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Songs from Africa

Victor Katarangi is the boy your mother told you about, the one on the other side of the world who went hungry while you threw most of your dinner away.

He’s the boy who knew how lucky you were when you didn’t.

On Sunday, Victor was in Spokane. He was smiling from ear to ear about all the hot dogs he’d eaten since arriving in the United States from Uganda. He was laughing about all the pizza he hadn’t passed up. And he was praying for snow.

Victor went to the early service at Redeemer Lutheran Church. He stayed until the last service ended four hours later, and he was happy to be there.

Mom was right; Victor Katarangi wants your life.

“It’s nice here,” he said. “They have more big houses here than in Uganda and big cars.”

Victor, 11, is one of 26 kids in the African Children’s Choir, composed of singers from Africa’s most war-torn, disease-ravaged countries.

They come from the killing fields of Rwanda and Uganda and southern Sudan. Most of the kids, ages 6 to 11, have lost one or both parents to genocide or AIDS.

Yet their eyes sparkle with innocence. When Victor sings, he is all smiles.

“Most of our kids come from a place where there was no guarantee of a next meal,” said Tina Sipp, a Spokane native and math teacher for the touring children. “They’re happy, happy kids. I have them in class, and I see the potential. It would be wasted if they couldn’t go to school.”

Off tour, many of the children attend the Music for Life Primary School or the African Outreach Academy in Uganda, which are funded by donations to the choir.

The schools have been funded by donations raised by the children’s choir for almost 20 years.

Victor wants to be a journalist in the United States.

Most of the children would have no schooling at all if it weren’t for the African Children’s Choir, said Joseph Serwadda, a choir chaperone who sang with the group as an orphan in the 1980s.

“It’s really hard to tell what would happen to them because there’s a lot of poverty. No one has money to pay for education,” Serwadda said. “There’s no public school.”

Serwadda said school saved his life. The Ugandan was roughly 8 years old when the African Children’s Choir asked him to audition. He’d been living with his grandparents.

His mother and father were killed during the days of Gen. Idi Amin, the so-called “Butcher of Africa,” who slaughtered as many as 700,000 Ugandans.

Serwadda remembers what it was like to be an African orphan on tour in the United States for the first time. He, too, beamed at everything American and longed to live in the United States, but eventually he felt a duty to make his country better.

“Before I came to America, I thought maybe it was like a perfect place to live. But later I realized it was a developed country and that it takes hard work to live here,” Serwadda said. “I love living in Uganda. We need to rebuild.”

After church, Victor boarded a bus for Missoula for another performance. He has just two months left before he must return to Uganda, where he will struggle to find the right words to describe snow.

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