Watoto: Vibrant music reflects a vibrant Africa

A group of kids goes way out of their comfort zone to try to tell us dullards how cool Africa is, represented by an organization that saves babies and builds families for children in Uganda. No big deal.

Watoto! They were supposed to perform here, weather got in the way. Some sources indicated we’d get a chance to see them this week, but that didn’t happen either. In the meantime, we did interview a fascinating person who had inspiring things to say. It is our duty to pass along those things to you. Plus, there’s things you can do without seeing them play anyway, and you’ll find those out at the end of this article!

Watoto is a whole lot more than just a bunch of adorable, talented kids delivering a spirited performance that fills us with wonder and awe about their native Africa. And, honestly, it probably doesn’t need to be any more than that, because that sounds pretty great.

Yet Watoto’s traveling children’s choir is just one thread in the larger organization’s fabric, the entirety of which is devoted to improving the lives of Ugandan children. Choir director Edwinsmith Kigozi should know, he’s a Watoto success story–“one of the many,” he clarifies. The organization is more than two decades old now, and the small children it took in, gave homes to, raised in families, supported, educated, and nurtured are now lawyers, doctors, graphic designers, and otherwise productive human beings of a world they came so closely to missing out on entirely.

It all began with a church in Uganda that started to look after kids who had been orphaned, displaced, or abandoned. Instead of just starting traditional orphanages, Watoto creates villages, consisting of houses of eight children, each house looked after by a woman who has either been abandoned herself or widowed by the war or AIDS (often one or more of those eight children are her own). In this way, the children and the mother both have a house and a family for life. 

“So when the kids are grown up and say ‘Mom, I am going away, and I can look after myself,’ the children have an identity. And the best way any human can have an identity is by being part of a family. So that is what we do.” 

Between these villages (there are three, currently) and the hundreds of babies Watoto saves from abandonment at hospitals, churches, and by the side of the road, the organization currently looks after some 3,000 children. That’s in addition to the women who are part of the Living Hope program, which teaches artisanal skills to war-affected women and then buys the products they make.

Beautiful Africa

At one point, “God told the pastors to put together a group of children to take around the world and tell their stories,” says Kigozi. Since 1994, the choir program has grown, sending five or six groups a year out of Uganda and across the world. 

Kigozi, who’s on his first trip as a choir leader, remembers his first foray out of Uganda. “It was then that I realized I could become anybody in the world, anybody I could become. Because of the exposure I received and the experience of seeing other cultures, that’s when the bulb turned on in my head. I knew I could believe my dream.”

Though only 12 when he landed in North Carolina, Kigozi remembers each detail. A rare snowy day in the South showed Kigozi and his peers a level of cold they had never experienced before. He got to witness his own 18-child choir make the same astonished faces when they landed in Norway and Sweden. “Sometimes I just look at them and think, ‘Wow, that was me.'”

But the point of Watoto’s choirs isn’t just to expand the global horizons of these kids. It’s to expand the horizons of the members of their audiences.

“Especially in this part of the world, [people] don’t know the truth about Africa–the only picture that’s painted of Africa is Bad Africa, full of war and disease, nothing nice and fun and beautiful. Well, we live there, and we like to tell people it’s not all what you think it is, and as a matter of fact, it’s beautiful,” says Kigozi. “We have beautiful weather, we have good food, we have music, we celebrate.”

The children, between 7 and 14, are currently touring the U.S. performing a high-energy, brightly colored tribute to African culture, with dancing and singing. “The music is a mixture of African beats and instruments with contemporary sounds. It’s vibrant. It’s full of life,” says Kigozi. Watoto Children’s Choir will not be playing in Richmond, but you can catch them in other parts of the south for free!

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Kigozi urges all of us to consider supporting children through volunteerism in Africa or, more locally, sponsoring a child.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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