Annette John-Hall: Watoto Choir spreads stories of Ugandan orphans' plight and triumphs

The Watoto Choir in performance at the Family Worship Center in Lansdale. The choir performs locally until Nov. 25.
The Watoto Choir in performance at the Family Worship Center in Lansdale. The choir performs locally until Nov. 25. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 17, 2012

If nothing else, Thanksgiving should constantly remind us of how exceedingly blessed we are.

But sometimes we forget. Simple comforts we take for granted - food, shelter, a flushing toilet, a winning football team (let us pray for next season), a family who loves us, a government that supports us - tend to drop off the radar, replaced by what we think we want and deserve.

Well, have I got a talented, inspirational, and perfectly delightful reality check for you.

I'm talking about the Watoto Choir, a children's choir based in Kampala, Uganda. Watoto choirs have traveled worldwide since 1994, serving as ambassadors to spread the gospel and raise awareness about the plight of their country.

I dare you, once you see these African children telling their stories of suffering and overcoming through song and dance, to feel anything but thankful for the children, divinely placed to remind us that yes, hope springs eternal.

That's what I know for sure after seeing Watoto's high-energy performance at the Family Worship Center in Lansdale this week.

A village for raising

In Swahili, watoto means "children" - and children, sadly, are the most vulnerable population in Uganda.

For decades, war, poverty, and disease - particularly HIV/AIDS - have ravaged the East African country, wiping out generations of parents, leaving millions of orphans.

The devastation moved Canadian missionaries Gary and Marilyn Skinner to start Watoto Child Care Ministries. Their mission: to rescue and raise children to be leaders so they can help rebuild their country.

Watoto is designed to replicate a typical African village, with a school, health clinic, and an agricultural and community center. Each house in the village is home to as many as eight children, raised as brothers and sisters by an African woman, usually a widow.

Choir member Maria Namukwaya, 9, was one of many to share her story during the concert, which was more revival than anything else.

"My father walked out on my mother," Maria said. "The saddest day of my life was when my baby sister died because we didn't have enough money to take her to the hospital."

So far, Watoto has provided care for 2,500 orphans, with a goal of rescuing 10,000 more by 2023.

I know it sounds trite, but in this case it's true: It really does take a village to raise a child.

Love of song and dance

Majorine Nabulime, 11, is one of the lucky ones. She still has one parent. Her mother, Catherine, applied to be a Watoto house mother after her husband died in 2008. She was accepted, and she brought Majorine and older daughter Angel with her.

Now Majorine gets to travel the world as a featured choir member.

I asked Majorine whether she was enjoying her time in the United States.

"Yes, Auntie Annette," the willowy preteen replied in her melodic lilt, using the Ugandan honorific for adult women. "I have loved the plane. And I loved the trees changing colors."

It's also pretty clear she loves to sing and dance, as do her 20 fellow choir members, who range in age from 9 to 14. They inspired with personal testimonies of incomprehensible struggle and pain overcome by their endless faith. Watching them, their angelic voices lifted in praise, tears streaming down their faces, I thought, "This is what true gratitude looks like."

The Watoto Choir will perform free throughout the region until Nov. 25. For a full schedule, see www.Watoto.com.

To miss them is to miss your blessing.


Annette John-Hall:

Watch a performance of the Watoto Children's Choir in Lansdale at: www.philly.com/watoto


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Annettejh

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