They made international news outside the hospital caring for Nelson Mandela, brought the house down singing in magnificent churches, came face-to-face with zebras and penguins, flew in five different planes and stood high on Table Mountain, staring into the vast expanse of Africa’s southernmost tip.
But for many members of Northwestern High School’s choir, the most moving part of their 10-day tour of South Africa was the fourth day, when they visited Soweto and learned a different way to measure wealth.
“That day in Soweto, in the shanty village,” said Aaron Alexander, who is 17 and just graduated from the high school in Hyattsville, “when we were leaving, we gave the kids all our water. They were fighting over the water. And I don’t even like drinking water, and that made me realize how lucky we are, how much we have.”
By American standards, many of the choir kids live on the edge of poverty — but not by South African standards.
The Prince George’s County singers almost didn’t make it to the prestigious Ihlombe Choral Festival, where they were the only American school choir invited to perform. As I wrote back in March, they’d been trying to raise the $100,000 to take a large group of kids and chaperones halfway across the world for two years. But holding bake sales, selling fruit and singing in churches had helped them scrape together just $40,000.
So I asked Washington Post readers to help them raise the rest of the money they needed for the journey of a lifetime. And you came through, sending hundreds of checks that added up to more than $70,000 in just a few weeks.
Not only did they raise enough money to take 47 kids on this amazing adventure, the boys were finally able to get full tuxedos and the girls each got a strand of faux pearls.
“They looked so professional,” said choir director Leona Lowery, whose exacting and demanding style of teaching helped create the rich and wonderful sound that earns them perfect scores when they perform.
Until they left for South Africa earlier this month, most choir members had never been on an airplane. Their first flight was 13 hours long.
Aaron took pictures of everything — the ticket counter, the departure area at Dulles, the jetway, the seats on the plane, the woeful airplane food.
“It was my first time flying,” he explained. At one point, he said, he had a panic attack and began crying. “It was so embarrassing. Everyone was staring at me.”
The day after they arrived, their tour guide told them that they were staying just around the corner from the hospital where Mandela, the revered former South African president, was being treated for a lung infection. So they all walked over and were moved by the wall of well-wishes, the people praying outside, the media camped out.
They began singing. And their soaring voices made the news — CNN, British papers, South African TV. Here was a group of young, mostly black Americans who’d come to sing for a man many regard as a living saint.
Only later in the trip, when the students visited the shanty villages of Soweto and the museums in Mandela’s honor, when they learned the bloody history of apartheid and when they imagined his prison cell on Robben Island, did they get the full weight of what it meant to sing for him.
The festival is an invitation-only collection of performances by some of the world’s best choirs. South Africans take their choral music very seriously, so the Northwestern High choir rehearsed relentlessly in the months before the trip.
“South Africans feel the need to join in, to sing, to dance,” said Victoria Okafor, 18, who just graduated and will be a voice major at Shenandoah Conservatory this fall. “They sing with so much heart, spirit. It was phenomenal.”
The Prince George’s kids more than held their own. When they took the stage in their navy blue gowns and tuxedoes, they opened the skies. They were so good that the festival’s organizers moved them to last in the program, telling Lowery, “We want you to blow the stage off.”
It made all the work — the fundraising, the long hours of practice and the times Lowery excoriated them for their mistakes and pushed them to give her their best — worth it.
In South Africa, the kids found approval, applause, adoration and standing ovations. And they discovered a world that they hardly knew existed.
They stayed on a game preserve — woke up with zebras and giraffes looking in on them. They dined at a nice restaurant overlooking Cape Town. They learned African dance and drumming and sang in Pretoria City Hall. They held a city of Hyattsville flag high atop Table Mountain.
But they couldn’t stop talking about their experience in the shantytowns.
In Soweto, where the kids watched a man in a 15-by-15-foot home cook using power from a car battery and saw people trying to survive in unthinkable squalor, where they heard more talk about color — black skin, white skin — than they’ve ever heard in Maryland, they found a stark perspective.
The majority of the 2,400 students who attend Northwestern High qualify for free or subsidized lunch programs. But when members of the choir met the children of Soweto, they gave them everything they had: their water, their candy, their snacks, their money.
"Everyone on the bus was bawling,” said Aaron, a tenor who will study business and music at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.
Independently, each of the kids I talked to marked that day as their most profound.
“I was also amazed by how nice everyone was in Soweto. They lived in such poverty, but they treated us all like family,” said Harper Carter Matsuyama, the 14-year-old soprano who was one of the youngest singers. “It was something none of us will ever forget.”
“We really became grateful for what we have here,” Victoria said. “It’s not about having certain shoes or a certain phone. We have clothes on our backs, homes.”
And Victoria, who wants to be a professional singer, found something else in South Africa.
For four years, Lowery has pounded into her the basics about breathing, pronouncing, singing. She has studied at the feet of a technical specialist.
But singing with heart and spirit? That’s something you’ve got to find on your own.
“I saw it there. I felt it. People went bonkers; the audience started singing with us. These people are so alive. They have so much spirit, so much heart,” Victoria said. “They sang with more spirit than me. I want to sing like that.”
I think they did.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.