Christine Nankinga is a child of Uganda. Like any child, Christine beams with all the hope and wonder of tomorrow. But as a child of Uganda, Christine deals with the consequences of an epidemic that has also affected the lives of 3.5 million children in Uganda.
Christine is one of many young performers that will grace the stage of the Davis Performing Arts Center as part of the Children of Uganda’s Tour of Light.
Children of Uganda is a nonprofit organization, incorporated in the United States and in Uganda, that was founded in 1995. The organization sponsors severely disadvantaged children and, in conjunction with local charities, forms partnerships with Ugandan boarding schools, providing affected Ugandan children with an education and the hope for a promising future.
The AIDS epidemic in Uganda, as well as in other parts of Africa, has left a vulnerable generation of children and teenagers in its wake. HIV infects approximately 20,000 babies annually through mother-to-child transmission, and an estimated 3.5 million children are orphaned by AIDS. A Ugandan child also faces the threat of being one of the 25,000 children abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group, one of the 1.4 million people forced to flee their homes due to conflict or one of the many children who lose their lives to malaria. Yet, even with the threats they face in their everyday lives, these children sing, dance and live.
The organization began as a simple labor of love. Known as Uganda’s Mother Theresa, Sister Rose Muyinza was the driving force that led to the development of the Children of Uganda organization. Sister Rose recognized the resilience and the capability of the Ugandan youth in a country devastated by civil war. In the midst of that violence, in 1971, she committed her life to supporting at-risk children and teens by providing them with food, shelter and education. She took in orphaned and homeless children and, by collaborating with the Daughters of Charity organization, Sister Rose was eventually able to found several orphanages in Uganda.
A group of Ugandan children under Sister Rose’s leadership travelled to the United States for the first time in 1993 to compete in the Wolf Trap Children’s Festival. Taking first place in their American debut, the children went on to perform around the country. The stirring performances of Sister Rose’s children and Sister Rose’s passion led to the founding of Children of Uganda.
Jan Smart, the current vice chair on the Children of Uganda Board of Directors, helps to carry on the legacy of Sister Rose, who passed away in 2009. “When a child loses one parent in Uganda, they are considered a ‘single orphan.’ In contrast to the Western understanding of orphaned, in which a child loses both parents, a child in Uganda is considered a “double orphan” when [he or she has lost] both parents,” explained Smart. “We take children from very disadvantaged homes at the request of a family in need. We put the children into school, often times supporting the child through primary, secondary and even up to the university level of education.”
Geofrey Nakalanga, the lead performer of the Children of Uganda touring group, is one of 34 children in his family and is the first to attend school. Nakalanga, who once raised goats to pay for his school fees, currently attends the Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda to study music, dance and drama.
Of the schools supported by Children of Uganda, two of the main schools are the Sabina Primary Boarding School and Phillip’s House. The Sabina School, which is located in the southwest part of Uganda in the Rakai district, offers elementary education to orphans and local children. The second school, Phillip’s House, is part of a program in the Mukono district of Uganda that offers health services, physiotherapy and education to young adults with physical and mental disabilities.
The Tour of Light provides the opportunity for these young people, ages 10 to 22, to hold a candle to the issues that affect their homes, in addition to arranging opportunities for a cultural exchange.
“Most of the children have rarely been outside of the village they are from. Many have never been on a plane before or been on an escalator, or seen tall buildings,” said Pat Davies, a member of the Children of Uganda Alumni Advisory Committee. “Only three [of the 20 performers] have been on the [Children of Uganda] tour before. That is why we are having a special matinee performance for schools in the D.C. area.”
Selected as some of the best dancers and singers from their respective Ugandan schools, the performers trained intensely over a period of several weeks and were then narrowed down from a pool of 35 to the top 20 performers.
Stopping in eight different cities over the course of eight weeks, the Tour of Light is touted both as a moving performance and a cultural experience. Audiences will learn of the amaggunju, which was first danced for the very young Baganda king who had to be entertained to keep from crying, or the bwola court dance of the Northern Ugandan Acholi people, which is conducted in a circle as a symbol for a fence that shielded the king’s palace. Each performance is different, showcasing the multifaceted culture of the region.
The Children of Uganda’s Tour of Light will come to the Davis Performing Arts Center on Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m. All proceeds from the performance will go directly to supporting the children and schools that the Children of Uganda organization works with. Tickets may be purchased on the Georgetown University’s Performing Arts Department website at performingarts.georgetown.edu.