I just finished watching War Dance, a moving 2007 documentary about children from a village in civil-war-torn northern Uganda. The focus is on a national music competition that the children prepare for, and shows the power of music and dance to help lift the children out of the tragedy of their lives. Most are orphans whose parents were killed by rebels. Watching Rose, a pre-teen, tell her story of soldiers lifting her mother’s and father’s heads out of a cooking pot to identify them, is heartbreaking and almost too much to take. She says, “when I saw my mother’s head, I felt like I was losing my mind.”
She lives with an aunt who sees Rose mostly as a tool to bathe the children, cook meals, do laundry, clean the house, and a myriad of other chores; we see Rose being threatened with a beating if it’s not all done right. One wonders how on earth this child has any spirit left, and it’s easy to think there’s no hope for her.
But then we see her singing with a choir and preparing her costume for the traditional dance part of the competition. Her aunt doesn’t want her to go. But we hear her voice tell us, “my heart tells me I must go, so I am going.”
And there’s the boy who carves and builds his own xylophone for the musical part of the competition. We watch him shave blocks of wood until the sound is right to his ear. If it doesn’t sound the way he wants it to, he somehow knows how to shave off just the right amount for the correct tone.
I kept thinking about the parallel to what the slaves had to go through in our own country. It’s not that far removed a story. The beatings, watching one’s relatives killed or taken away by force, the fear they must have lived under. All of it is common. And, sadly, it still goes on.
But it is a wonder to behold the power of music and dance to lift these children out of horrible circumstance into a second, a moment, an hour of transformation, infusing them with the strength and the grace to carry on. These children have nothing to hope for but the possibility of winning the competition. We see how it drives them, how it gives them pride and hope for better things.
During the dance competition, Rose puts it all into perspective: “When I dance, my problems vanish. The camp is gone. I can feel the wind. I can feel the fresh air. I am free and can feel my home.”
I’m struck by how so many us of have similar feelings when singing gospel music. And that’s why it’s important for us to keep on with our mission of bringing the songs and their history to as many people as possible. “We are free and we can feel our home.” I’ll bet the slaves felt that, which gives Rose’s words even more poignancy. Our problems vanish, no matter what difficulties we struggle with. And that’s what makes gospel music universal and everlasting. To see the African part of where it comes from in this film was powerful, to say the least.
Watch the movie if you can. It will change you.