CHEVY CHASE, Md.-A sack of 50 kilograms of maize and another of rice fed the Lwakatale family of 15 for a month. The father, Ponsiano Lwakatale, a pastor in Kampala, Uganda, took note of each grain.
When cholera swept the Lwakatales' neighborhood in 1998, their youngest daughter, Omega, 8, began sneaking scoops of maize and rice to her friend whose father died from the disease. At the end of the month, the Lwakatales were short of food and the father, discovering that Omega had been sneaking it out, was angry. As he was about to punish Omega, she said, according to her adopted brother Daniel, "If you beat me for giving to the needy can you still be a pastor?"
Her words halted her father. "It was an eye-opener for him that there was so much bigger need outside our family," recalled Daniel, who is now 27. Omega's little question, and her father's reaction, was the beginning of something that has become special-including an organization that helps orphans and widows in their Kampala community and a children's choir that travels the world.
After Omega's reproach, the pastor opened his three-bedroom home, already packed with his baker's dozen of biological and adopted children, to the fatherless. A garage was converted to a dorm, and now 35 orphans and children from families torn apart by disease or poverty live in the Lwakatale house, snuggling into bunk beds, some four to a bed. Some of the orphans are Christian, but some of them come from Muslim backgrounds-and the Lwakatales raise them in the church. Susan Lwakatale, Daniel's mother, prays with each one when she wakes the children up in the morning.
The family's reputation has grown in the community so that the orphanage has a waiting list, dozens long, of children wanting to live at the home. One boy at the home now, Stephen, lost his father to AIDS, and when his mother discovered she had the disease soon after, she brought her son to the Lwakatales, so he could have a stable home before she died. The organization the Lwakatales' started, I Am Children's Family, supports some 270 other children in the community by paying for medical care and school fees. The church, the backbone of the whole undertaking, also began serving food to families and caring for widows, who make crafts for sale.
The need for such efforts in Uganda is overwhelming: In 2003, there were about 2 million orphans in the nation, about half of them orphaned by AIDS, according to UNICEF. Malaria is a big killer too. Though AIDS rates have gone down in Uganda in recent years, the disease has created what researchers call a "lost generation" that had no provision for food, shelter, education, or genuine care. When relatives or a family like the Lwakatales don't step in, horrible things can happen to orphans in Uganda. Some are forced to survive on the street, some are sexually trafficked, and in some instances, orphans like 5-year-old Edwin Muguluma have been kidnapped and sacrificed in witchdoctor-prescribed rituals.
The Lwakatales' organization is making a small dent in the problem, but it needs money to do so. Pastor Lwakatale began traveling abroad in 2000 to raise funds to feed, clothe, and educate the children in his home, but one night when he was back home in 2007, he began coughing and couldn't stop. He was breathing with difficulty, and Daniel and his brother rushed him from hospital to hospital, finally finding one that had oxygen, but he was dead before the doctor had placed the oxygen mask on him. The sons were stunned. The family had children up to the rafters and had lost their only fundraiser.
Stephen Sekitende, the eldest son, who was working in the United Kingdom and sending money home to support the orphanage, watched the orphans sing at his father's funeral and had an idea: Form a choir. (Sekitende has a different last name from his father because, in Uganda, children don't necessarily take their father's name, but a name from their tribe.) The children could raise money themselves. Daniel (his last name is Mugerwa), who had just finished getting an information technology degree at a Ugandan university, set aside his plan to work in IT to come home and help with the houseful. The kids call him "Uncle Dan."
The choir still needed a director. Sekitende called one of his childhood friends, Jemima Nasanga, who was starting her career recording music and doing journalism, and begged her to set aside her plans and direct the children, who had no musical training. Nasanga said no. He called for months, and still she said no. Finally he asked her simply to visit, and she was taken in.
"All these kids and there was no help coming," she told me. She realized, "It's not the money that's going to help these kids. It's my time."
There's Lydia, 7, whose mother died of AIDS. Her father has AIDS but doesn't want Lydia to see him in his current state, so she lives at the pastor's house. (Everyone still calls it "the pastor's house.") Lydia's younger sister was born with AIDS and died last year.
There's Grace, 11, whose mother has AIDS and is being treated in an international hospital. Her father, when he discovered he had AIDS, disappeared. Grace, according to her director, is a talented musician. "It's in her to write songs," Daniel said.
When the orphans practice behind the pastor's house, under eucalyptus trees, Nasanga keeps everyone, no matter the level of musical talent, together. The kids have to work together to bring along the one who is off-pitch or quiet. "She gets the kids I never thought could sing," Daniel said. Nasanga writes many of the songs for them. She teaches the children what the words mean, and how they tell about God. The choir's name is Mwamba, which means "rock" in Swahili.
At a church in Maryland in December, the choir performed to an audience of mostly Africans living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The concert started casually, about 45 minutes late, and became more of a worship service that extended beyond three hours, with messages from African pastors there and, of course, lots of singing. The 14 children, raised on the equator, doffed their puffy jackets and donned vivid Ugandan garb, showing initial shivers. But they warmed quickly, belting out their parts and dancing with energy that would outdo schoolchildren at recess. Grace, with her tiny, clear voice, sang a solo while she danced with the choir, "Lord you heard my call and my cry for help, and you answered me and you saved me. I am under the rock that's higher than me."
The children, ages 7 to 12, wrapped up their second tour in the United States in March while the others remained at home and went to school. They have recorded three albums already. With money from the choir's first tour, in Europe, the family bought six acres of land to build a Christian school and dug a well. The family hopes to gather enough money to raise the school building by the end of this year. The Lwakatales are teaching the children skills to survive, too-they have grown maize and bananas on the land while they wait for the school to be built. Nasanga said the children become unreasonably excited whenever one of their crops comes up. But she said music is their "first love" because it's the "one thing they've succeeded in."
"A lot have seen their parents die," said Nasanga. "They don't get any therapy. The only therapy they get is music."
Daniel adds that the church is the change agent for the kids. One of his "family members" he is proud of is William Sekandi, an orphan who came to live with the family as a young teenager. He is now in university in India, and wants to be a pastor.