The Watoto Children’s Choir has begun 2024 with a series of concerts in locations throughout Canada.
The word Watoto means “children” in the Swahili language. The choir first began touring thirty ago and is one part of the Watoto ministry that is ‘Celebrating Christ, Caring for Community’.
In 1983, a civil war between various factions in Uganda was causing much bloodshed throughout the region, poverty was rampant and the Aids epidemic was just beginning to raise its’ deadly head when Canadian missionaries Gary and Marilyn Skinner and their three young children came to Kampala. With both husband and wife coming from missionary families, it was a calling of God they were prayerfully prepared to accept. Gary says “I just had this deep inner conviction that I was in the right place at the right time, this is where God wanted me.”
They met other Christians in the area and soon began offering English speaking church services; first in a hotel and later in a larger auditorium. The church rapidly grew, however there was still much unrest in the region and the Skinners were sometimes faced with trying experiences. Through these, they learned to not give in to fear but to keep faith in God. Recounting a particularly frightening event, Marilyn shares “Faith is not manipulating God for gain……faith is a strong belief in the supernatural power of Jesus Christ that controls human destiny.”
Before long, the life devouring AIDS virus was moving through the continent, killing many people and eventually leaving millions of orphans in its’ wake.
A pivotal moment for the couple came after Skinner met a 76-year-old grandmother who was caring for her 26 grandchildren, whose parents, because of the virus, were not available to care for them. She was exhausted and in need of help. Skinner says, “I knew I couldn’t pastor a great church and ignore the problems of people.”
This commitment to loving God and others led the Skinners to expand their ministry to help the children and women most affected by the turmoil all around them.
During the ensuing years they were instrumental in building villages wherein orphaned children were housed, schooled, and given medical care all with the nurturing of a loving family. Groups of eight children were put together in a home with a caring mother. They learned about worshipping God and knowing their true value and identity in Christ. Opportunities were given for fun activities such as playing sports, all the while being instilled with a sense of purpose for their lives. There are now three Watoto villages in Uganda, caring for over 3,000 children.
Baby Watoto cares for the very youngest children needing help. Often either given up or abandoned by their birth mothers or orphaned, these little ones are loved and nurtured by a nanny. Each of these nannies will care for her four youngsters until they are old enough to move into a Watoto village. The Baby Watoto program has rescued at least 1,500 babies and operates from two locations.
Watoto Neighbourhood and Living Hope works to restore the lost dignity of Africa’s women. The degradation experienced by many women may have come about due to the hardships of poverty, war, disease, abuse from others, and a wrong belief telling them they are of little worth. With support, and education many women have become literate, learned important skills and have come to see that they do have value. Marilyn says about these women “they didn’t need a handout, because there is no dignity in a handout, they actually needed a hand up.” A visible example of how these women have flourished with the empowerment received, can be seen by the products they have created and sell to the public.
The Keep a Girl in School program works to ensure girls become educated. A major obstacle to this goal is the lack of sanitary products for African girls living in poverty. For several days each month the girls do not attend school, thereby falling behind on their schooling. The program also provides both girls and boys with a sex education that is based on Godly principles.
The Watoto Children’s Choir has a tour every year, going to many different places in the world. Each year a new team of participants is formed and trained, with that group remaining constant for the full tour. According to Choir Coordinator Johanna Cousineau “for our current Canadian Better Days tour, there are fourteen children. All of them sing and dance, supported by four adult singers and three live instruments.”
When asked what the children think about the experience of traveling so far from home, she shares “Well they certainly love the snow! They love the cross-cultural opportunities that they experience while touring: meeting new people, seeing new places, eating new foods, experiencing new things and they gain excellent English-speaking skills.”
When the Skinners first arrived in Kampala with their young family, they knew God was calling them to serve Him, and to help the people. Little did they know what that would all lead to in the following decades. For the many babies, children and women cared for through Watoto programs the lyrics of one of the choirs’ songs speaks of the hope they have found. “Better days are yet to come, there’s a peace within my heart.”
For more information about tour dates in Canada, sponsoring a child or a mother, to donate or to learn more about Watoto go to: https://www.watoto.com