Watoto Children's Choir sings to help Uganda's homeless

Ashraf Sempijja is 12 years old and getting his first look at the United States while on tour with the Uganda-based Watoto Children's Choir.

He likes American cars, American food and the U.S. basketball stadiums, he said in a recent telephone interview.

Sempijja is one of 22 singers in the choir, made up of children whose parents have died, from either disease or war. The choir travels to spread the word about the Watoto houses and the children's villages, which care for and educate homeless children in Uganda.

"Watoto" means "child" in Swahili.

The choir has been traveling throughout the Midwest recently and has appeared at Kentucky churches in Elizabethtown, Waynesburg, Berea and Paducah.

In Uganda, death by war and disease are far too common, choir team leader Brian Katongole said.

"We have quite a number of children who are orphaned as a result of war," Katongole said Wednesday. "We also care for those who have been abandoned, who have been thrown away or brought in as babies."

Before Watoto took him in, "I didn't have any clothes or fees for school," said Ashraf, 12. "I didn't have food or shoes. ... But now I have everything I need."

The children travel in a couple of choirs — one of that travels September to March, the other January to July. The choirs are made up of 11 boys and 11 girls, ages 7 to 13. Choir members train for four months before they go on the road to perform.

The Watoto children's choirs have traveled internationally since 1994, sharing their stories, music and dance to advocate for an estimated 50 million children orphaned in Africa. Watoto Child Care Ministries was founded by the Watoto Church in 1994.

A Watoto choir performed for then-president George W. Bush when he visited Africa in 2003; at Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee pageant in 2012; and at parliament sessions in Australia, Scotland and Canada.

Because the six-month tours are a long time to be on the road, the children continue their schooling while on tour, Katongole said.

The theme for this choir's tour is "Beautiful Africa."

Winnie Nakate, 13, another member of the choir, said she likes American burgers, and she enjoyed seeing the state of Mississippi.

She came to one of the Watoto children's homes — in which a house parent is paired with about eight children — via a slightly different route than others. Her mother became a house mother for Watoto, and Winnie came along.

Although being on the road is a lot of work, Winnie said she enjoys the trip: "I like singing."

Hear a sample of the music of the Watoto Children's Choir

If you go

The Watoto Children's Choir

■ 7 p.m. April 26. Centenary United Methodist Church, 2800 Tates Creek Rd., Lexington.

■ 8:30 and 10:55 a.m. April 28. Georgetown First United Methodist Church, 1280 Lexington Rd., Georgetown.

Cost: Free, but an offering usually is collected to support the choir.