BY THE time the bus rolls into Mildura, Geoffrey Oyaka, 12, has told his sad story hundreds of times in halls all over the country, and countless times more to the people who take him into their homes. Every night a new bed and a new crowd. And the story always comes out the same way:
''My father was abducted by the rebels … He never returned. No one knows whether he is alive or dead. A few years later, I lost my mother to HIV/AIDS. My siblings and I were left in the care of our grandmother. But life was very hard.''
Tonight gasps break out in the tiered seating of St Joseph's basketball stadium from a number of women leaning forward, elbows on their knees, some of them shaking their heads. Tomorrow night other gasps will echo through Swan Hill Town Hall as Geoffrey recounts his woes.
After talking about going to bed hungry for so many nights, and how his life has turned around, Geoffrey begins to sing a simple hymn and some of those women begin to cry. It's devastating when you see him do it two nights in a row.
''Lord, I come. I confess,'' he sings, and then the air fills with the sweetness of his young chums.
Geoffrey is one of 21 Ugandan orphans and abandoned children who have spent the past six months touring Australia from country town to country town as the Watoto Children's Choir. Theirs isn't a chorale performance, more an intense cabaret with a lot of busy dancing, drum beating and a mixture of Pentecostal preaching and World Vision-style pleading. Aged 8 to 14, the children work six days a week, sometimes performing two shows a day. Much of their life is spent on the bus, where they do schoolwork and catch up on sleep. Some of them told The Sunday Age that yes, they were getting tired and missing home, but they're here to help other children.
Watoto Child Care Ministries was started in 1994 by Zimbabwean Gary Skinner and his wife, Marilyn. More than 2000 children are said to have been rescued from poverty and abandonment and placed into purpose-built Watoto villages. Each child is supported by nine sponsors who pay $40 a month. Tour leader Robert Sendegeya, 29, says 1000 children have performed in Watoto choirs around the world. There are choirs travelling in Canada and the US, Europe and Britain.
Mr Sendegeya says they serve both as a fund-raising exercise and a way of opening the world to children who are being raised in the belief they will eventually lead the country out of its troubles.
The show is tightly scripted and the dance routines are demanding. ''When they first join the choir they know nothing,'' he says. ''They practise for five months developing muscle memory.''
Ten adults travel with the troupe, and at night two children and a minder are billeted with local families. Leticia Namata, an eight-year-old who can't remember why she came to Watoto, says she ''loves meeting new children. The people we stay with.'' But life on the road is such a blur, there are families she can't remember.
After the Mildura performance, some of the kids help sell merchandise, others help load the truck. By 9.15pm they are sitting quietly at the bottom of the grandstand. They have been up since 5am, having left Adelaide that morning, and are in a daze. They arrived at the stadium at 1.30pm, went for a swim, spent an hour in Bible study, had a dance rehearsal and then sat down to dinner at 5pm. The performance began at 7pm and ran for an hour. Now they are waiting to go to bed.
The tour's bus driver, Graham Turner, and wife Joanne can't see any negatives in a venture where ''children are rescued from destruction and depravity''. But Joanne observes: ''I think it gets hard on them … Every night they have to make conversation with a different group of people and tell them your story and act interested. Every night.''
The Turners aren't Watoto people. Graham, a builder from Dalby about two hours west of Brisbane, was in-between jobs when he heard the tour needed another driver after the initial one dropped out. It's not a paid position. ''It's matter of faith,'' says Graham, a committed Baptist. He said if he was running the tour he'd do one thing differently: ''I don't think one day a week off is enough. I'd give them two days off. They work very hard. Still, it's for only six months.''
Next year, another choir will arrive in Brisbane, where the Australian branch of the ministry is based. Watoto has spent half a year touring Australia for nearly a decade. So many children telling their sad stories.
Each night, on stage, Miriam Aguti, 12, tells of losing both parents in a car accident. Is this hard for her, talking night after night? ''No because it is my past … but sometimes it hurts.''