We were at an orphanage in the town of Kangundo, Kenya, last week, traveling with a group of friends. The trip had been arranged by Richard, who spent three years teaching there with the Peace Corps back in the late ’60s. He has never forgotten the farming village that welcomed him then, most recently raising money through his church here in New York to dig a well there. Children in particular—especially at the orphanage—are the beneficiaries of the fresh, clean water that doesn’t carry diseases.
There we were, six Americans with a dozen Kenyans, waiting to have lunch in a spare, clean whitewashed room. We’d talked plenty, working our way through English and Swahili… but wasn’t there something more we could do to connect? “Rick,” Richard said to me from across the table, “why don’t you lead us in a song?”
I wasn’t sure what our new African friends would know, but I figured “Amazing Grace” would be safe for starters. At least everybody in our group knew it. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” I began. Everybody joined in, our voices echoing off the concrete block walls. The harmonies came out spontaneously, especially from 82-year-old Esther, a retired teacher in Kangundo, who claimed her own tenor line.
The suggestions came from around the table. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Onward Christian Soldiers” and a rousing rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in two languages. Soon someone fetched hymnals, expanding our repertoire considerably. At one point Agnes, who had lived her whole life in Kangundo, asked me, “How do you know these songs?”
“From church,” I said, clearly the same place she had learned them, although our churches were separated by thousands of miles of culture and tradition. But then maybe not. In a matter of minutes the music had put us all on the same page, bonded in perfect harmony. We had made our own spontaneous worship service.
“Amen,” someone said. “Amen,” we sang, our voices filling the warm African air. “Amen” for the Sunday school teachers and pastors and choir directors who had taught us all this music on two different continents, not to mention the composers and lyricists. “Amen” for the power of the gift of song.
Photo: Phyllis, a pastor from Kangundo, Kenya, gives Rick a tour of the water project in her town.