Choir’s Hymns Hold No Hint of Horrors

Times Staff Writer

None of the members of the African Children’s Choir wanted to talk about what had happened to them in their homeland of Uganda. That was understandable.

Few children would want to describe what it was like to watch the brutal murder of their parents.

The 24 singers, who spent four months touring Europe and have just begun a one-year tour of the United States, are orphans between the ages of 6 and 13 who were selected from auditions throughout Uganda, a small East Central African country of 14 million and the site of some of the bloodiest civil violence of the past 20 years.

“One boy, Ivan, his father was in a store when the soldiers came and wrapped him in cable wire,” said Jackie McCauley, the choir’s director, after a recent performance at the First Presbyterian Church in Inglewood.


Never Seen Again

“The soldiers stabbed him, dragged him back to the house and robbed it. They then took his father away. Ivan never saw him again.”

She said another boy saw his parents shot down in cold blood.

“The guerrillas came into the village first and took their food,” McCauley said. “Then some soldiers showed up and when there was no food, they accused the village of collaborating with the guerrillas. The soldiers then started shooting randomly and he saw his parents shot as they tried to flee.”


An estimated 500,000 people, almost 4% of the population, died between 1971 and 1985 in a series of wars and purges under dictator Idi Amin and former President Milton Obote.

But the horror of the past was not evident as the singing, cheering children marched onto the stage in Inglewood.

The church was filled to capacity by an enthusiastic crowd, which was treated to a 90-minute performance that included both tribal and American gospel music. The Christian songs were sung in either English, the official language of Uganda; Luganda, the native tongue, or Swahili, the pan-African language.

Dan Newhall, the pastor of the church, said he found the choir inspiring.

“Anybody who felt Inglewood rocking that night, that wasn’t an earthquake,” Newhall said. “That was the people stomping and clapping at my church.”

In one song, the choir told the story of David and Goliath as two of the boys acted it out. The larger boy towered over the smaller and strutted back and forth. The boy playing David began an exaggerated swinging motion with his arm before slaying Goliath with an imaginary stone from a slingshot, eliciting wild applause from the audience.

The choir, sponsored by the Ambassadors of Aid, an interdenominational Christian group, also performed at churches in Long Beach, Redondo Beach and Los Angeles. After the Inglewood performance, the choir left on a tour that includes performances at churches in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Canada and several Midwest and East Coast cities before it returns to the Los Angeles area in December. The money raised will be used to fund six orphanages in Uganda.

On the road, the choir travels in its own bus and performs three or four times a week, according to McCauley. Each day’s travel is limited to eight hours, she said, and the children stay with families who belong to the churches at which they perform.


“It’s hectic,” McCauley said. “You learn that patience is a virtue. But the children are well disciplined. We make sure they’re in line.”

McCauley, a 25-year-old native of Alberta, Canada, said discipline is maintained by using positive reinforcement, not punishment.

“These kids have been abused all of their lives,” McCauley said. “Many have been tortured. They’re used to physical punishment. What they respond to is love.”

Because many of the children, especially the older ones, lack much in the way of a formal education, three accredited teachers travel with the choir and school the children when they are not performing.

“We teach them in a manner similar to a correspondence course,” McCauley said. “They are tested on an individual basis. For instance, Tom, who is 15 and used to be in the choir and is now our soundman, his level of schooling in Uganda was very low. But through this method, he doesn’t feel humiliated and he will eventually finish. If he was back home, they would put him in school with 8-year-olds.”

Balm for Emotional Wounds

Peter Kasozi, 26, a Ugandan minister who travels with the choir, said distance has helped heal the children’s emotional wounds.

“The children used to talk about running and hiding from soldiers,” Kasozi said. “Now they talk about good things. In California, they’ve been talking about pizza.”


McCauley said her group’s goal is to teach the children about different cultures and help them maintain their own.

“We don’t have them saying they want to stay here,” McCauley said. “What we try to do is open their eyes to what unity in a country can do.”

Unity is something that has been in short supply in Uganda’s recent history.

A landlocked country about the size of Oregon, it gained its independence from Great Britain in 1962. In 1966, Obote took power. In 1971 he was overthrown by a coup headed by Amin.

In his eight years in power, Amin reportedly ordered the deaths of 300,000 Ugandans, most of whom were suspected of opposing his rule.

“During his first few years, Amin was not so bad,” Kasozi said. “But when he decided he wanted to become ‘President for Life,’ he proved to be a bad man.”

In 1979, neighboring Tanzania invaded Uganda to topple Amin, and reinstalled Obote. Obote went on his own reign of terror, and 200,000 more reportedly died then and in the civil war that followed.

Kasozi said the terror of the civil war, which lasted from 1980 until 1985, was what really hurt the children.

“The soldiers came to clear villages of the guerrillas (who opposed Obote),” Kasozi said. “They had no strategy. They just chose anybody who they suspected of being able to oppose them and they killed them.”

Obote was overthrown in 1985 and in early 1986 Yoweri Museveni was named president. Despite some remnants of fighting with insurgents loyal to Amin and Obote, the country has returned to relative peace.

McCauley said the children have adjusted well to Western life, but have had some trouble coming to terms with what they see on television and in the movies. The children, she said, believe everything they see.

“When we were in Europe we showed them two Disney movies, ‘Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang’ and ‘Herbie the Wonderbug,’ ” McCauley said.

“When we got to America, they were expecting to see flying cars.”