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Bringing Christmas to East African Orphans

Performance at Vienna Presbyterian buys gifts for survivors of AIDS and genocide.

This December, Jean Paul Samputu will be a Santa Claus to thousands of East African orphans. "This is the first time for these orphans to celebrate Christmas," he said before his performance at Vienna Presbyterian Church last Friday. "That's when families get together, but orphans, who do they see?"

Between Dec. 13 and 31, Samputu will tour his home country of Rwanda, as well as Kenya, Burundi and Uganda, playing two large, free concerts in each country, as well as visiting orphanages, hospitals and churches. Half of the money raised at Friday's show, attended by 150 people or so, will go toward the Christmas gifts which, along his way, he will be distributing to orphans, many of whose parents were victims of AIDS or the 1994 Rwandan genocide. "This tour is also to educate others about caring for the orphans," he said. "Who is their father and mother? It is us."

The other half of the proceeds will go to the Zion Project, directed by Sarita Hartz of Arlington. Hartz is working to establish her Zion Project as an official non-governmental organization to work with former female child soldiers in Uganda.

Eighty percent of the Lord's Resistance Army, operating in the north of that country, is made up of abducted children, Hartz told the audience. The girls are often given to the commanders as wives, she said, and when they return, often with children, they are frequently seen by their own communities as being tainted, and they are rejected by friends and family. "It's something that happens all the time over there," said Hartz. She said she would like to see "a true, concerted effort for counseling" established for the girls.

SAMPUTU HAS MADE himself an advocate for peace and for the children of Africa, and the story he shared Friday night offered some insight into his commitment. His fame as a musician had enabled him to leave Rwanda during the genocide carried out by the country's extremist Hutus. When he returned, he found that his mother, father, sister and three brothers had all been slain by their neighbors.

Following about nine years of despondency and heavy drinking, he said, he underwent a conversion. He described a mystical experience, when a friend took him to see a pastor who Samputu said healed him with the name of Jesus. "I kept saying to him, 'You are a very good witch doctor,'" he told the audience.

Since then, Samputu has received a Kora Award — known as "the African Grammy" — for "most promising African male artist" and the Pearl of Africa music award for best male artist in Rwanda.

At a recent event at the Rwandan Embassy in the U.S., he met Vienna resident Andrew Briggs, who was working on an exhibit of Ugandan children's artwork and photography. "We hit it off and have been working together since then, thinking through ways to empower the children of East Africa," said Briggs, who spent last summer in Uganda, developing an art program for former child soldiers.

Briggs also happened to be a friend of Peter James, the senior pastor of Vienna Presbyterian, which is how Samputu ended up at the church Friday night. This week, Briggs is returning to Africa to help Samputu with his tour and to continue his work as the director of the Uganda Advocacy Project under A Little Bit of Yeast Ministries. The ministry was created by Oakton High School graduate Rick Reiter, who now lives in Ashburn.

ALSO PERFORMING on Samputu's Christmas tour will be David Griffiths, a gospel singer who lives in Silver Spring, Md. He and his group, the Praise and Worship Experience, performed Friday night before Samputu's set.

The two musicians have been collaborating on an album, to be called "The Samputu Griffiths Project," due out in February. Their styles are different — Samputu primarily plays in the various traditional Rwandan styles, or fusions thereof — but on the album, said Griffiths, "you can hear him leaning toward me, and you can hear me leaning toward him."

This will be Griffiths' first visit to Africa. "It's very exciting," he said. He noted that, while they will be distributing presents and giving free performances, he and Samputu also hope to convey the message of their faith. "The first thing you have to do is help someone with their practical needs. Then they're open to your spiritual message — why you did these nice things," he said. Also touring will be Monique Steele, who is Griffiths' wife and a gospel singer in her own right, and Christian singer Meme Stephens.

But these will not be the only performers. Samputu said he will also be inviting the children to the stage. "They will think it's me that is going to sing — and I will — but also, I will give the children a chance to sing and dance," he said.

By the end of Samputu's set at Vienna Presbyterian, a number of audience members seized the chance to dance, taking to the performance floor to shimmy with Samputu and his dancer, Henriette Muziramakenga, and his bandmate/dancer, Jacques Nyungura.

Samputu said he and his fellow travelers would record a video of their Christmas tour. "When we come back from Africa, we will show you the video," he promised the crowd at the concert's end. "We will show you what you have done."