SEBRING - For 10-year-old Gerald Tukundane, traveling thousands of miles from his home in Uganda, being away from his family for at least a year and performing before thousands of strangers is an opportunity rather than a frightening foray into the unknown.
Gerald said he wanted to join the African Children's Choir, which performed in Sebring at First Baptist Church Wednesday evening, because it would provide him the opportunity for a better life in the future rather than a continued life of poverty.
"Sometimes we only have one meal a day," he said, despite that his father produces sugar and his mother sells clothes. He said he lives with his parents, two sisters and a brother in a small house in a small village.
Gerald was one of eight boys and eight girls, ages 8 to 10, from Uganda who gave a rousing, energetic performance of dancing and singing African tunes, spirituals and contemporary tunes to an audience of 900 people that packed the sanctuary of the church.
It was so rousing and energetic that The Rev. Matthew Crawford, pastor of First Baptist, suggested that the children would also do well in an exercise video.
Natu Strathy, an audience member who came to the United States from Liberia in 1993, said she was impressed by the performance.
"It was excellent," she said, adding that it brought back memories from when she lived in Africa. She said she especially enjoyed hearing the children sing the national anthem for South Africa.
The African Children's Choir has performed since 1984, said Catherine Wake, the tour leader.
Wake said 40 choirs have toured since then and typically two or three choirs perform in different places at the same time. The choirs tour from 12 to 15 months, she said.
The choir at First Baptist was touring the eastern seaboard of the United States plus Canada. In Florida, the children have performed in Panama City, Tallahassee, Tampa and Lakeland. The next stop will be Fort Lauderdale, she said.
The Rev. Nuno Norberto, pastor and music minister at First Baptist, said he found out about the choir performing at other churches in Florida and enquired about having it come next year to First Baptist. It turned out one evening was available this year, he said.
Most performances have been in churches, but sometimes the choir also visits schools, Wake added.
Special performances also are done, such as before heads of state. One notable such performance, she said, was before Queen Elizabeth II during her diamond jubilee last year.
A special choir performed then, Wake said.
Generally, auditions are held at various locations and 50 children are selected, she said. Those 50 spend a weekend together with choir staff, she said.
A child who is homesick after one weekend probably would not be a good fit, she said.
They also visit homes to find the children most in need, she said, adding that acceptance into the choir brings with it a guarantee of education through college. Many of the children were not attending schools before joining the choir, Wake said.
During the tours, the children share some of their culture.
One performance came out of an African story involving two brothers who were always fighting. A village leader told the brothers that during future fights they would have to put gourds under their arms and not drop the gourds.
The brothers realized how silly that made them look and they began laughing instead of fighting.
Wake said the children during the dance acted as though they had gourds under their arms.
Both Gerald and Mackline Lyanda, another participant, said they like singing and dancing.
Mackline said she lives in a two-room house with her parents and two brothers and a sister. She said she wants to become a midwife so she can help women give birth to healthy children.
She said a difference between her country and the United States is that United States residences have fancier things.
Gerald said he wants to become a basketball player.
When the program first started, unlike Gerald and Mackline, most of the children would say they wanted to become doctors or lawyers, Wake said. But it has expanded their horizons.
One boy noticed that the roads in the United States were smooth and became a civil engineer to improve roads in Uganda, she said.
"It is opening their eyes to the possibilities out there," Wake said.