Contradictions and Complications: A Guest Post from Rwanda by Ben Feis

As promised here is a guest post from one of the youth participants on our trip.  Ben Feis, 18, is a recent graduate of New Trier High School in Winnetka, IL and will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

My experience in Rwanda thus far has been truly remarkable and eye-opening. At first, I was struck by how developed certain parts of Kigali are – I suppose that like many, I was expecting a dirt runway at the airport, very few automobiles, and certainly no tall buildings. This is simply not the case. Parts of urban Rwanda actually have quite a bit of infrastructure.

As the days have gone by, though, it has become more and more apparent that there exist two worlds here. You may walk through a suburb of Kigali and find that directly across the street from a newly-constructed mansion (by African standards), a single mother is trying to raise eight children in a tiny room buried among hundreds of others in a filthy shantytown. Our home visits have shown us firsthand the extreme poverty in which so many Rwandans live. Many of WE-ACTx’s  peer parents themselves, who manage to dress nicely and carry a sunny disposition by day, return to the slums at night, where sewage runs through the alleys and electricity is considered a luxury. As if this isn’t enough of a hardship, many of the people we have met are suffering from HIV/AIDS.

What I find most amazing, however, is the ability of a surprising number to remain positive despite their setbacks. In a country that was ravaged by vicious genocide and pure hatred less than two decades ago, so many Rwandans we have met are incredibly genuine, kind, earnest, and polite. Whenever we enter a room, every single person, young and old, is there to extend a hand and welcome us. Most are quite soft spoken, but as they have shared their life experiences with us, I feel that I’ve developed a personal connection with each and every one by the time we have to go on to the next house.

Not everyone is able to maintain such a positive outlook on life, though. As we were visiting several homes today in one of the rural, mountainous regions, we met one woman in particular who seemed on the brink of despair. She could not bring herself to smile and appeared in pain as she told us of the financial difficulties of putting food on the table and sending her children to school. Mind you, the cost of sending one child to secondary school for a year might be around 36,000 Rwandan francs (or $60). Still, these costs are often too much for a family to handle, and so the children are left with nowhere to go but to continue the cycle of poverty.

As we were leaving this woman’s home, she asked us, “Now that I have told you about my family and our circumstances, is there anything you can do to help us?” Most families we visited did not have the audacity to come out and pose such a direct question, but it is indeed the reason we are here. David (from CHABHA) assured her that several of the NGOs in the area would try to implement some type of economic self-sufficiency programs in the near future, but I can’t help but think that most of us would have wanted to hand her a $20 bill (or the equivalent in Rwandan francs) right then and there. But therein lies the fundamental problem of what it means to be charitable in a third-world country: is it better to give a man a fish, or teach him how to fish? Fortunately, there are already a number of organizations doing excellent work here in vocational training, co-ops, and so on.

Clearly though, it’s not enough. I’ve said it again and again over the past week: this has been the experience of a lifetime. I’ve learned an incredible amount about what the world is really like on this trip. But has it truly been a life-changing trip? As I return to my cushy lifestyle on the North Shore, the question still remains: how am I going to make a difference? If learning about the world for my own sake is all I take away from my experiences, then I really have accomplished nothing. Judaism teaches the value of Tikkun Olam or repairing the world. I would argue that not only is it a value that should be encouraged, but a responsibility that each and every one of us needs to own.

Until this problem is fixed, we cannot sit idly by and expect others to take action. It is everyone’s duty and I can assure you, there is much work to be done.


Our Final Day with WE-ACTx


On Wednesday we were back at the WE-ACTx office to finish assembling the new children’s library. The library itself was originally the brainchild of JRC member Katia Waxman, who created the idea for her Bat Mitzvah social action project last year.  Through her efforts, 450 books were donated, which she and her mother (trip coordinator Elaine Waxman) brought over from Chicago. (That’s Katia above, second from right, Sara Fox, far left, Brenda Feis, third from left, Seth Fox and Rachel Pinkelman).

When we arrived at the office Wednesday morning, we discovered that William had finished the mural (below) and the wall shelves had been finished and installed. We spent the morning sorting through the books and arranging them. When we finished, Katia’s project was finally complete – a wonderful legacy to leave to the children of WE-ACTx.

