When asked about his home country of Uganda, Branco Sekalegga GLSP will draw your attention to the large number of aid organizations in the country—much-needed groups that help feed children in a place that has been torn apart by war, disease, and economic strife. However, the founder of Bitone Children’s Home/Troupe, will also underline another reality.
“They feed children, and that’s fine, but that’s all they do,” he said. “Feed them, but also lead them into a life where they can live self-sustainably instead of depending on you all the time.”
Bitone, which Sekalegga founded with his friend Hassan Kayemba in Uganda, provides food, shelter, education, and counseling for children who have endured hardship. Many of these children have been traumatized by the loss of their parents or homes due to disease, war, or economic hardship. The organization pays for the children to go to school and provides a warm, supportive community for them to return to every day. At the Bitone center, the children learn and perform both traditional and modern African music, developing self-reliance and coming to terms with their tragic pasts.
“Usually, we use music to bring joy and happiness to the kids,” Sekalegga explained. “Eventually we use it to help the children communicate what they would rather not say without music. You can’t just tell a kid, ‘I remember your dad was killed in a war.’ That’s too direct. But when you use music, you approach it in a therapeutic way that works.”
Born into a poor, rural family, Sekalegga was exposed to many hardships throughout his childhood and was surrounded by other children who could barely meet their basic physical needs. Right after he entered high school, Sekalegga’s father passed away mysteriously.
“I was at school when it happened,” Sekalegga said. “They just told me ‘Oh, your dad has died.’ I didn’t know what to do. Here I was, happy and getting things from my dad, and then he died and I had nothing. I was just left there.”
Sekalegga decided that if he wanted to move forward, he needed to be self-reliant. He thought of all the children around him facing similar circumstances without the means to deal constructively with tragedy.
“From that point, I realized that there’s something that needs to be done for every child who is dependent on their parents,” Sekalegga said. “A child can lose somebody at any time, so the best thing to do is to give them a skill on which they can live a life of self-reliance.”
For Sekalegga, that skill was music.
“Growing up in a musical family, I was introduced to learning instruments and singing some traditional tunes,” Sekalegga explained. “In such an environment I started taking an interest in working with music.”
After majoring in music during high school, Sekalegga received a government scholarship and studied music professionally for three years at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. By his last year of college, Sekalegga began thinking about how he could use the skills he was learning for social good.
“I looked back at my childhood, and realized the best way to live my musical life was to leave it to the children because it relates back to my past,” Sekalegga said.
After leaving college, Sekalegga shared his idea with his friend Hassan, and the two of them founded the non-profit organization Bitone five months later.
“We started with four kids and a few instruments,” Sekalegga said. “But that was just the beginning. We are recruiting more each year. But it’s a tricky process because there are tons of children who need help.”
At the beginning, Sekalegga worked with local authorities because they knew which children were in most need. Although Bitone tries to aid youth from many different areas of the country, most of the children come from the north, where the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army has abducted young people, killed families, and looted homes across the region.
Twenty-four children currently live at the Bitone center in Kampala. Most of them are between 10 and 16 years old, but two are now attending college. They plan to accept more students once the organization has more resources. Since Bitone provides both humanitarian aid and instruction in the arts, the organization’s many expenses limit the amount of children for which they can provide.
Education is also very expensive. Since there aren’t many government-sponsored schools where the Bitone center is located, the organization has to send students to private institutions. However, even if there were public schools in the area, Sekalegga feels that they would not provide a suitable education for the children.
“The education is terrible in government-sponsored schools,” Sekalegga said. “We want our kids to have a good academic foundation and go to good colleges. So even if we had the choice of government-sponsored schools we wouldn’t send them there.”
The organization is currently funded mostly through personal donations, but Sekalegga hopes that the children’s performance group, which showcases the skills the students have learned, will help sustain the organization.
“Our performance troop, because it is very strong and experienced now, can actually be used for the organization’s sustainability,” Sekalegga explained. “We think that by staging performance tours, selling CD recordings, and setting up outside workshops, we can bring money to Bitone.”
The children have already won several competitions, such as the 2008 EATI Festivals facilitated by the Uganda Theater Network. They have also recorded their first album, which can be purchased on their blog at bitonetroupe.blogspot.com.
Bitone has also received several grants. In both 2007 and 2008 they received the $24,000 WCS Rotary Grant, which covered food, shelter, medical, and educational expenses. In 2010, Bitone was a semifinalist in the Dell Social Innovation Competition and received the 100 Projects for Peace grant. The $10,000 grant funded musical instruments, training sessions, and performances that boosted the Bitone Center’s musical component.
While at Wesleyan, Sekalegga is working tirelessly to develop partnerships, manage the Bitone center from abroad, and seek out new grants in order to keep the organization going.
“I have to ensure that the children are in good condition and I’m working constantly with the staff,” Sekalegga said. “Since we don’t pay our administrators and instructors they can go anytime they want, and that’s a challenge.”
On top of his work with Bitone, Sekalegga is also focused on his graduate studies in music composition.
“With my thesis I am trying to fuse Ugandan and Western musical styles,” Sekalegga said. “The goal is to be a musician who uses different musical idioms in order to serve a wider community and show how similar we all are. Some of the music I create uses songs that the children are familiar with, so when I go back to Uganda they will want to learn the music and they will see themselves in connection with other cultures.”
Though Sekalegga has not yet established a branch of the Bitone group at Wesleyan, there are several ways in which students can help out besides donating. Sekalegga hopes that some students would be interested in traveling to Uganda to serve as education or musical instructors. Students can also help out with grant writing and fundraising.
Sekalegga admitted that keeping the organization running was a big job and that at times he felt stressed, but at the end of the interview he turned to me and smiled.
“When the children survive it is my happiness, my joy,” he said.
If you want to help out with Bitone, you can contact Sekalegga at email@example.com.