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N.L.’s Shallaway Youth Choir shares music with South Africa

Sharing voices as big as the sky, they learn lessons about freedom and perseverance along the way

By Karen M. McCarthy
Special to The Telegram

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Members of Shallaway Youth Choir have travelled far and wide in its first 25 years in an effort to share their musicianship, sing the virtues of Newfoundland and Labrador to the world and inhale and enjoy every ounce of culture and heritage from humankind around the globe.

No trip has been so special, however, as the cultural organization’s recent journey to South Africa.

In celebration of their 25th anniversary, Shallaway toured Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, Pilanesburg, Soweto, Stellenbosch and more, performing and embracing the souls of some of the most beautiful people on Earth.

A typical township where hundreds of thousands of South Africans live, generally on the outskirts of the larger cities. — Karen McCarthy photo/Special to The Telegram
A typical township where hundreds of thousands of South Africans live, generally on the outskirts of the larger cities. — Karen McCarthy photo/Special to The Telegram

South Africa is a developing nation, marked by an unsettling past which saw the segregation of white people from non-whites.

History tells us, as recently as a quarter-century ago, of the country’s struggle with apartheid.

Marred by the injustice caused by those in power, black people took up the fight to change what they felt was brutal treatment. They knew their souls, their hearts and their families deserved better. And, so they came together with strength and determination and with the guidance of some of the world’s foremost leaders, like Nelson Mandela, F.W. de Klerk and others, to overcome and bring an end to an inhumane system of segregation.

“That people on this Earth could treat one another in such horrific fashion made me stomach sick,” said Shallaway chorister Heather Hutchens.

“As a white person, it was hard to hear exactly how non-whites were treated.”

Lessons of apartheid

The South African journey was an eye-opener for Shallaway choristers. Not only did they learn about the history of apartheid, they visited Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and so many others were jailed — imprisoned for their advocacy work for basic human rights. Their visit to Mandela’s jail cell offered a chance to interact with former political prisoners who explained what life had been like in the prison.

“It wasn’t until 1979 that prisoners were given a bunk to sleep in, which lifted them from the concrete floors, which stung their backs with pain from the severe cold,” chorister Annie McCarthy recalled.

“It is these learning experiences that help our young people develop respect, empathy and understanding of others.” — Shallaway artistic director Kellie Walsh

They learned how family members would write their loved ones in prison, and prison officials would cut out parts of the letters, leaving those on the inside longing for words of love. And how Mandela and other political leaders housed in section “B” of the prison maintained their mental strength by teaching others, always holding firmly to their belief there was a better way of life for South Africans of all colours and races. They taught other prisoners to read and write, and no matter how harshly they were treated, they persisted in the belief that anything is possible if you believe in it.

Mandela often underscored the value of education in purposefully advancing humankind.

So, too, does Shallaway.

“It is these learning experiences that help our young people develop respect, empathy and understanding of others,” said artistic director Kellie Walsh. “Not everyone enjoys the same lifestyles or lives in a place where freedom is rarely challenged.”

Walsh said the choir was overwhelmed during visits to South African townships where hundreds of thousands of people were living in shanty towns with basic structures to cover them from the blazing summer sun.

Schools were started out of the backs of the kind of trailers that Canadians might use to tow all-terrain vehicles. Conditions were poor by our standards, but there were incredible teachers doing extraordinary work in these communities.

Musical magic

Pre-schoolers and primary students watched with wide-eyed glee as the Shallaway choristers sang for them. It only took moments for the children to demonstrate their joy for life as they jumped up from their grass seats to dance and sing.

That was a defining moment.

“The smiles, the rhythm, the zest to celebrate life is palpable,” said Shallaway board chairman Richard Gosse.

“Even in places where a family has to share a water tap with several other families, and where the lack of sewer infrastructure creates fertile ground for disease, the South African people are propelling forward because their spirits are unbreakable.”

The country continues to face an AIDS epidemic, which is improving through education, but still affects generations.

South Africans are primarily Christian, but Sunday morning services are a little livelier than many people are used to in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“St. Andrews was on wheels,” said chorister Andrew Gosse, himself a lively performer.

The choir sang at the church in Soweto alongside another local choir. When Shallaway finished singing, the congregation chanted: “We want more.”

Shallaway obliged, and before you knew it, everyone was on their feet dancing and singing, including the pastor, who gregariously tapped on the altar to contribute to this glorious offering of musicianship.

Modern signs

South Africa hosted the World Cup of Soccer in 2010. To prepare, transportation and sporting infrastructure was improved. The transportation infrastructure alone is, in many cases, better than that of major cities in North America.
“What was disturbing for us as Canadians, though, was what appeared to be a serious lack of housing infrastructure in the townships on the outskirts of big cities,” said Sean Penney, a Shallaway parent.
“The housing we saw in these communities was much worse than what we would expect for most low-income citizens in major cities in Canada. As with much of the trip, it led us to reflect on different issues in our own lives. In this case, we were reminded of the situation of our Indigenous communities. One must then question whether we as Canadians are doing enough for our own Indigenous people.”
Labour laws are advancing, and minimum wage is in place for some workers. It is normal, however, for day labourers from Zimbabwe and other countries to travel into to the larger cities in South Africa in hopes of making as little as 10 rand — $1 — a day.
Business appears to be doing well in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and while the economy is growing, it is doing so slowly.

Capturing hearts and souls

By our measure, South Africans are very proud people who embrace life in a way that we can only hope to. From abundant minerals to breathtaking scenery and majestic wildlife, the country is far richer than many.

The colours of South African people’s hearts are evident in their bright clothing and headdresses, and in the Zulu, Xhosa and other languages spoken with passion and care.

“We are forever touched by the beauty of this place and its people,” said Shallaway alumna Jennifer Babstock, who travelled with the choir to South Africa. “Our hearts are overflowing.”

The Shallaway choristers and artistic team were joined by several parents and alumni on the tour in celebration of the organization’s 25th anniversary. The choir has travelled annually for the past 25 years to countries such as Nicaragua, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, Argentina, many American destinations and 12 European countries. They have sung across Canada from coast to coast, as well as on Newfoundland and Labrador’s coasts, to share music and culture with their peers.

In 2015, the choir was named Children’s Choir of the World at the prestigious Llangollen Music Festival in Wales. Shallaway alumni say what they’ve learned from these travel experiences has been inestimable and long lasting.


Karen McCarthy is vice-president, communications corporate affairs with Fortis Inc. Her daughter, Annie McCarthy, graduated from Shallaway Youth Choir following the South Africa tour after 11 years with the group.

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