After lunch, we traveled to the WE-ACTx house for a very cool Rwandan dance lesson (Full disclosure, I sat this one  out and merely watched, sensing my moves wouldn’t have been a very pretty sight…)

Afterward, we split up into groups and visited the homes of three different Peer Parents, giving us the very special opportunity to get to know them and their families in a more personal setting. These visits completed our last full day with WE-ACTx, although five of our group will go back tomorrow to the jewelry cooperative to complete the work in their showroom.

A few words on this particular project: it began when a group of women met through a “Preventing Mother to Child Transmission Program” at WE-ACTx’s Nyacyonga clinic. The women (with us, below) decided to form a craft collective to generate income to buy baby formula as an alternative to breastfeeding in an effort to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their babies.  They initially produced woven plastic shopping bags, but eventually settled on craft jewelry – they are now a fully licensed cooperative that they named, “Ejo Hazaza” (“Tomorrow”).

Speaking of tomorrow – our volunteer efforts will focus on the work of CHABHA – another inspiring Rwandan NGO.


How to Support Relief Efforts in Somalia

From the NY Times:

Much of the Horn of Africa, which includes Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, has been struck this summer by one of the worst droughts in 60 years. But two Shabab-controlled parts of southern Somalia are the only areas where the United Nations has declared a famine, using scientific criteria of death and malnutrition rates.

I commend to you this report from Charity Navigator, which includes essential information about this tragic, urgent crisis along with the highest rated orgs currently doing relief work in the region.


Gaza: A Rabbinical Exchange

GAZA_SCHOOL_One

Since we launched the Jewish Fast for Gaza, we’ve received all kinds of feedback, some supportive, some critical, some utterly unprintable. (My personal favorite from the latter category: “You should all get severe stomach ailments.”)

On occasion, however, our effort has offered us the opportunity for genuinely respectful dialogue. Below is one such exchange – an email I received from a rabbinic colleague, followed by my response:

Dear Ta’anit Tzedek,

Having cares and concerns of the plight of humanity is a most noble cause. That you are willing to extend effort is most commendable. Your organization, however, is extending its efforts in a manner which is not only counterproductive, but can be harmful as well.

How can you look into the face of a 12 year old girl from Sderot who suffers from post traumatic syndrome as for most of life she has been awakened on a nightly basis by sirens and rocket fire? What do you say to the families of victims killed by suicide bombers who killed their teenagers who were casually enjoyed a slice of pizza? What do you say to an organization whose very goal is the annihilation of our people?

You may answer, “Had we been better, they may have liked us more.” or some such configuration thereof. It’s not plausible. Since 1948, the goal of the Arab world has been the removal of a Jewish presence in the middle east. Our interference with their dream of a Pan-Arabic state stretching from Morocco to Iraq is sullied by our very presence.

It would better for your organization to spend is resources on ideals that truly further the continuity of Jews and Judaism.

I await your response,

Rabbi X

Dear Rabbi X,

I want to thank you for taking the time to reach out and respond to our initiative. I’m glad to have the opportunity for this dialogue.

You ask what I would say to the 12 year old girl from Sderot or the families of terror victims. I believe I would say that as a fellow Jew that their pain is my pain as well. I would say that I could not begin to comprehend the realities they must face. But I would also share my belief that that Israel’s current treatment of the people of Gaza will bring them neither safety nor security – and that the only true way out of these traumas is a lifting of the blockade and the negotiation of a settlement by all parties involved.

As regards Hamas “whose very goal is the annihilation of our people:” though I have no love lost for Hamas, the reality is that Israel will have to deal with them if any true peace will be achieved. And in truth, Israel has already dealt with Hamas through any number of channels over the years already. Making peace is a sacrosanct Jewish value – and as difficult as it is, the truth is that we make peace with our enemies. In the past, Israel has made peace with former enemies whom we once believed sought nothing but our “annihilation.” To surrender this value means to doom the people of this region to endless violence and tragedy.

