The industrial metal doors separating the customs desk from baggage claim swung open heavily, and eight Ugandan children hesitatingly took their first steps into America. Confronted by the chaotic hustle that is Washington Dulles International Airport, their progress halted. They stopped just past the doors, where thin carpet gave way to white tile. Several of them shrank away as we, mzungus, approached. One boy, taller than the others, was sneaking glances at me as often as at his ragged orange sandals. I asked him his name and he tremulously responded, “Kyazze, Dan.” I told him my name and how excited I was to meet him, eliciting a cautious grin shot towards the Starbucks on my right.
I was unsure whether Dan was more frightened than I or whether my extra thirteen years enabled me to better hide my unease. Two days earlier, I had accepted a last minute job offer. I would lead a group of five adults and fourteen disadvantaged orphans on a full-time, ten-month tour as a choir. Meeting the children for the first time, I felt the mantle of responsibility settling on my shoulders. I knew this feeling would intensify as Nepali and Filipino children were added to our group over the next two days. As we ushered the children toward the clattering luggage carousel, his small hand slipped fearfully into mine, affirming the gravity of the task ahead of me.
While the children learned choreographed positions and vocal parts, I learned financial and logistical procedures. After three quick weeks, we began to travel—four cultures, twenty humans, and twenty-eight tons of vehicles. By then, their rudimentary grasp of English had allowed them to understand each other well enough to bicker, but not to truly bond. Their confidence in themselves was lacking, while their confidence in me felt misplaced. Upon arriving for our first concert, I lodged our trailer several feet up an oak tree bordering the parking lot, misplaced a key piece of equipment, and stammered my way through a meeting with our contact. There was room for growth.
One evening, after a grueling four concerts at two locations within twelve hours, we huddled silently together backstage in the repurposed closet assigned to us as a dressing room. The distinct odors of hairspray, sweat, and the dryer sheets, intended to freshen our wardrobe, blended headily. I peeled open a pale envelope which scratched noisily against my palm while I slid out a single check. As I announced the results—we had raised the funds necessary to drill a well—our collective exhaustion evaporated, and elation filled their faces as they realized what I was saying. Because of our efforts, a rural village would have life-giving, clean water.
Knowing the impact of our work motivated me when I was tempted to exert less than stellar effort.
Tight deadlines, large audiences, and long drives formed our crucible. As humid August gave way to brisk November, our disparate group became one team. The initial discomfort of new roles dissipated into the familiar. Our days were like waves: troughs of passing slow hours on highways, crests of setting-up and practicing before concerts, crashes of performing and donation-tracking, and ebbs of loading equipment. Time blurred as 150 venues, 200 performances, and 35,000 audience members passed by.
Ten months earlier, we had all accepted risk by forsaking familiar surroundings and situations, and had been immutably changed by the experience. The three shy groups of children I had met blossomed into a noisy, gregarious herd. They transitioned into new environments without pause, performed enthusiastically, and cared for each other ferociously. Meanwhile, I developed into a confident, capable leader. I learned that without organization life on the road dissembles rapidly. The children taught me patience: first when we were struggling to understand each other, then when I was struggling to encourage good behavior. It became difficult for me to recall how intimidated I had been.
Morning sunlight struggled to pierce the June fog, as I found myself stowing two-dozen bulging black suitcases aboard our strangely empty trailer. Having crisscrossed our way through half the country, we made the shortest three-hour drive of the tour. Once again I stood in Washington Dulles’ bustling lobby—this time saying goodbye. Dan loosened his grasp on my hand as I led them towards the gate. He waved over his shoulder as he confidently crossed the threshold of the security checkpoint, but did not stop. Our journey together was completed, and having grown, we were prepared for what was to come.
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