In the dark and speaking half a dozen different languages, they stroked smartphones, tablets and telephoto lenses while helping to tie off the ribbons and bows that seemed to adorn every costume.
Those costumes, however, were of an overwhelmingly familiar, overwhelmingly European flavor – Finland, France and Poland are part of Europe proper, while the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Peru all retain European influence from Spain.
Even the cultures of the Chinese and Japanese are not so foreign to Americans, largely due to many years of economic intercourse. Likewise with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
The thirty-plus Ugandans lounging in a small backstage dressing room were another matter entirely.
“It is exciting! Some of them are seeing some of the things you have for the first time,” said Sam Straxy, tour director of Imani Milele. The Sebastian, Florida-based choral group has been touring the United States since 2013, but the lineup is different each season.
This year, as in years past, most of the 21 singers, dancers and percussionists average 10 years of age, but there are a few high school and even college students as well — many of whom haven’t been to the U.S. before.
“They never would have imagined there is a machine that cleans dishes,” Straxy said. “They never would have imagined that there is a machine that does laundry, because it is so different for them. They look at the highways, and it’s a cobweb of all of these different things.”
Much of America is probably beyond belief for the members of Imani Milele.
The strife-torn Republic of Uganda is located in east-central Africa — a region itself awash in strife. Bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Tanzania, Uganda was a British protectorate from 1894 until a wave of decolonialization spread across Africa in the 1960s.
Uganda’s first independent government lasted until 1966 when a constitutional coup replaced the king with the prime minister, who himself was deposed by Idi Amin in 1971; Amin spent the next 8 years establishing a legacy as one of history’s most brutal dictators.
The post-Amin era saw similar instability, as well as the rise of another of history’s greatest criminals — Joseph Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army has been accused of heinous war crimes, including the utilization of child soldiers, child sex trafficking, the death of 100,000 non-combatants and the displacement of almost 2 million people.
LRA activity has ebbed in recent years, but Uganda continues to find itself struggling to emerge from more than a century of foreign domination and civil unrest. The country ranks 164th out of 166 on the 2014 Human Development Index, and despite slashing poverty in half over the last 25 years — it was 56 percent — much of the population still lives on less than $3 a day, especially in rural areas.
Children are often the most severely affected by poverty; blameless and helpless, they suffer consequences they don’t understand for reasons they can’t comprehend, leaving them little to subsist on but faith alone.
“Imani, which is our name, it’s a Swahili word which means ‘believe,’” Straxy said. “We’re a non-profit organization that’s based out of Uganda that’s taking care of over 3,000 orphaned and mistreated children. We rescue, educate and develop them. The choir is the promotion arm of that message.”
Imani Milele Children Inc. traces its roots to 1989, when founder Rev. Moses Ssemanda Mbuga rescued three orphans from a suburb of the capital Kampala. Mbuga is the son of the late Rev. Ezekiel Mbuga, a religious activist who was jailed during the Amin regime, which was known for the imprisonment, torture and execution of Christians.
Rev. Ezekiel Mbuga miraculously survived persecution only to die in a car accident in 1984; since then his son has tried to carry on his vision, installing water wells and constructing classrooms in underprivileged areas while continuing to give Ugandan children a chance at a real future.
“They come from all kinds of abuse. Some have been abandoned by their parents, and others have come from situations where they were mistreated, dropped on the streets, beaten by relatives after the death of their parents — being mistreated, abused,” said Straxy. “So we go in to the communities. We have eight locations in Uganda where we have schools and bring in these children. We also have a home, a children’s home. We house them, feed, them, counsel them, guide them.”
Over the years, there have been success stories for Mbuga’s organization; indeed, the four college students performing in the group this year have been in the program ever since they were 6, 7, 11 and 13 years old.
But one particular boy — named Morris — sticks out in Straxy’s mind as a shining example of the work Imani Milele performs.
Straxy said that Morris’ mother separated from his alcoholic father when Morris was very young; they lived next door to prostitutes in what was a drug-infested community where his drunken father would often return to beat both mother and child. Interestingly, it was the neighbors who brought Morris to Imani’s attention. He’s been in the program since he was 7.
“So Morris comes in the program, he grows up, we support him, we bring him on tour. He had finished high school, he was getting ready to join college. He was here [in the U.S.] on tour in 2014, and we traveled all over. As we do performances in areas, we also try to find people who can counsel them through education,” said Straxy.
While performing in the Dallas area, one of those counsellors — a pilot with United Airlines — took a liking to Morris and decided to help him attend college in the U.S.
“So we returned to Uganda and said, ‘What does Morris want to study?’ He wants to pursue a degree in engineering,” Straxy said. “So we were eventually able to bring Morris to the United States because that family wanted to bring him to a college in Dallas.”
Straxy recently caught up with Morris.
“So the neat thing, the success here, is that at the beginning of this tour I was able to fly to Dallas-Fort Worth and meet with Morris’ family as well as Morris, and they gave me a report that ever since he joined college he has never had anything except A’s. Not even a B-plus! So that’s really wonderful.”
Wonderful, and believable.
“You look at these children and their circumstance and you think they don’t have really a future,” said Straxy. “They really do.”
Imani Milele will continue to perform at select Folkmoot 2016 events through the end of the schedule; the current U.S. tour runs through November. For more information on the group, its remaining Folkmoot events, or the balance of its tour schedule, visit www.imanimilele.com.