By Renee Batti
Almanac News Editor
They have all experienced the harsh realities of disease, privation and violence during their young lives. Many are orphans, their parents having succumbed to AIDS, or to injuries resulting from the civil war that wracks their country -- the East African nation of Uganda.
But when the 22 young dancers and musicians of the Spirit of Uganda take the stage on Jan. 14 at the Menlo-Atherton performing arts center, the audience is likely to see, not despair and sorrow, but a dynamic display of joy.
Spirit of Uganda will perform at 6:30 p.m. on the high school campus in an event sponsored by Empower African Children and the city of Menlo Park, with volunteer organizational help from a group of local residents.
The performance is a fundraiser for Empower African Children, a Texas-based nonprofit that has helped develop educational and other programs that support thousands of Ugandan children and their families, according to information on the organization's Web site.
Elizabeth Ouren of Menlo Park is a volunteer organizer of the Jan. 14 event -- and a serious fan of the performance troupe and its sponsoring nonprofit. She and her family first saw Spirit of Uganda perform at Stanford in 2002.
"We all were riveted by the performance and fell in love with the children," she says. "My son loved it so much he wanted to have a drumming birthday party" for his third birthday, she adds.
Ms. Ouren says her family has gone to every local performance the group has given since. They are "impressed and inspired by their personal stories," she adds.
"They have such big dreams and hope, despite the sad and challenging circumstances that have left them orphaned in Uganda."
Stories about the big dreams and hopes of some of the performers, who range in age from 8 to 18, can be found on a Facebook site created by Maddy Baum, a freshman at Castilleja School who, with her mother Elizabeth Baum, is also working to spread the word about the event. Although the children face tremendous challenges, many of them aspire to greatly improved lives as doctors, lawyers, and, of course, musicians.
Jimmy Ayo, whose father was killed by rebel fighters, performs with the group on the adungu, a nine-string arched harp his father taught him to play. He says in a statement on the Facebook site: "I hope to become a musician. I also want to go to school and become a lawyer or a judge. I look forward to studying hard. I want to thank EAC (Empower African Children) for saving me from the problems I had. I want to thank them for empowering me."
The performers "personify the resilience and promise of Africa's next generation as they promote awareness of Uganda's dual crises of AIDS and civil war, and raise funds to support themselves and other orphaned and vulnerable children in their homeland," according to a statement on the EAC Web site.
Spirit of Uganda performs Thursday, Jan. 14, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the Menlo-Atherton High School performing arts center, 555 Middlefield Road in Atherton. Tickets are $25 and may be purchased at spiritofugandainmenlopark.eventbrite.com. For information about the performance and the sponsoring organization, go to empowerafricanchildren.org.