CATTARAUGUS - Some may think a throng of orphans would be ill-equipped to dispense hope and joy, but those are the very commodities in which the Watoto Children's Choir specializes. Inspiration comes in many forms, most impelling, that which bursts from the hearts of children.
Western New Yorkers will have the rare opportunity to attend Watoto's joyous music and dance performance on Saturday, April 30, at 6:30 p.m., in the Cattaraugus-Little Valley Central School Theater. Roberts Memorial Church is the proud sponsor of this event.
The group coming to Cattaraugus is one of multiple Watoto choirs, all of them composed solely of African children, orphaned by war, poverty, HIV/AIDS, and other disease. With their chaperones, they travel the world as advocates for the estimated 50 million African youngsters who share their fate. Uganda alone, where Watoto was founded and headquartered, is home to two million of these orphans.
Although Watoto was conceived as an orphanage, it evolved into a much different model than most such institutions. Separate houses were built, each serving as a home to as many as eight children (ages two and above). All homes have a "mother," who tends to the physical and emotional needs of her charges. Each "family" lives together, learning love and mutual respect, which in turn help the "siblings" and their "mother" grow whole and healthy. Infants under two are cared for in a separate facility known as Baby Watoto.
The various homes are grouped into villages, each of which has a school and a clinic. These facilities serve not only the Watoto population, but also residents from the surrounding countryside, thereby fostering a larger sense of community.
The idea for Watoto sprang from the heart-wrenching experiences of missionary Gary Skinner and his wife, Marilyn as they worked midst the ravages of ethnic wars in Uganda. Over a million people were killed during that carnage; young boys were kidnapped and transformed into unfeeling weapons of war. Other millions were dying of AIDS; HIV-positive girls, many pregnant and homeless, wandered the countryside. The Skinners felt driven to do something for this suffering population, and the village-orphanage concept was born.
To the Skinners' amazement, these desperate children blossomed like flowers under the loving care of their foster mothers and the safety of the "villages". Instinctively, they turned to traditional channels of music and dance to express their newfound love of living. The young missionaries were inspired by this amazing resilience, and decided to take their Watoto Choir "on the road," to share their message of hope with others. That was in 1994, and the rest, as they say, is history.
While in the local area, the children and their chaperones will stay at the homes of volunteer host families, according to Roberts Memorial's Pastor Mike Jones. He said the choir has performed in such places as the British and Canadian Parliaments, Buckingham Palace, and the White House. "We're pretty fortunate to be able to have them here," he said.