Rwandan children sing ‘Asante’ (thank you)
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
It is hard to resist being hugged by 24 grinning kids. The startlingly affectionate Rwandan children disarm Westerners who have carefully taught their children to be wary of strangers, not hug them.
But then, the children who make up the Asante Choir manage to leave behind a wake of charmed adults wherever they go.
Most of these athletic and well trained young dancers and singers, aged 7 to 14, are orphans from Rwanda. Some have widowed mothers. And for the past three years they have come to Sonoma County to say “asante,” the Swahili word for “thank you,” to the generous Americans who have helped them.
They also serve as ambassadors for the African Mission Alliance, an evangelistic Christian group begun and run by Rwandans that helps, educates and empowers widows and orphans.
Pat Parks, a retired Petaluma policeman and pastor of the Bodega Bay Church, made the initial connection when he was in Germany in 2003. He was teaching emergency procedures for the World Vision organization, one of the world’s largest charity groups working in Africa. William Ngabo was a Rwandan student in his class.
Ngabo and Amon Munyaneza had just started the African Mission Alliance and had just provided a home and school for 20 children they had rescued from begging in the streets.
Parks was moved by the plight of Rwanda’s poor. He brought Ngabo to the U.S. and started raising funds for the alliance. The group grew.
In 2008, the group started a choir, with the most musically talented youngsters at the home learning their native Rwandan dances and songs. Each year the children spend their summer vacation on tour. They perform at schools, in churches and wherever they are welcome from southern California to Washington and Idaho. They entertain and share their exuberance.
Some of their numbers showcase Rwandan traditions, others are Christian but with an African accent. The traditional Christmas carol “Joy to the World,” for example, becomes a wonderfully wild, whooping dance. A hymn with lyrics that say, “I am trading my sorrows, I am trading my shame, for the joy of the Lord” has them dancing and turning cartwheels.
The kids work hard but also get to play. While on tour, they have been guests at Disneyland, have seen snow and the ocean, and have ridden on a boat for the first time. On this tour they were guests of Safari West and got to see African wildlife for the first time.
With a history of war, genocide and refugees pouring into the capital city, Rwanda has little wildlife left. These kids will see their first giraffes and antelopes in Sonoma County.
Along the way, they persuade people to sponsor more children. A $32 monthly sponsorship provides one child with medical care, mosquito nets, one meal a day, school supplies and schooling. The alliance provides a basic education, including English literacy, and religious education.
The alliance also trains and empowers Rwandan women. It teaches sewing and other artisan skills, and provides the women with sewing machines and a few goats to help them become self sufficient.
It hopes to expand the work into the neighboring country of Burundi, which is in much worse shape now than Rwanda.
Ngabo said the choir is also part of the national effort towards reconciliation. “We don’t consider the tribe at the alliance.”
This year’s tour also doubled as a mission of mercy, as a young boy who desperately needed surgery came to a California hospital that could provide it. The man who organized the child’s surgery is Tutsi. The boy is a Hutu whose father is in jail for killing Tutsis.
“God is doing the work in Rwanda,” Ngabo concluded.
Audrey, a 13-year-old performer, said she misses her friends at home but likes making new friends while touring. “I like performing. I like the caring from the people,” she said, adding that hamburgers are her favorite American food.
Nine-year-old Patrick prefers chicken nuggets and said he also likes making new friends. Both were excited about seeing snow again, having seen it on last year’s tour.
Before they leave Sonoma County, the choir has more performances. But if you go, watch out. You are liable to get hugged if you get too close.
Upcoming performances include:
Nov. 18, 7 p.m., Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Santa Rosa
Nov. 19, 1 p.m., Safari West, Santa Rosa; 6 p.m., Santa Rosa Community Baptist, Santa Rosa
Nov. 20, 10 a.m., Bodega Bay Church, Bodega Bay; 2:30 p.m., Hessel Church, Sebastopol; 7 p.m., Petaluma Valley Church, Petaluma
Nov. 27, 2:30 p.m., Spring Hills Church, Santa Rosa; 7 p.m., Redwood Covenant Church, Santa Rosa
Dec. 2, 7 p.m., Salmon Creek Middle School, Occidental