by Bruce Strand, Arts editor
Eighteen African children who really know how to put the “joy” in “Joy to the World” and other holiday standards are touring Minnesota, hosted by Christ Church of Elk River.
The Asante Children’s Choir was a big hit Tuesday morning at Otsego Elementary, delivering a high-energy, 45-minute program of dancing and drumming and harmonizing African spirituals, before switching to their own lovely take on our holiday favorites.
“One boy told me in the hall, that was the ‘most awesomest way’ to start the day,” chuckled Principal Erin Talley, after the 730 kids returned to class. As the kids sat on the floor in rows, with their teachers, the concert certainly held their attention.
The kids, all from Rwanda, aged 8 to 16, arrived just before Thanksgiving and will return home Jan. 14. Rwanda is a southern country, so this is summer vacation for the children, who are experiencing snow for the first time and by all accounts, holding up well in the cold and enjoying making snowmen.
The choir will have about 35 performances and are available for more bookings, said the Rev. Greg Pagh of Christ Church. They were in Monticello last weekend and will travel to the Willmar-Spicer area today. They have performed at Christ Church, Crossings Church and Central Lutheran (for the community Thanksgiving service) and have three more local appearances lined up.
They perform native songs which praise God, express gratitude for being “rescued from the streets and given an opportunity to go to school and be part of something amazing,” said Pagh. He added, “In Africa, faith and culture are very much connected.”
The young audience (plus teachers and several adults from the community) enjoyed the African beat and the lyrics; without understanding the words, they felt the message. Late in the program the young singers hushed the crowd with their renditions of “The First Noel” and “Silent Night,” then encouraged the kids to clap harmony as they delivered rocking versions of “Joy to the World” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
Pagh said host families in each community the choir visits take in a chaperon and one or two kids, and when they are between gigs, Christ Church families host them. “We fill in the gaps,” said the pastor.
The leader of the children’s group is William Ngabo, 39, a native of Rwanda who was one of the founders of Asante Ministries in 2002.
“We started helping one child go to school and receive medical care,” he said. “Now we help over 2,000 children.”
Astante Ministries — the word means “thank you,” in Swahili, the most common language in Africa — is supported by individuals and churches, mostly in the United States.
“The main reason for being here is to get more kids sponsored in Rwanda,” said Pagh, adding that they have packets to help sign up sponsors along with African items to sell.
The community of Elk River has maintained a partnership with Rwanda for close to eight years, with over 500 Rwandan kids sponsored by local residents through the children’s outreach group World Vision, said Pagh. For $35 per month, the kids get help with food, school and medical care.
“Many of these kids are orphans or have just one parent,” said Pagh. “But things have gotten a lot better in Rwanda. The rate of AIDS deaths has gone way down, for instance, with our help.”
Rwanda was embroiled in a devastating civil war in the early 1990s with genocide claiming about 1 million lives. Meanwhile the AIDS epidemic engulfed Rwanda along with much of Africa. Ngabo said he fortunately was in Uganda during that terrible time, and returned to help once the fighting stopped.
Asante Ministries is one of the healing agencies at work in Rwanda. The choir program, which started in 2009, is a big part of their ministry. Most of the kids currently in Elk River are making their second trip to the United States. They toured Washington, Oregon and northern California previously.
“The children very much excited to be here,” said Ngabo. “Sometimes they do two or three concerts in a day. For most it’s the first time they have seen snow. It’s cold, but they like it. They have been making a snowman. We don’t have snow anywhere in Africa.”
Audrey Igiraneza 14, said she has two brothers and her mother back home. She wants to be a doctor. She said her mother is “very happy” that she is singing with this choir. She said she had fun playing in the snow (“very different from home!”) and enjoyed the big animals at the Minnesota Zoo and especially likes to sing “Joy to the World” with all the dancing. We also talked with Eric Iradurunda, a tiny 13-year-old, who said he likes singing the African spirituals best, especially one whose title (according to Ngabo) translates to “No Worries.”
Reflecting on the extended Asante visit, Pagh says, “There is an anointing on these kids that is tangible. Many who hear them sing are brought to tears by the joy on their faces and the love of God in their hearts. We have been very blessed to serve as their ‘home base.’ ”
Asante Children’s Choir upcoming concerts
Sunday, Dec. 23 — Twin Lakes Christian, Elk River, 10 a.m.
Monday, Dec. 24 — Christ Church, Otsego, 2, 3:30 and 5 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 30 — Gateway Church, Elk River, 10 a.m.