In 1994, a group called the Children of Uganda charmed U.S. audiences. Many of those original children, like Peter Kasule, the troupe’s artistic director, are now adults, and although some current members are 12 and under, a few others are about to enter college. The rechristened Spirit of Uganda is a project of Empower African Children, as is a secondary school in Uganda that will serve 300 to 400 kids, most of them tuition-free.
As Alexis Hefley, the founder and chief executive officer of AEC, made clear at the Joyce, many Ugandan young people have suffered poverty, the depredations of war, as well as the loss of parents to HIV/AIDS before a more enlightened government policy took hold. In a population of 27 million, 2.4 million are orphans. For the young, proud, and marvelously spirited musicians and dancers onstage, a 21-city tour must seem more empowering than grueling.
In his introduction to Orunyege-Ntogoro, originally a ceremony in which young people would choose their mates, Kasule mentions that skill in dancing was used to measure intelligence. The Spirit of Uganda performers should have no trouble on that score: From Miriam Namala (nine) and Phylis Asiimire (10), who are featured in a song celebrating the joy of having a child, to university-bound Peter Mugga (22), all are gifted in several ways. They dance, they sing, and they play instruments: various big drums, the amandinda (the wooden xylophone that sets the tuning), the adungu (a nine-stringed harp), and flutes. It takes a horde to strike the gigantic embaire, whose wooden keys are the size of planks. And whatever these performers do, in whatever different bright attire, they do with discipline, fervor, and joy.
Although the songs and dances come not just from Uganda but also from bordering countries, their traditions seep in: All of the numbers feature bare feet slapping the ground, knees lifting high, and hips twisting and shaking—sometimes at rapid speed, with bells or rattling anklets amplifying the opulent rhythms.
In Biwonvu, the women dance while balancing pots on their heads to a song that advises accepting one’s burdens for now. In Larakaraka, once a courting dance in the North near the Sudanese border and now a fierce rallying cry, the men dance while striking half-calabashes with implements made of bicycle spokes. In a dance from Rwanda, bare-chested males whip their heads and shoulders to make their long white manes lash. In one from Southwest Uganda, the women whack the drums with two sticks as they move around them.
The pounding feet and agile bodies, the drums and vibrant human voices all send a message—one of courage and hope.