South African children's choir brings big voices to Michigan

Dec 16, 2013

This next story seems right for this time of year.

A children's choir is in Michigan this month ... from South Africa.

They're from the outskirts of Durban, a beautiful port city that also has one of the worst AIDS epidemics in the world.

Many of the kids in the choir are orphans. Several have HIV themselves.

It's their first time in the U.S., and they're traveling around the state all this month to raise money for friends and family back home.

The story of how they got here begins in Pontiac, Michigan.

That's where Dan and Rachel Smither ran a children's center focused on helping kids in the inner city. But by 2007,  they were getting restless.

A focused, vigorous couple who built their lives around their Christianity, they'd always wanted to "be on the front lines," as Dan Smither puts it. They started asking around the missionary community: if you wanted to help kids left behind by AIDS, where would you go?  

Smither says the answer was clear: "Durban is the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic globally."

So they picked up and moved with their four daughters all the way to the squatter settlements carved out of Durban's hills.

Their youngest girl was less than a year old. None of them spoke Zulu.

But one home visit at a time, they figured out how to get the children in the settlement help with school, sports leagues, school fees, and legal aid so they could get birth certificates and government assistance.

And they formed the Key of Hope children's choir.  

Last year, the choir got some good news. 

A camera was rolling when Smither told them they would be spending December on a fundraising concert tour of the United States. 

"We were so excited, we were talking about it all day!" says Cazile Mhlophe, an outgoing, bubbly girl with long braids who looks and sounds younger than her 16 years. 

For Mhlope, just getting on a plane was a first. So a month spent in the back seat of a van driving through the plains, small town churches, Cracker Barrels and urban centers of Michigan in December has been a culture shock.  

And no, she is not a fan of the cold.  "I actually gets bones pain by the cold. And that’s why Uncle Dan doesn’t want me to play in the snow.”  (The kids all refer to Smither as "Uncle Dan.")

But Mhlope doesn't like to miss out on anything, even if it means joint pain. "On the first day [it snowed] I kicked out of the house to play, because it was my first time and I finally got to see [snow]."  

Like several others in the choir, Mhlope was orphaned young. First her mother, then her father, and finally her older sister died, all within just a few years of each other.

She’s been talking with the other kids about how in the U.S., nobody seems to suffer.  

"I'm not jealous of them having their mothers, and their fathers, and warm houses," she says, her little girl voice slowing down to make sure her English is clear. "I'm just happy for them. Yeah." 

These kids are all being troopers for this tour. Their schedules are packed with driving, practicing, performing, more practicing, and meals.

Only Mondays are free, a time when they can call home and tell family they're alright, yes, they're having fun, and yes, they are homesick.

Mid-performance in Fenton
Mid-performance in Fenton
Credit Rebecca Guerriero / Michigan Radio

The sheer logistics that have gone into this trip are impressive. Forty-six kids from Durban, many of whom live in one-room shacks made of plastic, each need plane tickets, passports, hotel rooms, food, not to mention winter boots and jackets.

What's more,  several of the kids are HIV positive, and have a precise medication schedule that can't fluctuate by even a minute. 

Dan Smither says another problem has been getting the littler kids – the youngest is six – not to eat so much that they make themselves sick.

He keeps telling them: "'you don't have to worry about being hungry again, you will eat!'" He says. "But the younger ones have been harder to convince, because whey they see food their bodies and their psyches just say, we have to eat it all.”

Meanwhile, the tour looks like it's going well so far. At the Rock Church in Fenton, the place was so packed that not everyone could fit in the building.

The concert itself is interspersed with half-lectures, half-sermons about what the kids' lives are like back home, and what they need in terms of food, medicine and basic securities.

The audience eats it up. Even the 12-year-olds in the church pews watch the videos and the music attentively. Every song ends with rapturous applause. 

This is the kind of reception Key of Hope is going to need all this month, given that they're trying to raise somewhere up to $100,000 if they want to double the size of the program back in Durban.

In the van driving to dinner, I sit next to a very serious 11-year-old named Saneli Lithuli. Shy at first, he quickly gets comfortable expounding on life and its meaning for the microphone, even following me around as I talk with other kids during the evening. When I finish talking with Mhlope, he's not impressed.

"My interview was better," he tells her. Then, to me: "We didn't finish our interview." He decides we will sit next to each other again during the next van ride. He will be sure to save me a seat, he says.  

And he's true to his word. In the car, I tell him I think it would be a lot, driving around all the time like this and practicing and performing so much. But he shrugs it off.

"It feels like they're giving us more than one thing," he says.  

What does he mean by that? 

With a small sigh of impatience, he tries to explain.

"It's like this: they're giving us love, that we appreciate. And they're giving us things that we need." 

Here's the tour schedule for Key of Hope's upcoming Michigan concerts.