Ten years ago, nearly to the day, flipped the switch on her life. We’ll get to that later but first, we’ll fill you in a little. On Wednesday, a documentary Erin spent five years making received big news. Her feature-length film on the African Children’s Choir, Imba Means Sing, hit Netflix. In 37 languages. For all the world with a screen and a friend with an account to see.
Whether you’ve seen Imba Means Sing or you’re adding it to your watch list now, Erin’s story is one worth telling. From her early days as a bright-eyed child chasing journalism and uncovering her love for Africa, to the pinnacle moment as a social impact filmmaker successfully producing the documentary Imba Means Sing, we’re telling it all. Strap in, this story’s a doozy but it’s well worth the read.
Mwanzo Means Beginning
Erin Bernhardt has always been a fervent admirer or journalism. She admittedly was that kid, reading the morning announcements for her middle school TV show, going on to star in a PBS news show for the Youth Channel, and dreaming of becoming the next John Pruitt/Katie Couric/Christiane Amanpour combined. Fast forward a few years and Erin was headed to the University of Virginia. It was there, through her academic studies, that she fell in love with Africa.
“Julian Bond, the former chairman of the NAACP, was one of my advisors. I wanted to write my thesis about how music was part of the Civil Rights Movement’s success. He encouraged me to study everything I could about Africa and African music so I could get a full understanding of the music of the Civil Rights Movement.”
From there, her academic interests became a personal passion. After starting a Save Darfur chapter and ONE campaign at UVA, Erin spent her college days raising money like any student would – through beer pong tournaments and benefit concerts. Erin called it “creative activism” and over time caught the eye of an unlikely admirer. Dispatch, an indie/roots band from the late 90s and early 00s caught wind of Erin’s colorful fundraising approach and offered her a summer internship between graduation and scheduled trek to Madagascar through the Peace Corps.
“Dispatch asked me to come to New York City for the summer to help start their foundation and put on all of the outreach for Dispatch Zimbabwe.” This was definitely in Erin’s wheelhouse. The three-day benefit would raise money and awareness for grassroots organizations in Zimbabwe but after a tried and failed attempt, she couldn’t get Zimbabwe’s children’s choir over to America. That’s when a new opportunity landed in her lap. The African Children’s Choir, which at the time had been nominated for a GRAMMY, was able to make the trip to sing with the band.
Mabadiliko Means Change
Queue the switch. As someone who always considered herself an avid “do-gooder,” like many of us, it was for all the wrong reasons. “Obviously, giving back makes us feel good and that’s a really good side effect. But I also did it because I thought it would help me get into college or to prove somebody wrong. I didn’t really give the people I was giving to as much dignity as I wish I had.”
“Meeting the African Children’s Choir that summer was the first face I had to poverty and it was such a different face. It wasn’t sorrow or desperation. It was beauty and dignity and potential. That flipped the switch for me and is why ever since that summer, exactly 10 years ago this month, I have been wanting to share the story of Africa and poverty in a new light. People living in poverty might not have financial means but they have so much more than we do in terms of spirit and joy and wisdom and love.”
“That’s why the African Children’s Choir changed my life and why I wanted to tell their story to the world. When I was in the Peace Corps, I did community-based health education, got people tested for HIV, encouraged the use of mosquito nets, and worked with Population Services International on their peer work for young women in the sex industry. Unfortunately, we ended up getting evacuated and when I got back to Atlanta I started working for CNN. I loved it and learned so much. I took a vacation, doing some videos for CNN in the process and helped my friends’ social enterprises. During that time, I went to Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Uganda.”
“In Uganda, I ran into this family I had read about in the news. It was a family who had sold everything to move to Uganda to work with the African Children’s Choir. I remember thinking I needed to contact them but of course, life happened and I never did.”
“Then we were at this American party in Uganda and I was jumping on a giant trampoline with these kids and they noticed I had a Southern accent and they said, “We’re from Texas!” I met their parents and it turned out that they were the family I had recently read about. They took me and my friends to see the kids at the African Children’s Choir. They remembered me and all ran up and hugged me and were like “Auntie Erin!” It was heartwarming for me to see that they were doing so well.”
Kushindwa Means Failure
During her time at CNN, Erin spent time covering the many mishaps of nonprofits. Seeing the kids in Uganda at the African Children’s Choir speaking fluent English, participating in school and being overall, extremely happy, fueled her to create a 30-minute news documentary. It was in that moment that the match was lit on the idea for a full-length feature film. But like most things, it didn’t come easy.
“I remember quitting CNN to try and make the film. I had no idea what I was doing and it completely failed. So, I went back to CNN. A year later one of my good friends died and she was the first person I had really mentored. That was the moment when I realized I wasn’t invincible. This amazing young woman, Sydney, had been following in my footsteps and changing the world in big ways and I thought about what I could do to honor that. It kept coming back to tell this story about the African Children’s Choir. So I quit CNN again and started making the film the right way.”
“I thought it would take one year and $100,000. Instead, it took 5 years and $1 million dollars! But I hired all the best people, formed an amazing team of artists, storytellers and people who could get shit done. I also found the most gracious donors and support system and we actually did it.”
“One really special thing about the film is that as far as we can tell it’s the only feature-length documentary about Africa that’s told entirely through the eyes of children. There are so many amazing films about Africa and children and musicians but it’s really hard to tell stories through kids. We had three main characters – all of them were children. There were barely any white people and barely any adults in the film. From that sense, it’s an incredibly unique and special perspective for people all over the world.”
Imba Means Sing
In 2014, Imba Means Sing was completed and what followed was a year of hitting the festival circuit. December of 2015, the film was released on iTunes and Amazon. And while it’s been a year and a half since the recent news of Netflix’s release, the film has done phenomenally well on a global scale.
“We’ve all see infomercials that show African kids with distended bellies and flies around them without any food. You give $100 dollars and a lot of that goes to Americans running the nonprofit – which to an extent I get. I work for nonprofits and I want to get paid too. But, then you see Angel, this beautiful young woman who wants to be the first female President of Uganda. It tells an entirely different story. All the money raised through her singing and storytelling goes to fund her college education so that she can change Uganda herself. I think that model is so much more productive.”
“Ultimately, the kids helped me more than I’ll ever be able to help them. Even if this film makes a million dollars for them – which is more than I’ll likely ever make in my lifetime – that is so much less than what they’ve done for me in my life. What they’ve done for me is completely priceless and has changed my perspective on everything. That to me is the biggest gift of all.”
All of the film’s profits will be donated to build a high school for children in Uganda. Make sure you check out Imba Means Sing now on Netflix. For anyone wanting to donate money or resources, head here, to find out how you can help music education and human rights nonprofits in your community.
Photos are property of Ashley Jones, Shutter Sweet Photography.