They range in age from 13 to 21, and many are from among Uganda’s estimated 2.7 million orphans, casualties of civil war and AIDS. But when the 21 young performers of “The Spirit of Uganda” take the stage of Babson College’s Carling-Sorenson Theater on Sunday, audiences are likely to see them not as victims, but rather as radiant ambassadors for Ugandan culture.
The young dancers, drummers, and singers celebrate cultural traditions from more than 50 East African ethnic groups. In addition to traditional music and dances dating back centuries, they perform works that reflect contemporary Ugandan culture, including a duet in which a young boy of today tries to negotiate whether he can be good and cool at the same time, and the pop hit “Obangaina,” featuring the song’s original vocalist from the band Afrigo, guest artist Rachel Magoola.
A professional touring and training program, “The Spirit of Uganda” is a project of the Dallas-based nonprofit organization Empower African Children, which provides food, resources, and educational scholarships to 50 needy young Ugandans, from boarding school in Kampala through college, some attending in the United States. The program also trains them in the traditional art forms of Uganda’s rich culture. Peter Kasule, who was orphaned at the age of 13 and later became a scholarship recipient in the program, is now the artistic director of “The Spirit of Uganda” and serves as the show’s master of ceremonies. He spoke with the Globe last week by phone as the company traveled by bus from Miami to Massachusetts.
The Spirit of Uganda
Q. This seems like a transformative opportunity for children from such dire circumstances. What were their lives like before they entered the program?
A. Education was not a possibility without Empower African Children. Some of them lost parents to AIDS, some are in horrible situations, from villages where their parents could not care for them. After elementary school, there was no hope for high school.
Q. You’ve said that art requires discipline, patience, love, and control. What are these young people learning besides performing skills?
A. Leaving Uganda and coming [on tour] to America is life-changing for every student. Their lives are broadened in the way they think, they get to meet different people in different capacities that open up their world. By the time we finish the tour, their minds have changed. Sometimes they go back and have in mind to become a teacher, doctor, or go into business. They go back and try to influence their communities and become leaders in their schools. They comprehend better in classes and understand more geography, history, how the Western world works. We travel with a teacher from their school and she gets on the microphone on the bus and talks about each state we pass, to put eyes to what they have in their minds.
Q. What happens after students graduate from the program?
A. As we prepare them for the show, we also prepare them for life back in Uganda. It’s important to help them rise to their full potential. We see who scores well academically, and some go to university, some go to vocational school. And when they graduate, the organization helps find them jobs, so they follow them through to independence.
Q. Can you talk about the importance of culture in Uganda?
A. Without culture, we do not have identity. Everyone is described by the region they come from, and every region has its own unique culture. The show represents all these cultures, which reflect our nation, how we are raised, how we learn. By maintaining culture in performance and teaching, we are preserving values. The culture is embedded within [the students] and they will never forget where they come from. Uganda is always home.
Q. Why are the arts so empowering, especially for kids?
A. Because it gives children a voice. They are usually in the background, never speak. The elders decide, children follow, everything is dictated to you. But they go onstage and that is their world and they can express themselves, see how useful they are and what they have to offer. They get to be creative. We never had that [growing up], but now students have been able to change their communities and the young generation is teaching the older generation, for positive change. We are creating leaders of tomorrow with freedom of expression and freedom of speech. To move the country ahead, we must move together.
Q. This program not only crosses borders, uniting performers from different regions, it connects old traditions with contemporary life. How does that work?
A. Some dance movements have been that way hundreds of years, but the songs keep changing. We are composing as we go along, see what’s happening at the moment and talk about it, express it. We encourage creativity. Some things in the show are composed by the performers. It really gives them energy when they are given the opportunity to showcase their talent. They feel their voices are being heard and appreciated, and it’s very empowering.
This is a family show everyone can enjoy. We are giving you a tour around Uganda with dancing, music, and narration. The performers come from poor situations, but our students are about joy and showing what you can do when given the opportunity, not about crying about what they don’t have but about showing the beauty of the culture. Students are writing their own history every time they go onstage.
Q. What do you hope people take away from the show?
A. I would like the audience to know that no matter what you have gone through, there is still a bright light ahead of you. If you look beyond where the eye can see, you will survive. Keep an open mind, because you create your own future.