Before Ashraf Sempijja even turned 7, both his parents had died from HIV or AIDS. Most of his family in Uganda has also died from the disease.
He had nobody to care for him. He went without adequate clothing and even food to eat.
“I didn’t have shoes,” Ashraf, now 12, said. “I didn’t have school shoes.”
Ashraf is from the Rakai district in central Uganda. Five years ago, Ashraf and his sister, Sumaiya, were taken in by Watoto Child Care Ministries in Uganda and welcomed into the home of a Watoto house mother.
“I have everything I need,” Ashraf said. “I go to school. Clothes, shoes, everything – I have them. I’m healthy.”
Ashraf is one of 22 children who will be performing this week throughout the Wiregrass as part of the Watoto Children’s Choir tour, “Beautiful Africa: A New Generation.” Watoto means “the children” in Swahili.
The Watoto Children’s Choir was founded in 1994. Performances are filled with original African music and dance routines.
“The message spread is the message of hope because these children have stories to tell, stories of hope that they are sharing with people,” said choir team leader Brian Katongole.
The children’s choir is part of the Watoto Child Care Ministries founded by Canadian missionaries Gary and Marilyn Skinner. The child care ministry is part of the Watoto Church and was created to address the large number of children in Uganda orphaned because their parents died of HIV or AIDS. Watoto Children’s Villages provide for the children’s physical care and daily needs. Through sponsorships, children are provided an education, health care, and social and spiritual development. Today, more than 2,000 children are cared for through the Watoto Child Care Ministries.
There are 22 children between the ages of 7 and 13 traveling with the Watoto Children’s Choir along with 10 adults. The tour started in Texas in January and continued to Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Alabama. After they leave Alabama, the choir will visit Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Each child cared for by Watoto Child Care Ministries gets the chance to travel once with the choir and train for five months leading up to the tour. The choir visits the U.S. twice a year.
“The children’s choir is the face of the organization,” Katongole said. “People get to see what the children really become … but then the choir is also the voice for the voiceless. When they come on tour, besides sharing their stories of hope, they’re raising awareness of the plight of the African children.”
Ashraf attends the Watoto Church each Sunday, plays soccer with his friends, and shares in household tasks with his Watoto brothers and sisters. He loves math and wants to be a professional artist.
The United States is very different, he said, but he’s learning and experiencing new things on this trip.
“I had never seen an ocean before,” Ashraf said.