Saturday, May 17, 2014

Watoto Waimba

There was an announcement in the church bulletin.  The Watoto Children’s Choir was coming to Milwaukee.  I didn’t know anything about it but could tell by the “Watoto” part that it had something to do with East Africa, so I decided to go.  There were a lot of people from church there.

Friday night, the choir performed at Central United Methodist Church in Milwaukee, across the street from a Slayer concert at the Rave.  The choir consists of children and adults from a program in Uganda called Watoto that helps raise orphans.  Not a great name by trademark standards as it’s rather descriptive, but it seems like a program that’s been highly successful.  It also struck me as a very strange juxtaposition to have a band called Slayer performing next to a group of Ugandan orphans.

The group consisted of a little over 30 performers, children and adults.  The children mostly ranged from 8 to 10 years old.  The music was beautiful, a mix of traditional and modern East African music sung in English and Swahili – it’s possible some of it was also  in Luganda but I don’t know Luganda well enough to pick it out of a crowd.  (I could pick out some of the Swahili.)  The costumes were quite fun too, also representing a mix of traditional and modern.

I have to admit, I was a little nervous as we began to learn a bit about the Watoto program.  Two things particularly gave me that pay-attention-here warning.  First, it became clear that the tour was part of a fundraising gig.  Second, the organization was founded by muzungus.  Now, there’s nothing wrong either of these things in and of themselves – however, there is along history of muzungus with White Saviour complexes coming into Africa – or even from outside of Africa – doing fundraiser events to try to save the poor, backwards, dark, starving, etc. continent from itself.  I’m not a fan of these things (see my 2010 rant here).

Watoto impressed me.  For most of the program, the presentation felt genuine.  These were Ugandan children and adults talking about their experiences and what being a Watoto child had done for them.  There was a donation aspect and also plenty of good for sale in the lobby, but both were, for the most, were presented in terms of “help us continue this great work.”

There was one big exception and one little exception.  The video that was shown had the big exception.  It was going along with showing Watoto programs and students – and showing some really neat things like trade school classes – and then the founders came on.  Suddenly, it seemed like an ASPCA advert.  All pity and “save these poor creatures who cannot help themselves” mood.  Bummer.  At least it was only one part of an otherwise really well done program. 

The little exception was that everything was presented in terms of “Africa” despite that this group is a Ugandan group helping Ugandan children.  There is a new trial program offshoot in South Sudan, to be fair.  But, referring only to Africa and rarely to Uganda perpetuates the Africa-is-a-country misconception.

I’ve come to realize over the years that as much as some of this bothers me, some of it is necessary to get donations and foreign support.  Muzungu-pandering I call it.  Give the white people what they want to see so they’ll give their money.  I sort of now see it as a necessary evil.  Watoto kept the muzungu pandering well balanced with insight into real Africa, including its beauty and its sorrows.  I liked that.

The most moving part of the evening was during one of the breaks between songs where the children would tell their stories about how they came to Watoto.  There was a young girl stepped forwards to talk about the day she became an orphan.  “I came home from school and found my neighbors standing around my mother’s body covered by a sheet.  They told me my father had hung himself after murdering my mum.”

The sadness and concern in the eyes of the adult Watoto woman standing behind this small girl conveyed more than anything else in the entire program.  That expression, that empathy and care from another human being, from another person in the program reinforced the realness of these children’s stories and the importance of Watoto to them.

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