Ugandan orphans are the children with hungry eyes and distended bellies we’ve seen staring from newspaper pages. They’re the prey of a violent rebel army in the documentary “Invisible Children.” And they’re the 10 healthy, drum-beating, dancing, singing children who mesmerized an audience at Corban College this fall.
Five girls and five boys between the ages of 9 to 13, commanded the stage in the Psalm Performing Arts Center for an hour last month. Their appearance at Corban and other campuses and churches on the West Coast was orchestrated to raise awareness and support for the estimated 2 million orphans in Uganda.
These children are the lucky ones. Like others orphaned by AIDS, some of them have a living mother (In Africa, an orphan is a child without a breadwinner), but they have no support. Sponsors from America and other countries are paying $35 per month for their housing, food and schooling. This group lives at Childcare International’s orphanage on Lake Victoria in Uganda.
“A lot of these children literally had nothing, and they were living minute-to-minute, wondering where their next meal would come from,” said Tom Robertson, a Corban alumnus who sponsors children through Childcare International and brought the touring group to Corban.
The orphans started their show by marching onto the stage in matching striped outfits – crop tops and skirts for the girls, pants and bulky shirts for the boys. Arms swinging and feet stomping, they belted out an African praise song “Let Everybody Praise the Lord.” Then came “The Lord is the Way,” followed by English worship songs “Now is the Time to Worship” and “Shine, Jesus, Shine.”
Smiling a brilliant gap-toothed smile, the tiniest performer, Ruth, appearing to weigh less than 40 pounds, stepped forward, clutched the microphone and sang in perfect English, “I don’t know why Jesus loves me. I don’t know why Jesus cares. I don’t know why He gave His life for me. Oh, but I’m so glad He did.”
The second half of the show gave the audience a glimpse of Africa’s rich song and dance tradition. Wearing shimmering gold, black, brown and purple outfits, the children performed a tribal praise song and then a hunting song. A traditional Ugandan courtship song and dance elicited thunderous applause and roars of laughter as the boys and girls acted out universal ritual of pursuit, rejection and acceptance.
At the hour’s end, the orphans had sung, danced, played pan flutes and a xylophone and pounded out rhythm after intoxicating rhythm on hand drums.
“When the drums start beating, you’re just taken up,” an African national who works with the orphans, Alex Oboi, told the crowd. “Many people like to just dance or just sing. We like to do both at the same time.”
Enthusiastic applause and cheers weren’t the college students’ only response to the orphans’ appearance. The children visited campus for several days, and students visited with them in the cafeteria, sang with them in choir class, played soccer and connected whenever at every opportunity.
Karen Choto, an exchange student from Zimbabwe, organized a spur-of-the-moment hospitality day. She and other Corban students took the Ugandan nationals shopping, and students spent their own money to buy clothes and toys for the children.
“We bought them jeans, shirts, underwear and socks for either school or at home,” Choto said. “We were told not to buy too much because they had limited space. However the [Corban] students supported me in this. I was so amazed at how this school is just grooming students to be servants.”
Many other students filled committed to sponsor a Ugandan orphan through Childcare Worldwide. The Christian organization works in 12 countries around the world. In Uganda, its workers, most of them nationals, focus on giving orphans an education and trade skills.
“We believe that if we break the cycle of poverty, they will, in turn, reach out to others,” Robertson said. “I hope we in American don’t turn up the volume on our self-absorption and our materialism and ignore what’s going on in the rest of the world.”
He told students not to feel pressed to donate while trying to pay for college, but many gave anyway. The songs “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful,” joyfully sung by 10 children who’ve seen more suffering than most American adults, were still ringing in students’ ears as they rushed to sponsor orphans and invite future groups from Uganda to sing at their churches.