Friday, August 15, 2008

Matsiko Choir spreads love through song

Express Staff Writer

Mabel, one of the orphans who sings with the Matsiko Choir, takes a moment during a busy day of school work in Sun Valley. Photo by

A young and eager boy named Tim flipped a chapati in a frying pan in the kitchen of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, while three other boys kneaded and rolled the dough for the African flat bread. Other children wandered in, smelling food of their homeland. Though the kids say they love hamburgers, they miss African food.

Olivia Nabulime, the choir mom, supervised the cooking. A child played with hoops in the outdoor courtyard and several girls worked at a table putting together packets with photos of children who need sponsors.

Temporary guests at St. Thomas, the children are members of the Matsiko Choir from Uganda, which will perform in Ketchum and Sun Valley over the next week. The 34 children, ages nine to 18, have been on the road touring in the Pacific Northwest and California since January.

There is almost no way a person cannot be moved by these children. When Mabel, 12, smiles, her face is all warm and childlike. It is hard to imagine the horrors each of the children lived in prior to being sponsored by individuals through the International Children's Network. Mabel has been with the choir for five years.

Cal Ainley, a board member of the International Children's Network, which creates sponsorship opportunities for orphans and children living in extreme poverty, is traveling with the group. Ainley is also the bus driver and public relations director for this tour. The commitment is not just from the children who are away from home for a year. Also on the tour are Music Director Sam Kiberu Straxy, whose education was also made possible by an International Children's Network sponsorship, African Dance Choreographer Ronnie Kabogaza, Media Director Tim Holland and two college interns, Hilary Sell and Erin White.

James Kaggwa, once a member of the choir himself, is now choral director. While he has been in the states, his wife gave birth to a baby, whom he has still not seen. But he knows the worth of this trip.

"I was sponsored," he said. "I never met my sponsor. But I was blessed and having these children sponsored is a blessing."

Founded in 2003 by Don Windham of Coventry, Wash., the International Children's Network believes that educational support through the university and vocational school levels is the only way to truly effect change in the developing world. In Uganda, kids have to pay for their education. The International Children's Network also has children in Peru, the Philippines and Guatemala. Representatives from International Children's Network, such as Ainley, frequently make trips to meet children in need, photograph them and ensure that they are on the organization's Web site available for sponsorship.

"The sole purpose in bringing the choir on tour is to get as many kids an education through sponsorship as possible," Ainley said. "If it's one thing these kids know its suffering. Education is the only hand up. Getting a sponsor is like winning the lottery. They go to school 10 hours a day."

Each time they sing, or appear in public, interest is generated in the program and the children who are not sponsored. Kaggwa said that while it's easier to sponsor a young child, older children are the ones most at risk. Without a college or vocational university education, jobs are nearly impossible to earn in Uganda.

"These children are spreading this dream all over," Kaggwa said.

"They're singing for their siblings and friends," Ainley added. "They use their voice."

In addition to the children's singing, the performance includes cultural dances, staged dramas and powerful and complex drum routines.

Mabel said meeting her sponsors, one of whom is in Beaverton, Ore., and another in Bellevue Wash., was an important part of her trip.

"It's an adventure for me," she said. "I've met people from different cultures like the Brazilian family who was my host in Salt Lake City. I learned things from them."

When she returns to Uganda she will go back to school there full-time and prepare to go to secondary school.

"I'll be a grown up," she said. "I want to be a journalist. I am not shy and I am confident in what I do. I can talk to people so journalism is what I will do."

Eric, 14, has also been with the choir for five years.

"These people are really kind," he said about his sponsors, whom he also met, and the host families with whom he has stayed. "I like talking to them. I want to be a lawyer to keep people out of trouble."

The group recently released its second album, "If Love Was Love," which will be available for purchase at the concerts.

The tour for the children is rigorous. They perform at schools, churches and organizations. They stay in different homes night after night. In many cases the children were able to meet and stay with their own sponsors. And they study on their off days.

"They love America, but they love Uganda. But their homes are ramshackle ..." Kaggwa said, trailing off sadly. "There are 600 million at-risk and orphaned children in the world."

Besides sponsorships, the organization is working on obtaining grants, scholarships and endowments, Ainley said.

"We want to give them the best opportunities we can and fulfill their education and maximum potential. The choir is the best way to get this message out."

There are three main aspects, or branding points, to the organization's mission.

First, it supports the children's education through college. Second, it encourages contact and visits with and from sponsors. And three, it "maintains the highest giving ratio that we can in the industry, at 97.5 percent going to the child," Ainley said.

There will be a global Walk-a-thon held in Uganda and other locales where sponsors reside on Nov. 8 and Feb. 8 to raise money to build a home for the Matsiko Choir children. The concerts are always free, but donations are welcome to help with fuel for the Matsiko bus and food.

"A Child's Giving Tree has been set up for them and we are encouraging local children to help give these children necessities like toothbrushes and soap," said Ketchum resident Mary Poppen.

To donate items, visit The Music Garden at 251 S. Main St., Ketchum, or The Toy Store in Ketchum and Hailey, or e-mail Mary Poppen at


Where to see them:

· 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 16, at Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church, Sun Valley.

· 9:30 am Sunday, Aug. 17, at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Ketchum.

· 6:30 p.m. Aug. 17 at nexStage Theatre, Ketchum.

· 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19, Ketch' Em Alive at the Ketchum Forest Service Park.

· 5:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22, Concert at Our Lady of The Snows Catholic Church.

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