Thus we do indeed believe that this effort furthers the resources of Jews and Judaism. We do not hold that the only Jewish path is the one that addresses Jews and Jewish “needs” alone. In the case of Jews and Palestinians in particular, our fates are fundamentally intertwined: we will either live together or else we will die together. The Jewish path has always been to choose life – this sacred imperative is at the core of our initiative.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with us. Even as we may disagree, I hope you will share my conviction that our conversation is a “machloket l’shem shamayim” (“argument for the sake of heaven.”)  I also know that you join with me in prayers for peace for this tortured region that is so dear to both of us.

Kol Tuv,

Rabbi Brant Rosen


Jewish Fast for Gaza

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In response to the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza, my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Brian Walt and I have organized a new initiative, Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza.

See below for the press release about the project, which is already attracting increasing numbers of supporters, including many rabbis. Click the link above to visit the website and sign up yourself…

RABBIS  ANNOUNCE MONTHLY FAST FOR GAZA

Seeking “to end the Jewish community’s silence over Israel’s collective punishment in Gaza,”  an ad-hoc group of American rabbis has called for a communal fast.  Known as Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza, this new initiative will organize a series of monthly fasts beginning on July 16.

The project was initiated by a group of thirteen rabbis representing a spectrum of American Jewish denominations. The group’s website explains the religious meaning of the campaign: “In Jewish tradition a communal fast is held in times of crisis both as an expression of mourning and a call to repentance. In this spirit, Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza is a collective act of conscience initiated by an ad hoc group of rabbis, Jews, people of faith, and all concerned with (this) ongoing crisis…”

The fast has four goals: to call for a lifting of the blockade, to provide humanitarian and developmental aid to the people of Gaza, to call upon Israel, the US, and the international community to engage in negotiations with Hamas in order to end the blockade, and to encourage the American government to “vigorously engage both Israelis and Palestinians toward a just and peaceful settlement of the conflict.”

The water-only fast will take place every third Thursday of the month, from sunrise to sunset. In addition to signing on to the fast statement, participants have been asked to donate the money they save on food to the Milk for Preschoolers Campaign sponsored by American Near Eastern Refugee Aid, a relief campaign that combats malnutrition among Gazan preschool children.

Since the electoral victory of Hamas in January 2006, Israel has imposed a blockade that has severely restricted Gaza’s ability to import food, fuel and other essential materials. As a result, the Gazan economy has completely collapsed and it suffers from high levels of unemployment and poverty and rising levels of childhood malnutrition.

“Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people in Gaza amounts to nothing less than collective punishment. While we condemn Hamas’ targeting of Israeli civilians, it is immoral to punish an entire population for the actions of a few,” said Rabbi Brant Rosen, who serves Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL. “This blockade has only served to further oppress an already thoroughly oppressed people.  As Jews and as human beings of conscience, we cannot stand idly by.”

“We’ve been enormously encouraged by the initial response we’ve received from the Jewish community thus far,” said fast organizer Rabbi Brian Walt, former Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, who noted that the initiative has signed up numerous supporters prior to the launch of the project. “We truly believe this effort is giving voice to a significant number of people who been looking for a Jewish voice of conscience on this issue.”


Porky’s Revenge

I’m not sure which is the stronger sign that Armageddon is at hand: the Swine Flu outbreak or the increasingly surreal reactions to this pandemic du jour.

Exhibits A, B and C:

- In Israel, the Deputy Health Minister refuses to use the term “Swine Flu,” preferring “Mexico Flu” instead…

- Conservative media pundits are blaming Mexican immigrants for spreading the disease across the border…

- Perhaps most alarmingly, the Mexican premiere of “Wolverine” has been postponed due to concerns about “Hugh Jackman’s welfare.”

Not to make light of an admittedly serious situation, but does anyone else notice how unmitigated fear almost inevitably gives rise to “you can’t make this stuff up” style irony?


JRC Says Farewell to Africa

On our final day in Africa, we visited the Nankusi and Namanyonyi primary schools, both of which are supported by the Peace Kawomera’s fair trade social premiums. Both schools are engaged in building projects to create more classrooms and more essential educational resources. In each school we saw overcrowded classes (many cramming in over 100 students) and most classrooms are not even equipped with a chalkboard. Similarly, in both schools these important construction projects are currently stalled out due to lack of funding, materials and workers. At Namanyonyi, we were told that they needed the equivalent of $2,000.00 to finish the project.

