Tour of Light to benefit AIDS orphans

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The Tour of Light will perform March 10 at Pepperdine University's Smothers Theatre. Photo by Vicky Leland

Twenty children from Uganda, ages eight to 18, tour the country to raise awareness and funds

regarding the plight of AIDs.

By Diana Funaro/Special to The Malibu Times

From the White House to the “Late Show With David Letterman” to Pepperdine University on March 10, The Children of Uganda, who are AIDS orphans, perform rousing concerts of centuries-old songs and dances as a fundraiser to help other orphans, provide scholarships to U.S. colleges and raise awareness about this devastating disease. This East African troupe has performed in more than 20 states since they first began touring biennially in 1994.

“We are presently touring with 20 children, ranging in age from eight to 18,” said Alexis Hefley, president and director of the Uganda Children’s Charity Foundation (UCCF), calling from their tour bus as it traversed the hills from Ohio to St. Paul on their latest cross-country “Tour of Light 2004.”

“We’re also traveling with about 20 drums, all cultural instruments-as well as handmade harps and xylophones,” Hefley said. “This is one of the most authentic performances you’ll see. Everything is real, even us.”

She said the troupe began this three-month tour Jan. 7 in New York State and will close April 12 on the other side of the continent in the state of Washington.

Hefley, originally from Texas, has devoted her life since 1994 to aiding these orphans and promoting their cause worldwide. She first visited Uganda in 1993 at the request of Janet Museveni, the country’s First Lady, and wound up living and working with AIDS orphans in Kampala, Uganda for more than a year-and-a-half.

At that time she became aware of the extent of the AIDS/HIV crisis, with 1.7 million AIDS orphans who have lost one or both parents, and the need for humanitarian assistance. AIDS is now the main cause of death in Uganda, killing hundreds per day.

In an effort to reverse this devastation, the government has implemented innovative policies and programs, which has reduced HIV infection rates from 30 percent of the population in 1993 to 5 percent in 2002. But access to anti-retroviral drugs is needed to reverse the near-certain mortality rate of HIV/ AIDS victims.

Hefley organized the first tour of the Children of Uganda dance troupe in 1994, and then in 1995 founded the Uganda Children’s Charity Foundation, which provides material and scholarship support to these orphaned children.

She explained that the Children of Uganda come from two orphanages outside of Kampala, Uganda where their artistic director, Frank Katoola, first began teaching them indigenous songs and dances as a way of carrying on their cultural heritage. Eventually, the director chose a smaller group to perform locally on holidays and weekends and then narrowed the group down to 20 children who tour internationally.

Also on the tour bus was Peter Kasoole, assistant artistic director, whose parents died of AIDS more than a decade ago. “Ten years ago I was one of the original members of the group and came on two tours, and then in ’96 I was given a scholarship and am currently studying music technology at Santa Fe College,” Kasoole said. He mentioned that he is taking this current semester off to join the group across the country and will be appearing on the program as the master of ceremonies.

The first scholarship student to graduate is Jane Kembabazi, from Pepperdine University in Spring 2003, with a degree in international studies. She then received a graduate scholarship to The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston, majoring in international relations with a focus on international negotiation and conflict resolution. Kembabazi, who graduated with honors, received the largest scholarship ever awarded a graduate student in the history of Tufts, and the goal is that she will return with skills to benefit her community.

“Pepperdine has been amazingly supportive to us and very open to diversity, and brought Jane on board,” Hefley said. “Part of that is why they’ve been so open to bring the Children of Uganda to perform at the university this year.”

The children’s homeland is a subtropical rainforest known for its strikingly lush landscapes, including scenic lakes and mountainous terrain, and was called “The Pearl of Africa” by Winston Churchill. The country is culturally diverse with the main language being English since the British occupied it until 1962.

The citizens have survived a bloody civil war under the notorious Idi Amin, followed by Milton Obote. Under the present leadership of Yoweri Museveni, president since 1986, the country has made considerable progress in education and rebuilding, but Uganda still has the highest proportion of AIDS orphans in the world.

It is hoped that this 2004 tour, with performances at universities, performing art centers, and churches, will reach its fundraising goal of $1 million, which would go to support 1,000 orphans and their communities with such basics as medicine, food, shelter and education. In 2003, the troupe was able to raise $670,000.

Music is generally considered an international language, and this joyous and celebratory concert offers a cultural link from Uganda’s ancient past to present-day U.S. audiences, and is an inspiring example of how to turn adversity into artistic expression.

The Tour of Light 2004 performs Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Smothers Theatre at Pepperdine University, 2455 Pacific Coast Highway. Tickets: $35. For more information or to buy tickets call 310.506.4522 or TicketMaster at 213.365.3500; or visit online at www.pepperdine.edu /cfa or www.uccf.org