When Masaka kids dance, they eat us inside

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • There are too many children cast out by family, economic, and other social crises. They swarm the streets in thousands around the country as beggars. 

Those wonderful dancing and singing children from Masaka, Masaka Kids Africana, are truly blessed. Recently, they had the opportunity to make one of the sweetest denials in Uganda.

They disputed reports that their YouTube channel has brought in $1,341,980 (nearly Shs5 billion) since its launch in April 2018. The claims followed from a report titled “The 2022 YouTube Rich List” by CashNetUSA, based on data from SocialBlade, a social media analytics website. 

The Masaka Kids Africana YouTube has over 774 million views and 3.2 million subscribers, making it the most subscribed YouTube channel owned by a celebrity or performance group in Uganda. And if the $1,341,980 had been confirmed, it would have made it one of the top-earning YouTube channels in Africa.

Still, this is a fairy tale. Masaka Kids Africana is an orphanage. The dancing kids had fallen through the cracks that swallow such children in Uganda and elsewhere until the orphanage caught them, and the Internet elevated them to global prominence.

The Masaka Kids Africana owe their present fortune to their talent and musician Eddy Kenzo, who featured them in his hit “Tweyagale”, posted on YouTube in February 2022. By this week, the official video had garnered 139 million views.

Kenzo, who was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Global Music Performance, is the Ugandan musician with the Midas touch. His 2014 YouTube video of “Sitya Loss”, another massively popular Ugandan song, featured the Ghetto Kids from Makindye, who were disadvantaged children like Masaka Kids Africana. It has racked up over 50 million views and, in 2014, was the most-talked-about and covered music phenomenon out of Africa. Life has changed forever for the Ghetto Kids.

There is, of course, the view that the Masaka Kids made the $1.3 million, just that it didn’t reach them. However, going down that road would be to open a conspiracy-filled floodgate, so we won’t.

Also, the question of why the Ghetto Kids, and now Masaka Kids, are such a hit is more important. Why would Ghetto Kids, children in the same circumstances, in Kenzo’s “Sitya Loss” bring in 50 million views after nearly nine years, but Masaka Kids in “Tweyagale” snag  139 million views in a year? 

Primarily because the world is different. There are more Ugandans and people in the world connected to the Internet. There is more suffering. In one statistic alone, according to a report in July last year, because of the after-effects of Covid-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the ravages of climate change, nearly 2.3 billion people in the world were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021.

Almost eight million children under five  in 15 crisis-hit countries are at risk of death from severe wasting. The global food crisis had forced an additional 260,000 children – or one child every 60 seconds – to suffer from severe wasting in the 15 countries bearing the brunt of the crisis.

Masaka Kids came on the scene in a world that was hurting more. And at home, it was as bad. There had been violence and atrocities ahead of and after the 2021 election. Repression and the crackdown on civil society groups working on human, economic, and environmental rights have run amok.

The pandemic compounded a mismanaged and plundered economy to throw more Ugandans back into poverty, a continuing reversal following over a decade of improvement.

The Masaka Kids, with the courage to find joy in dire circumstances, are a mirror for millions of Ugandans and other people worldwide. They are scratching a painful national itch. Part of the power of it comes from the fact that they did not set out themselves to be symbols. We are a nation whose heart has been broken into too many places by our self-appointed and elected saviours; leaders come with a stench. The difference is in the degree.

But children, especially those left behind, like at the Masaka Kids Africana orphanage, also represent one of the things that is most broken about Uganda. There are too many children cast out by family, economic, and other social crises. They swarm the streets in thousands around the country as beggars. They line the dark alleys as child prostitutes in many towns.

As the clock ticked towards midnight to herald the arrival of the New Year on December 31 in Gulu, I saw a sight I had never seen before – a city taken over by thousands of children, with no visible adult supervision in sight. I understood the tragic meaning of it in the context of a post-war society.  Perhaps when the Ghetto Kids and Masaka Kids Africana shine through, we feel indicted. It fills us with so much guilt and conflicted emotions we can’t look away.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. 

Twitter: @cobbo3