We’ve heard these kinds of appeals several times on our trip and they are challenging to the core. On the one hand, in the face of such direct need, it’s all you can do to not take out the money and just donate it on the spot. On the other hand, this would clearly raise more questions than it would solve: why is this school more deserving than the one down the road? What kinds of social tensions would you be exacerbating by privileging one one school over another? How would we ensure that the money would be used in the way we were told? What kind of unhealthy power dynamic are we reinforcing when we throw money around in this way? We’ve discussed these kinds of questions a great deal as a group and in the end we’ve resolved to live with the difficulties and complexities that attend the phenomenon of world poverty, arguably the most intractable issue facing the world today.

One important thing we do take away from these experiences is the resolve to support NGOs on the ground that we know are making a real difference in the lives of real people. We have been transformed by our relationships with organizations like WE-ACTx, the Foundation for the Development of Needy Communities and Peace Kawomera, who are leading the charge to create better futures for the communities they serve.

If we have learned anything on this trip, it is that we much redouble our resolve to support their efforts and to encourage others to do so as well. In a world that is so desperately in need of heroes and role models, these are the ones who truly inspire: people like Dr. Mardge Cohen, Samuel Watalatsu, JJ Keki, and so many, many others who work largely off the PR radar screen, but whose vision and drive are bringing hope and change in the areas of the world that need it most.

We’re coming home now, but our work is really just getting started…


Return to Nantandome

Today was another full day for our group. It was completely devoted to a visit to the Foundation for the Development of Needy Communities (FDNC) – an NGO that JRC visted three years ago during our first Africa delegation.

In April 2005 JRC was the first group hosted by FDNC, on a trip made in collaboration with American Jewish World Service. (You can read excerpts from my travel journal on the JRC website). The visit was a transformational one for us – and we just knew that whenever we returned to Africa we would meet again with our friends at FDNC. Indeed, several members of our current delegation were part of the original visit in 2005. (That’s us above in a pic taken today: from left to right: Debbie Wolen, me, Elaine Waxman, FDNC founder Samuel Watalatsu, Robert Israelite and Dan Litoff).

I’ll put it simply: if anyone asks you for a definition of “sustainable development,” just point to FDNC. Through Samuel’s inspired leadership, FDNC has grown into a model of self-reliance and grassroots sustainable development for the most impoverished communities of Eastern Uganda. They are particularly adept at developing strategies that promote community empowerment in the critical areas of vocational training, women’s rights, health/AIDS awareness and music/dance education.

During our first visit, we stayed for a week in the FDNC vocational school located in Nantandome Village, an impoverished rural area not far from Mbale. Living and working in this environment had a profound effect on our group. Among other things, we helped with construction of a classroom – we well recalled how painstaking it was to mix the cement for the mortar. Water had to be hauled in jerry cans from a river half a mile away and the mud bricks were made by hand and baked in the sun.

Just three short years later, the transformation of the area is profound. The classrooms of the school are complete and the grounds are beautifully landscaped. They are currently being served by numerous volunteers (we met teenagers on an AJWS service program as well as interns from as far away as Spain and Japan). The school no longer has to haul their water in from the river – they now have large tanks that collect rain water. They also have an ingenious brick making device that makes mud bricks quickly that require a minimum of mortar.

FDNC is clearly flourishing, serving many more students from the surrounding districts and they are currently in the midst of building a new headquarters for their operations in Mbale. It was deeply inspiring for us to witness the fruits of their labors – and how powerfully they have impacted their community.

In the morning we toured the vocational classes, which include hairdressing, computer skills, tailoring and masonry/carpentry. We also visited with an inspiring new educational program for special needs children (above) which is virtually unprecedented in Uganda. (The writing on the board in back of the children reads “Disability is not Inability.”) We also made a special donation of supplies to the school, which included some hula hoops courtesy of the Waxmans. (Below you can see FDNC vocational school director Walter Urek-Wun trying one out).

In the afternoon we visited the village of Wapando, one of the many nearby communities served by FDNC (bottom pic). They received our group joyfully, singing songs and dancing with us – and we reciprocated with a few rousing rounds of “Oseh Shalom.” They also cooked and served us a full lunch, an almost overwhelmingly generous gesture under the circumstances.

