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August 29, 2014

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Kenyan schoolchildren give a harmonious welcome to visitors from Las Vegas

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John Katsilometes

Stratosphere headliner Frankie Moreno pats the heads of children at Oloibormurt Primary School in Kenya’s Maasai Mara region.

Kenyan Schoolkids Sing With Frankie Moreno

Children who attend Oloibormurt Primary School in Kenya's Maasai Mara region wave goodbye to a visiting party from the U.S., which included Moreno brothers Frankie, Tony and Ricky. Launch slideshow »

MAASAI MARA, Kenya — The children who attend Oloibormurt Primary School are given uniforms in the color of this country’s flag. Knitted green sweaters and red shorts and skirts.

But the children, ranging in age from 6 to 12 in first through sixth grade, are not always dressed quite alike. Many of these sweaters are frayed and worn with holes, the shorts and skirts faded from the unrelenting African summer sun. Many are barefoot. In most instances, the only way to determine if a young student is a boy or a girl is to note if he or she is wearing a skirt, the kids’ shaved heads adding another degree of attempted uniformity.

The children who attend Oloibormurt study in tiny schoolrooms where teachers write in chalk on the yellowed walls, as no chalkboard or marking board is evident. In these rooms, students share creaky wooden desks, often sitting two to a seat. When welcoming guests from the West to the school grounds, schoolmasters make sure to keep the children outside these rooms, and those who are touring the campus are met on the dirt grounds at the front. That’s where a couple dozen donkeys roam the premises, often sharing this wilderness playground with the kids.

Comparatively, the schools in Clark County enjoy an embarrassment of riches.

On this sunny and slightly muggy East African afternoon, these kids — about 70 in all — will sing and also hear some singing.

What they will perform is a couple of traditional tribal songs, punctuated by guttural, rhythmic chants. What these kids will hear from these curious visitors is something they’ve not experienced before, songs sung with acoustic guitars played by someone from Las Vegas. This Kenyan grade school dirt lot is a universe removed from the flashy Stratosphere Showroom where Frankie Moreno usually performs.

This is far beyond unplugged.

Consider the protocol of a meet-and-greet at Oloibormurt Primary School. At the Stratosphere, Moreno stands in front of a big sign printed with a photo of him and his name and waits for a wave of fans to take pictures. Here, we are met by a small group of teachers and officials as recurring gusts lift dust across the school grounds. A few of these instructors are draped in Maasai Mara tribal gowns.

They eagerly shake our hands, and one gentleman tells us how to approach the children.

First, don’t approach the children. They will come to us. And do not offer to shake their hands.

“Children here do not shake hands with adults,” he explains.

“How do we say hello?” I ask.

“By touching them on the head, by patting them,” he instructs.

The kids pour out of the rooms and wade toward us, an incoming tide of tiny faces either smiling or wide-eyed with curiosity. Ricky Moreno, who with the managers of Mara Porini Camp in the nearby Ol Kinyei Conservancy had made arrangements, moves toward the kids and stops.

“I can’t believe we are here,” he says.

Every kid wants a pat. Each one. As you pat, a group forms in a cluster, and you can’t keep track of whom has been patted and not. They bow slightly as a way of unspoken gratitude and smile from the heart, their wide grins showing some heartbreaking dental decay and jagged teeth. This school cannot afford the necessities of simple grade-school education (we are told that our donations are being spent on new textbooks). Adequate health care for these kids seems a fanciful concept.

Only after being touched on the heads by these strangers do the kids assemble in an orderly fashion and listen as Frankie, Tony and Ricky sing a song they have just finished, titled (for now) “The Show.” This is to be pitched (pun intended) to ESPN, through the Morenos’ friend and All-Star hurler Orel Hershiser, to be played on the network’s “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcasts.

But the song is being used at this moment for its “La-la-la-la-la” sing-along chorus. After a few moments, the kids pick up the uncommon and, for them, aggressively simply beat. The Morenos also play a song they had just finished before the 15-minute drive from the camp to the school, a song titled “Hello, World,” which has a sort of “Beautiful Day” vibe achieved in the worldly U2 anthem.

The kids sing from their own culture, and a voice cuts through this vast chorus. In an American performance, she’d be called a soloist, though she is not at the front of the group. She is off to the side, and it takes some audio weeding to find from whence that soaring sound is rising.

She is near the middle, at the end of one of the rows, sort of randomly positioned. But she moves and sings with such natural grace, you imagine what it would be like to see her in a different place, with a greater opportunity to explore what that great voice could bring. You think of how a man like David Foster could take this type of inherent talent and make her a superstar.

As we detach from the group, we wonder what would become of that little girl and all of these kids who were so precise and disciplined and graceful in their choral welcome.

As Frankie and Ricky eschewed protocol by rushing over to high-five some of the kids who were reluctant to return to class, there was no answer to that question. But what will hold in our memories of visiting the children at Oloibormurt Primary School will be the patting and singing and smiling, and speaking the only language we could all understand.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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