African choir performs at local church to promote aid for Uganda

September 27, 2011

By Tom Corrigan

Watoto Children’s Choir members perform. Contributed

Rescue a child. Raise a leader. Rebuild a nation.

That’s the slogan, and the hope, of Watoto, a Ugandan church and charity organization dedicated to helping that country’s struggling youth.

“You’re changing the country from the inside out” is how Watoto’s Sherry Hanson described the organization’s mission.

Hanson is the U.S. tour coordinator for the Watoto Children’s Choir. Consisting of youths served by Watoto, the choir will perform Oct. 1 at Eastridge Church in Issaquah.

Additionally, in a bit of a coup for the church, the two founders of Watoto will be guest speakers at Eastridge’s Sunday services, at 9 and 11 a.m. Oct. 2, said Eastridge’s Heather Retzlaff.

“It’s kind of cool, we didn’t expect it,” said Retzlaff, an executive assistant at the church.

Hanson said the Rev. Gary Skinner and wife Marilyn Skinner have lived in Africa since the early 1980s and launched Watoto in 1994.

Incidentally, “choir” might be a bit of a misleading, or incomplete, name for Watoto’s goodwill ambassadors. Both Hanson and Retzlaff said the group dances and sings in a production known as “Beautiful Africa: A New Generation.” Hanson said the program tells where the children have come from, which is often a life of poverty and disease. Every choir member has lost one or both parents.

But Hanson added that, just as importantly, the performance also tells where Watoto hopes Uganda and Africa are headed, namely a brighter future led by the already mentioned new generation.

With a number of facilities in Uganda, Watoto encompasses a variety of efforts, aimed mostly at children. With three homes already operating and a fourth on the way in South Africa, Baby Watoto cares for infants.

If you go

Watoto Children’s Choir

  • 6 p.m. Oct. 1
  • Eastridge Church
  • 24205 S.E. Issaquah-Fall City Road
  • Free, but donations will be accepted
  • Learn more about Watoto at www.watoto.com. Learn more about Eastridge Church at www.ecaonline.org.

Watoto has three children’s villages for those between 2 and 12 years of age. Hanson said the children are turned over to Watoto’s care by Ugandan social services, police or family members who no longer can care for them.

The children’s villages are not set up as orphanages. Hanson said the children live with widowed mothers in individual homes. The children are sent to school, sometimes for the first time. The ultimate goal is to ready the youths for university in Uganda or elsewhere or for work in a trade. Some 2,800 children are currently in the care of Watoto.

“The system does work,” Hanson said, holding up as just one example the story of a Watoto youth who ended up earning an engineering degree and working for a major oil company in Uganda. The woman later took a leave of absence from her job to volunteer for work with Watoto.

The newest Watoto children’s village is an area of Uganda known as Gulu. The village is aimed specifically at former child soldiers, often unwilling fighters in Uganda’s ongoing military struggles. Hanson tells stories of youths forced to kill their own family members or kill others to gain military uniforms. Female soldiers seem to especially suffer brutal discipline, with ears, noses and lips cut off as punishments, Hanson said. Reconstructive surgery is often an aim of Watoto for those women.

AIDS and HIV are continuing problems in Africa and Uganda, though Hanson said the latter is one location where the disease actually is in decline.

The government essentially adopted what had been a successful religious program aimed at reducing the spread of AIDS. Still, Watoto’s Living Hope consists of two villages housing nearly 2,000 HIV-positive women, many of them former child soldiers.

Watoto is supported by donations and sponsorships of children. Including the local performance, Watoto choir performances are free, though donations are accepted. Eastridge plans to send missionaries to Watoto in Uganda at the end of October, Retzlaff said. The group will spend two weeks in Africa.

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