SALT LAKE CITY — Tina Sipp, manager of the African Children’s Choir, has seen hundreds of students pass through the choir, but one student's story is still fresh in her mind.
The student, a young woman from Rwanda, was “nowhere close to the best student in the class,” Sipp remembered in a recent phone interview.
“I remember she said to me, ‘You know, Auntie, I knew they wanted us to go to school, but I didn’t know what I was doing there,'” Sipp said about the student. “But when they came back from (the choir) tour, there was a teacher that really excited her about education."
Following the early death of her mom, the student threw herself into her education, realizing, Sipp recalled, that, "‘I’ve got to be the one to take care of the family.'" She graduated as the top female student in all of Rwanda, going on to receive a full scholarship to American University in Washington D.C. her sophomore year — "And this is a little girl who came out on tour who didn't know up from down in terms of education,” Sipp said.
The young woman, who is now studying neuroscience to better understand the mind, aims to apply her knowledge in education to help improve the academic process for students around the world.
It's a remarkable tale for a remarkable young woman, and one of the many success stories the African Children's Choir has seen in its 35-year history.
The African Children's Choir, which started in 1984 thanks to the vision and efforts of founder Ray Barnett, is a music and education program that has sponsored thousands of choir graduates to go on to higher education and obtain leadership positions in their chosen fields. The choir members are drawn from African Children's Choir’s 35 nonprofit education programs and selected based on need. Once the tour ends, the children are then funded “all the way through their post-secondary education,” Sipp said.
The African Children’s Choir is currently touring North America's West, introducing the group — children whose lives “formerly existed in a two- to five-miles radius,” Sipp said — to Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, California, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, North Dakota and three Canadian provinces. The African Children’s Choir will perform on March 8 at Calvary Baptist Church, and on March 10 in Sandy and Murray.
“These are all children, age 7-10, who have been left in poverty,” Sipp said. “They’re from very vulnerable, impoverished backgrounds, mostly because their families aren’t educated, there’s a lot of single-parent homes and they cannot afford even a government education for their children,” Sipp said. “So education is really out of the realm of possibility for them. That means, the potential that is in each of these children can never be tapped.”
While the program brings “vibrant, African-influenced” dancing and choral music to Western audiences, the choir’s ultimate purpose is to fund the secondary education of “several hundred” children throughout Africa.
“A lot of people … think that we're raising money only for the children that are in the choir, but they're actually a very small percentage of the children that are being helped by the work of the choir,” Sipp said.
Beyond financial limitations, Uganda’s educational infrastructure itself further prevents children from advancing in school. Because the country is part of the Commonwealth of Nations, Uganda’s national standardized tests — three exams per year, to be exact — are given in English. Children who are not proficient in English, Sipp said, will therefore “not do very well” on the exams.
“Across the board, one thing that I didn't understand until I had a chance to go and visit Africa a few times was just how important English is for them — all of the (Ugandan) educational system is in English and all of the national testing … is in English,” Sipp said. “So if you don't know English, you can never move forward in your education. The immersion in English is huge for the children.”
In addition to the language benefits, the choir's travel experiences, too, expand the children’s horizons.
“The other thing I really saw and experienced was the limited vision that these children have before tour. … Their world is very, very small, and it's pretty hard to dream beyond that. So, the vision that is cast, and the confidence that is instilled in them, and the training, and the discipleship and mentorship — we’re building character,” Sipp said.
Susan, a 10-year-old Ugandan girl currently touring with the choir, sat down for a short phone interview about the tour. Her favorite subject is math, she wants to be a doctor, what she enjoys most about the tour is “performing and traveling” — and she misses home “so, so much.”
For Sipp, it's students like Susan who make the choir's performances memorable for their audiences — and it's not always about their singing.
“I think our performances connect with Western audiences because there's something in us that longs for the deeper things, the non-tangibles — joy and resiliency — and I think the children (in our choir) touch that chord," she said. “Honestly, I think the program is good, but at the end of the night what people have been magnetized by is the spirit of the children.”Comment on this story
If you go …
What: African Children’s Choir “Just As I Am” tour
When: Friday, March 8, 7 p.m.
Where: Calvary Baptist Church, 1090 S. State Street
How much: Free
When: Sunday, March 10, 10 a.m.
Where: Mountain View Assembly, 300 E. 8000 South, Sandy
When: March 10, 7 p.m.
Where: Cottonwood Presbyterian Church, 1580 E. Vine Street, Murray
Notes: The choir is currently looking for volunteer bus drivers. If interested, email: [email protected]