THE boys are outfitted in purple shirts with black pants; the girls in bright blue and green dresses with white ankle socks and shiny black shoes. When they step on stage to perform, the 27 Ugandan children look like radiant butterflies as they lift their heads high, smile, and graciously sing a medley of songs.
Watching their joyous faces, the audience would never guess the horrific backgrounds and conditions that once defined these children's lives. Some saw both parents killed during the regime of President Milton Obote, who was deposed in 1985. Others were abandoned; still others have been rescued from extreme starvation.
The children are part of the African Children's Choir, which is currently in the seventh month of a year-long tour throughout the United States.
The choir was started 10 years ago by Friends in the West, a Christian humanitarian organization that helps children in crisis situations around the world.
Ray Barnett, Friends in the West founder, set up the choir as a way to enlighten the world to the plight of thousands of orphaned, abandoned, and starving children left in the wake of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's rule, from 1971 to 1979.
Today, 700 disadvantaged children in both Uganda and Kenya are housed, fed, and schooled through money raised during the concerts. Proceeds also help children in other parts of the world.
The choir, which has toured in Canada and Europe, alternates each year between Kenyan and Ugandan children.
This year's Ugandan group ranges in age from 6 to 13. For nearly an hour they sing traditional Ugandan songs, Christian gospel music, and popular Western tunes. A video screen shows pictures of Africa and relates stories about some of the children's triumphs over their dire circumstances.
Tara Rice, the choir's tour leader, tells of a 10-year-old boy named Charles whose parents were killed when he was 4. With no one to care for him properly, he became extremely malnourished, losing control of his mind and his bodily functions.
``The first group that found this little boy was a Ugandan hospital, and they took one look at him and said there was no hope,'' Ms. Rice says.
``But Friends in the West ... took this little boy into their home and started praying for him, and some of the counselors would sit up all night with him just rocking him back and forth. In the beginning he would cower in the corner, he would run from any type of human contact, and he was mute. Slowly but surely that little boy began to gain strength, began to speak, and he sings in our choir now. He's an incredible boy, very lively, very loving.''
Friends in the West chooses children for the choir based on a number of qualifications. ``There are hundreds and hundreds of kids who would love to come here,'' says Ugandan native George Kizito, the group's choir director. ``Basically we consider the kids we think will benefit most from the program.''
The children practiced for about three months before they arrived in the US. While here, the entourage of kids and 10 adult chaperones travel by bus to different churches, where the choir performs to often packed audiences. Between the four performances each week, they stay with host families and are schooled by several teachers on the tour.
Concerts are free, although audience members often donate generously when an offering plate is passed around, and many sponsor kids. The choir generates more than $500,000 a year, most of which is sent back to the homes in Africa, keeps the tour on the road, and supports the children in their on-tour education program.
Last year, the Kenyan choir was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Gospel Choir category.
Children who participate in the choir undergo a complete transformation, says Norman Schulz, director of choir operations. ``When they first come out they are so timid, and they don't have any confidence at all,'' he says. ``Their belief in themselves just rises way up. They really start to explode as far as schooling and in other areas.''
The children spent most of the first six weeks wide-eyed, observing American culture. But the biggest adjustment for them has been adapting to American food. ``When they came over they didn't like pizza or hamburgers,'' Rice says. ``They didn't know they ate the patty in the buns, and they'd remove it. Now they absolutely love pizza and hamburgers. I tease them about that today, and they laugh at me.''
Emmanuel, a 12-year-old boy, giggles when asked what he likes best about the US. ``Rollercoasters,'' he says.
Maria, 10, who wants to be a teacher in Uganda someday, says the snow was the hardest thing to get used to. ``In our country it's not very cold,'' she whispers.
WHEN the children return to Uganda, they will continue to live in the homes Friends in the West provides and attend its schools. The organization takes care of the children through the university level.
Many children who performed in the first choirs are attending university now, Mr. Schulz says. The challenge for Friends in the West is to help them make the transition into their society.
``How do we move those kids through the university to be effective leaders'' for their country? Schulz asks.
``That's something we're addressing as an organization.''
* The African Children's Choir is touring the Southeastern and midAtlantic US this fall. For more information, write: Friends in the West; P.O. Box 250; Arlington, Wash. 98223, or call (206)435-8983.