in 1984. Mr. Barnett was inspired to do so after he went on a humanitarian trip to war-torn Uganda and gave a small boy a ride from his decimated home to the safety of another village.
During the trip, the boy found solace in music and sang.
After returning to Canada, Mr. Barnett decided that a children’s choir visiting the West would raise interest in Africa and inspire people to help the continent.
The choir, which was featured on “American Idol,” has performed everywhere from the United Nations to the White House.
The choir, which consists of 8- through 10-year-olds, changes membership for each tour, and the current ensemble consists of nine girls and eight boys. In Montecito, the choir will sing selections from “Just As I Am,” a 2018 album that a previous African Children’s Choir recorded after its tour.
“The message of ?Just As I Am’ (the album’s title track) is the message of the show. God sees these children and wants them as they are, no change necessary,” Miss Hoekstra, the tour leader, said.
She explained the choir’s song is a new arrangement of an old hymn “with a little African spin.” “Just As I Am” and other songs feature the excited children playing African drums.
“I think it is impossible to attend one of these concerts and not leave with a smile on your face or being moved by the joy of the children and their excitement,” she said.
The Montecito concert will feature hymns such as “How Great Thou Art” and one that Esther said is her favorite.
“I like ?Amazing Grace’ because it shows us that God’s grace is amazing,” Esther said.
The Rev. Ian Noyes, the lead pastor at Montecito Covenant Church, told the News-Press that this is the third time the choir has sung there since 2004. He said eight to 10 families in the congregation will host the children and chaperones in their homes.
“I heard them as a pastor of East Main Presbyterian Church in Grove City, Pa., in 2008,” the Rev. Noyes, 46, said, recalling the joyful singing and dancing.
“It was very good for our congregation to experience these kids from a different part of the world,” said the Rev. Noyes, the adoptive father of two Ethiopian siblings — Isaac, 13, and Ella, 14. (He and his wife, Mindy, also have an 18-year-old son, Jacob.)
The choir leaves a positive impact on its members.
Deborah Nambalirwa, the choir’s conductor, sang with the ensemble when she was a child and got to perform everywhere from New York City to London during a tour of the East Coast and Great Britain.
“I remembered the tour being really fun. It was one of the best things that happened to me,” Miss Nambalirwa, 24, told the News-Press.
She was born in Kampala, Uganda, and grew up in Luweero, one of the nation’s rural districts.
Miss Nambalirwa, who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in ethics and human rights at Makerere University in Kampala in 2016, praised the current ensemble of angelic voices.
“The children sound really sweet, and it’s amazing to see them become better singers as the tour goes on with the experience of the concerts,” she said. “The children are really grateful and happy to have this opportunity to sing. They get to show the world their talent.”
Miss Hoekstra, a resident of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada, recalled being impressed when the choir sing about 10 years ago at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Chatham, Ontario, where she was born.
She remembered the choir after she earned a bachelor’s degree in music at Providence University College and Theological Seminary in Otterburne, Manitoba, in 2016. So she went on the road as the choir’s product manager, selling CDs and other merchandise during a tour. She said she loved the experience so much that she agreed to lead the current tour.
“Music has such a way of touching hearts around the world, whether you’re from Uganda, Canada or the United States. It has the ability to speak to the heart, to give hope and to give joy.”
IF YOU GO
The African Children’s Choir will perform at 7 p.m. Jan. 30 at Montecito Covenant Church, 671 Cold Springs Road, Montecito.
The concert is free, but donations are welcome for the choir’s nonprofit African programs, which include education, development and relief.