Choir director Brian Njuba of Uganda sat cross-legged on the floor of the gym Friday at Tangent Elementary School and asked his young audience to reflect on their lives.
How many of them, he asked, usually came to school on the bus? How many had parents who dropped them off? How many came by bike, or skateboard?
Hands waved all over the room as the guest artist asked a few more questions: How many had washing machines at home? Microwaves? Ovens?
Children in Uganda walk many miles to go to school, Njuba told his audience. "For us, we cook on a fire. We do our laundry with our hands and lay them in the sun to dry."
Today when it's time to go home, Njuba urged the children, run to parents and give them a big hug. "Tell them, 'Thank you very much for doing everything for me to be comfortable, so I can have a bright future.'"
Njuba's visit to Tangent on Friday was part of a special performance by the Imani Milele Choir of Uganda, which is spending a few days in the mid-valley through the sponsorship of First United Methodist Church.
The choir, made up of 18 Ugandan youths ages 9 to 19, is touring the west coast of the United States from April to November. It is scheduled to perform at four Albany elementary schools and give a free public concert at 4 p.m. Sunday at First United Methodist, 1115 28th Ave. S.W.
Imani Milele, which means "everlasting faith" or "always believe" in Swahili, is a series of children's education centers in Uganda with a U.S. office based in Florida. Developed as part of a ministerial outreach in 1984, the centers feed, educate and provide medical care for some 3,000 children, most of whom have little or no family support.
The Imani Milele choir is an educational and fundraising organization for those centers. It features a handpicked group of children who travel the United States each year sharing traditional songs and dances.
"I occasionally get email from different ensembles that are going to be passing through the area looking for a venue to stop and perform," said Eric McKirdy, director of music and principal organist at Albany First United Methodist Church. "We don’t always say yes to these, but this one was very compelling and we thought we really had to do it."
The Rev. Kate Connolly has participated in multiple mission trips to nearby Kenya and said she was excited about sharing a similar experience with the congregation. Parishioners volunteered to house the choir members during their stay in Albany.
The Imani Milele choir shares information about Uganda and the centers, and does provide information about sponsoring children's education there, McKirdy said, but the point of the mid-valley concerts is more to educate its audiences.
"We’re lucky to live in a city like Albany that is fairly insulated from a lot of bigger world problems," he said. The downside is we’re also insulated from being aware of those bigger problems, and there’s people attached to them.
"We saw this as an opportunity to bring an international story, a very real story, to Albany to help make the world a little bit smaller.”
McKirdy said the church reached out to four nearby schools to spread that message, and helped offset the assembly fees for those that needed it.
The choir performed Thursday at Sunrise Elementary School and Friday at Tangent. Performances are scheduled Monday at South Shore and Liberty.
At Tangent, students sat open-mouthed as drumbeats echoed through the gym and children only slightly older than themselves danced barefoot in headdresses and shaggy belts made of dried goatskin.
Performers sang in both English and dialects from their own country, and brought up classroom teachers and Principal Gretchen Rayburn to join in a final dance.
Through a video projected on the back wall, the audience became acquainted with Imali Milele member Sarah Nayebare and a typical day in the life of many Ugandan children. After walking three miles to school and five to collect water from a murky pond, Sarah and her four siblings would curl up to sleep on pallets in a mud-walled hut with a dirt floor.
Sarah's living situation, although much different now that she has an Imani Milele sponsorship — last year's choir toured with her, Njuba said — had a powerful effect on Tangent students. Rayburn left the group dance to comfort a few sobbing first-graders, who told her the video had made them sad.
"I want our students to understand the world outside Tangent, to have a vision of what's possible," Rayburn said. "I think it definitely broadened their horizons."
Njuba said he hears similar reactions from audiences wherever he goes. "That is the beginning of transformation," he said.
The youths who tour with the choir have a similarly eye-opening experience, he said. When they come back to Uganda, they throw themselves into their studies, saying they will work to transform their community.
"It encourages them to become better people," he said.