The South African Tour | Written by Anthony Bailey

In July 2013, the Northwestern High School Choir embarked on their first ever concert tour. The tour featured many firsts. It was also the first choir trip to last more than one week. It was choirs' first overseas trip. And it was the choirs' first time traveling by air. The tour was a 10-day concert tour, part of the prestigious Ihlombe South African Choral Festival, sponsored by Alexandria, VA-based Classical Movements. We would perform several concerts throughout five South African cities, including the capital of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Soweto, Cape Town, and the Stellenbach Wine Country. Choirs are only accepted into this festival by invitation only. There is a stringent, competitive application process to be considered. Only the best choirs in the world are eventually chosen.

During the summer of 2011, former director Leona Lowery Fitzhugh, proposed applying to the festival to the parent booster organization. The parent booster subsequently gave their approval to begin the application process. A few weeks later, our choir was personally informed that we had been selected as one of the choirs to take part in the 2013 festival. This was a two-year endeavor to reach our goal of raising over one-hundred thousand dollars, to send a full choir with chaperones, overseas for two weeks. 

The choir spent the next two years performing more than any of our groups have ever performed before, in order to raise the money needed. Most of the funds to pay for this trip was going to come from performance stipends and donations sent to our newly formed non-profit organization, Friends of the Northwestern Choral Society, Inc. Our Advanced Ensemble performed over two dozen times for everything from local events to news telecasts to federal government functions and even concerts with renowned entertainers and other choirs. 

With less than a year left to prepare for this trip that the choir was now essentially committed to, it was discovered that through miscellaneous happenings, the trip would be many thousands of dollars more expensive than anticipated. Our trip was in serious jeopardy. Through combined efforts with the FNCS and our Parent Boosters, we set forth on several major fundraising and outreach initiatives. 

We reached out to the local big four television stations, in hopes at least one of them would feature our choir on one of their telecasts. Eventually, WTTG/FOX 5 and WUSA/CBS 9 news, agreed to feature our choir. FOX 5 featured us on their top-rate morning news show while our Advanced Ensemble performed at All-County Choral Assessments. WUSA 9 actually invited our choir down to their station, where they performed throughout the 7am and 8 am morning news broadcasts. The choir did raise some money from these news features, but unfortunately, we didn't get the financial traction we were hoping for. 

A freshman parent, Ms. Rumi Matsuyama, then had a brilliant idea to reach out to The Washington Post. She came up with a great letter writing campaign and she personally delivered dozens of hand-written letter by student travelers, to The Post. The hope was a particular staff member at the newspaper would get wind of our story, and eventually write a feature our choirs' efforts to travel overseas. It worked! On March 22, 2013, we made the Metro section of the Washington Post! The effect of this were beyond anything the choir or our parents could imagine! Eventually, we raised over a whopping $170,000 in donations from kind-hearted individuals and businesses, across the world! It took our non-profit organization over three weeks to go through the bulk of the donations (mail) and we continued to receive residual mail for several more weeks! Our choir had accomplished our goal and were on our way to Johannesburg, South Africa! 

Due to the tremendous outpouring of support our choir received, the Washington Post did the unprecedented, and wrote featured our choir for a second time in another article, detailing our triumphant success. That second follow-up article was printed in the April 8th, 2013 Edition of The Post. 

Our choir took part in a cultural exchange while in South Africa, with a local elementary school which was running an after-school program. We visited the classrooms filled with beautiful South African students, and we got to interact with them and the staff. A large group of students were playing outside in the schools' playground. Of course our wacky students couldn't help but join in on the fun! The South African students taught our choir members a number of games native to the country, and in turn, our female singers—many of which were also a part of the cheerleading program at our school—taught the young South African girls how to do cheers!

Sadly, due to inclement weather on our last day in Cape Town, our choir was unable to travel to the famous Robin Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for over thirty years of his life. Perhaps that was the only downside in the entire trip.

While in South Africa, we performed in front of many audiences, large and small. In Johannesburg, we performed at the City Hall on our first night, along with the other four festival choirs that came from other countries like Trinidad & Tobago and Australia. We performed at a large church in Pretoria, and afterwards, a random group of South African boy singers sang with us while on the curbside, waiting to board our buses. Moments like that were priceless!

Our choir took off from Washington-Dulles International Airport on July 10th, 2013 on a trip totalling more than thirty-six flying hours, just to get to Johannesburg. Two international flights later, we arrived at Johannesburg International Airport on July 11th. On our second day of the trip, our tour guide arranged for our choir to perform outside of the very hospital former South African President, Nelson Mandela, was being hospitalized in. Mr. Mandela was gravely ill and had been in hospital for many months. Our choir performed outside of the hospital in front of a large international press audience. Words came to us through social media, that our choirs performance for Mr. Mandela had been featured on news channels across the globe, including several of the local stations back at home. 

