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March 10, 2006

Children of Uganda come to Stephens

by Samantha Beres

In Uganda, AIDS is killing more than 200 people a day. As a result, there is an orphan crisis -- more than a million children under the age of 15 have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

What does this have to do with an upcoming performance at Stephens Auditorium? Everything.

Some members of the Children of Uganda

Some members of the Children of Uganda perform the dance "Kaikenya." Submitted photograph.

The Children of Uganda is a group of 22 young performers, 6 to 18 years old. Through song, dance and music, they share stories, legends and beliefs of East Africa. Their performance is high-energy with rhythmic drums, lyric flutes, fiddles and xylophones. The dances are from different African countries and they sing in Ugandan dialects, Swahili and English.

While they put on a magnificent show (the New York Times hailed them as "first rate" and "inspiring"), part of their aim is to raise awareness about the AIDS and orphan crisis back home. They know the situation well: most of the performers have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

But audience goers should not get the wrong idea.

"People may think they're going to feel bad, but what they see is the antithesis of that," said Alexis Hefley, founder of the group. "It's an amazing production about hope and ethnic dance. It's happy and inspiring."

The beginning

Hefley herself was inspired by orphans in Uganda more than 10 years ago, which led to her founding of the Children of Uganda and their Tour of Light.

Back then, Hefley had a lucrative job as a money broker for a national bank, and she'd worked in banking for a decade. But she kept thinking that there had to be more to life.

"When I quit my job in banking, I remember telling God 'I am willing to go anywhere you send me, even if it means death on the other side,'" Hefley said.

Where she ended up (in 1993) was Kampala, the capital of Uganda, at the invitation of First Lady Mrs. Museveni. While there, Hefley sought out an orphanage she'd heard about. The nun running it was teaching the children to sing and dance to preserve their heritage and culture. The children performed at weddings and other ceremonies for a small fee.

Sister Rose Muyinza wasn't your run-of-the-mill nun. "She was more like a Whoopi Goldberg," Hefley said.

When Hefley arrived at the orphanage, she saw two 10-room houses and the 120 children who lived in them. There was no electricity, no bathroom. There was no regular source of food for the children and most didn't have shoes.

"Yet they had so much joy and laughter and singing and community. When I went, I was thinking 'Does community really exist?'" Hefley recalled. Her question was answered that day.

"I thought 'Wow, this is what I've been looking for. It really does exist,'" she said.

The first tour

She immediately started working at the orphanage, but she wanted to make a bigger impact on the children's lives, so she came up with a plan. In 1994, she (with the help of Sister Rose, a noted Ugandan dancer and some friends) arranged for a group of children to do a six-week, six-city tour through England and the United States.

That pilot tour was so successful that Hefley moved back to the United States and started a nonprofit, the Uganda Children's Charity Foundation. Today, the UCCF directly supports more than 700 children through programs that provide education, food, shelter and medicine. One program supports eight Ugandan orphans of AIDS to go to college in the United States.

The UCCF sponsors the Tour of Light and a new tour is produced every two years. This tour is expected to raise $1.5 million to support the orphans.

When not on tour with the children, Hefley divides her time between the United States and Uganda.

She has been on all the tours and speaks on panels and at the shows.

"I believe the Children of Uganda can change the world," Hefley said. "It's such a privilege to travel with them and to be a part of that change."

The Children of Uganda will perform at Stephens at 7:30 p.m. March 29. Tickets are $24 and $28, with discounts for students, and available through TicketMaster.


"People may think they're going to feel bad, but what they see is the antithesis of that. It's an amazing production about hope and ethnic dance. It's happy and inspiring."

Alexis Hefley, founder of the Children of Uganda