PORTLAND, Maine — Growing up in a village in Uganda, Dorothy Nabwami often went to bed hungry. Living hand to mouth, she was lucky to have a meal a day.
At 9 years old, something happened that changed her life. She owes it all to her voice.
The Hail Mary pass came from the African Children’s Choir.
This humanitarian program, which sponsors children in Africa’s poorest nations, selects a handful each year to tour the globe. They sing, dance and conjure up the sunny rhythms of their homeland and in turn secure their future.
For 30 years, the program, run by the Canadian nonprofit Music For Life, has helped countless children escape poverty while charming audiences from officials at the Pentagon to Nelson Mandela. On Sunday, the choir comes to Portland’s Merrill Auditorium.
The high-energy show combines African drumming, dancing, colorful costumes and gospel favorites.
Unlike many relief efforts, the African Children’s Choir is “not focused on the devastation but the hope,” said Sarah Lidstone, North American choir operations manager.
With real-life testimonies part of the show and proceeds of ticket sales going to children in the form of scholarships, the hope is evident.
“Because of the choir, I was able to go to school. They paid all my bills, I got a degree in social work,” said Nabwami, now 27, during a phone interview last week. She is a chaperone for the 40th choir that’s singing and laughing its way up the coast.
On the road for 13 months, performing three to four shows a week would be grueling for the most seasoned performer. This intrepid group of 8- to 10-year-olds are up for the challenge.
“They have lots of energy, brilliant smiles, it’s fun to watch, to listen to them,” said Nabwami, who encourages people “to come and see the childrens’ faces and the joy they see.”
That joy, seemingly impossible when you grow up in a slum or village without running water or nutrition, ignited the program.
In 1984, humanitarian Ray Barnett was visiting Northern Uganda. He stopped to help a starving child. While giving the boy a ride, it was singing, not tears, that filled his car. The happy melody melted his heart.
From that moment, Barnett made it his mission to protect these struggling children, buttress their future and introduce their talent to the west. He founded and still runs Music for Life — not your average relief effort.
“It’s all very high energy with lots of dancing and information about where they come from,” said Lidstone. “It’s very colorful.”
Between songs, students and chaperones such as Nabwami share their stories.
“We are always impacted when we can see and hear someone’s story. There is something different about seeing that personal interaction,” said Lidstone. “There is a lot of emphasis on pride of their own countries. There are shortcomings that need change and that’s what we are working on.”
For Nabwami, who joined the choir 18 years ago, her life changed exponentially. The education and scholarship the program provided for her and her peers, most of whom have gone on to become television anchors, doctors and lawyers, was everything.
“If you don’t have school, you are different. It’s hard to get a job,” she said. “I wouldn’t have the degree and I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It’s helped a lot of children.”
She added, “It is really a good show. Someone should not miss it.”
The African Children’s Choir is 4 p.m. Sunday, March 2, at the Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St. in Portland. Tickets are $38-$40. To order, visit tickets.porttix.com, or call 842-0800.