Our day ended back at the vocational school, where young people from the FDNC brass band and a traditional dance group performed for us for over two hours as the sun set behind them. Children and families from the area turned out in droves for the occasion as did numerous volunteers and we all helped cheer the performers on. By the end of a cathartic day, we were virtually spent – and deeply moved by what can be accomplished by people so thoroughly devoted to their community.

Tomorrow we’re going to spend the day with our good friends from the Mirembe Kowamera interfaith fair trade coffee coop. There’s much more to come…



Sustainable Development from Rwanda to Uganda

We’re in Uganda now, after one night in Kampala and a four hour plus bus ride to the town of Mbale. Before I report on Uganda, tho, I want to write about our final visit in Rwanda: a stop at the Millennium Village Project in Bugasera (which is in the same district as the Nyamata genocide site we visited last week). MVP is the product of the United Nations and has been piloted in several locations throughout the developing world with the aim of helping communities reach the UN Millennium Goals.

The MVP in Rwanda presents an extremely impressive model of community development. We visited a district primary school – that’s me and Rich Katz above with some of the students. We visited on the last day of school (the young girl to my right is holding her report card). We also visited an MVP health clinic and a women’s craft cooperative that is helping to build economic capacity for the area. (That’s Rhonda Stein below, learning basket weaving from one of the coop members).

Our first stop in Uganda was along similar lines. Uganda Crafts in Kampala is a Fair Trade org that creates and sustains jobs for the disadvantaged throughout Uganda, Kenya and the Congo – employing women, the disabled, orphans, and people living with HIV. Before visiting the shop, we sat with Betty and Rose, who help run the project and described its genesis and evolution in depth. On the right is Lauren Parnell, who will be working with Uganda Crafts for the coming year and is our guide (with her husband John) for the rest of our sojourn in Uganda. We met Lauren through her work in Chicago with the Interfaith Youth Core.

We have a full day tomorrow. Stay tuned…


We Are Strong, We Are Healthy, We Are Fine…

The highlight of our Sunday was a visit to the Islamic Center in Nyamyrambo, where we visited with the WE-ACTx children’s program. The young people from our group had already spent the morning with the WE-ACTx young people (above) while the adults went to visit with Mardge Cohen and several interns at their home in Centre Ville, Kigali.

When we caught up with the kids later on in the afternoon, they were all having a fabulous time at the Islamic Center field, playing Frisbee and soccer with joyful abandon. We joined them with a handful of hula hoops that Elaine and Kelsey Waxman had brought along. Aduts and kids alike proceeded to play together for over an hour before the WE-ACTx children’s program put on a special presentation they had prepared for us.

The children’s program is directed by a remarkable young man named Bertin Mulinda Shambo (bottom pic, in the yellow shirt) who guided it from a handful of kids to over 250. Virtually all of the children are either infected with HIV or have been orphaned by the AIDS pandemic. Bertin explained to us how many of these children originally came to WE-ACTx: angry and profoundly bitter about their fates. Seeing these engaged and confident children today, you would never even dream that they were living with HIV/AIDS. As one teenager from the program told our group, “We are strong, we are healthy, we are fine.”

At the presentation, we were graciously welcomed and treated to a girls’ dance performance. Our group reciprocated with the skills of JRCs teenage members Aaron Nachsin (juggling above) and Kelsey Waxman (hoop dancing). We stayed and visited with one another for hours afterwards, several of us enjoying a marathon (and steadily growing) game of volleyball.

Moday was our day to sample a bit of the natural beauty of Rwanda. One half of our group went gorilla trekking at Virunga National Park while the rest of us went on a brief safari to the Akagera National Park in the South Eastern part of the country where had seemingly endless interactions wtih impala, hippos, giraffes, and baboons. After lunch, our group visited the hospital run by the venerable Partners in Health – a state of the art community-based hospital founded by Paul Farmer. It was, as expected, beyond impressive – especially after our experience in Kigali’s public hospital.

Tomorrow is our last day in Rwanda and then we’re off to Uganda. I’m all too mindful that I’ve only scratched the surface with these posts – there’s so much more to say and so many more in our group that have stories to tell. Suffice to say we’ll all miss this beautiful country and its amazing people…


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