Wondering about Watoto | Guest column

A child from the Watoto Child Care Ministries of Uganda

A child from the Watoto Child Care Ministries of Uganda

by ANITA HOLLADAY

I’m writing regarding the March 20 performance by children/youth from the Watoto Child Care Ministries of Uganda – reluctantly because I don’t want to offend members of the Orcas Community Church who invited and hosted them.

I’d love to believe Watoto is doing good, rescuing and helping orphans, child soldiers, and vulnerable women in Uganda. After many days of research, I have too many concerns to detail here. The appeal for funds was quite persuasive, so I think it’s important my community hear from me.

Watoto has a slick website and a solid track record of near-constant fundraising performances worldwide, but Charity Navigator gives a one star rating on financial accountability. Watoto’s leader Gary Skinner, Pentecostal pastor of the 20,000-member Kampala church, is listed among Uganda’s wealthiest citizens. The group raises at least an annual $7 million from the U.S. alone, and they operate around the world.

I wonder about exploitation of these children, sometimes as young as five, who do up to 31 energetic performances a month, on the road for six-plus months at a time. Kids rehearse and perform for a year. Each year, different groups do a six-month Canadian tour, and two to three U.S. tours of four to six months each.  Watoto’s director says they’re allowed an hour nap daily – hmm.

There’s a Change.org petition against Skinner/Watoto for land fraud, with detailed information elsewhere about the lawsuit by a Ugandan family.

I believe the abstinence-only approach to AIDS prevention advocated by all of  Uganda’s evangelical groups has reversed progress on the disease that has orphaned many of these children.

Watoto elder Stephen Langa has been instrumental (though far from alone) in creating the atmosphere of severe intolerance toward gay people in Uganda, bringing in outer-fringe-extremist speakers from the U.S. After years of pressure from this group, the Ugandan president just signed a somewhat modified bill that “only” provides for life imprisonment and criminalizes the failure to inform on LGBT people, rather than the death penalty it originally called for.

“Cultural colonialism” is an apt label for the usurpation of indigenous language, spirituality and tradition by U.S.-led evangelical movements. Watoto is one of the influential evangelical organizations that are part of an enormous movement to install intolerant, far-right theocracies throughout Africa and the world. An Episcopal leader has called on U.S. Christian churches to be accountable for their part in the hatred and mutual fear that is being spread in Uganda in the name of God.

There have been news stories on KING-5, and a front page article in the Tacoma News-Tribune about the controversy. One Seattle church, at least, canceled Watoto’s concert.

There are many other groups helping African children, some of which I’ve supported for years, that don’t have the same agenda.

Anita Holladay lives on Orcas Island.