Our choir also got the opportunity to visit the former home of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. The Mandela's lived in that home prior to Mr. Mandela being imprisoned, and it was the first home Mr. Mandela lived in, immediately following his release from prison.

In our last few days in the capital city, our choir stayed on the Heia Safari Ranch, where we literally lived amongst the wildlife of Africa! There were wild giraffe, zebra, monkey's, and other famous African wildlife, living right outside our temporary homes. We also went on a real life safari ride where we were within a few feet of wild lion, cheetah, springbok, and more!

Mid-way through the trip, we hoped on another plane and flew two-hours away to Cape Tape, where we'd remain through til the end of our tour. In Cape Town, we were treated to the most beautiful scenery one could imagine. One second you could be in a downtown district that looks akin to Baltimore or Boston, the next second you could be traversing deep hills and mountainsides. Our choir had the opportunity to take a cable car ride up the 3,000ft legendary Table Mountain. When we got to the top of the mountain, we were able to see the entire city of Cape Town and look out towards the Indian Ocean! The experience was almost beyond words!

Our choir received huge accolades from our audiences, and we quickly became an audience favorite. We sang a very varied and challenging repertoire of songs. Our choir was also, notably, the most diverse choir there. In a country such as South Africa, still reeling over the effects of the decades of apartheid, it's not very common to see a mixed group with black faces, white faces, and everything in between, in harmony together... no pun intended. Audiences went crazy for our rendition of the African piece, Shosholoza. Many of the audience members electing to get out of their seats and sing-along with our choir. Another audience favorite was the unofficial South African national anthem, NKosi Sikelel' iAfrika. Audiences stand on their feet at respect of the song and its meaning, much like American's stand for our national anthem.

Cape Town was next to magical. We traversed mountain tops and the most scenic of scenic valleys, straight out of fairy tales. Our group had the opportunity to trek to the Cape of Good Hope one rainy, cold day. Yes, COLD in South Africa! When we traveled it was during the Winter season, and it gets cold enough for heavy coats. Most people are unaware of that. They think blistering hot, arid deserts, when they think Africa. The Cape of Good Hope is the southern-most point in the entire African continent, and the point where the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean meet. It was beyond words beautiful!

Also, while in Cape Town, we were delighted to take part in a joint session featuring not only all of the other festival choirs, but authentic Zulu tribesmen and women. They showed us some of their African tribal dances, and then invited us to do the dances with them. It's one thing to see African tribes people on television or in a movie, it's a completely different experience in person.

Speaking of "in person" experiences, the choir and our chaperons all got a reality check when we had another cultural exchange, this time visiting basically a shanty town of South Africa. Living, breathing, actual human beings living in homes that basically equated to a dilapidated shed you'd find in the back of someone's house, here in the states. An entire living quarters small that some peoples rooms. Homes in which you had to go to the bathroom outdoors in pales, as there was no real water system. Kids aplenty begging for the most basic of basic necessities such as water. There were even kids begging for money so they could do something as simple as purchase a school uniform. It brought tears to many peoples eyes. We knew we had the luxury of leaving, getting on an air conditioned charter bus, going to a lovely hotel room, and eventually flying home to a developed nation. What we saw was those South Africans everyday reality. There was no escaping. You learn to be a little more appreciative of things like water and electricity, two things we often take for granted her in America, and two things many of those South Africans did not have access to.

The takeback from this epic journey and concert tour, is that hopefully our students were able to see life in what they call the Motherland. So many of us have images of Africa emblazoned in our memory, from images we've gathered over time in the media. We hope our students were able to see life as it's lived elsewhere. To get a new perspective on life. To have a broader sense of how big the world is and how it's theirs to conquer. We also hope our students left a little more appreciative of the clean drinking water they have at a moments notice, or luxuries such as electricity or even the internet... something that was hard to reliably come by throughout the tour. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many who traveled, and the hope is it's a cherished experience that will not soon be forgotten.

About Us 

The Northwestern High School Choir is comprised of two performing ensembles with students in Grades 9-12, which includes our auditioned performing/traveling choir, the Visual and Performing Arts Choir, and our main Concert Choir. The Friends of the Northwestern Choral Society (FNCS) is a U.S. registered 501(c)(3) non-profit division of our vocal music program, which serves to provide financial and operational support to the Choir. 

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