Category Archives: HIV/AIDS

Rwandan Youth Ending Stigma

Our Sunday began with a visit with the leaders of the WE-ACTx “Peer Parent” program. Peer Parents were created in 2010 with the hope of creating youth leaders from within the ranks of WE-ACTx youth, creating constructed family units of children and young adults with HIV-AIDS who could provide bonding and support in nurturing group settings. There are currently 12 groups ranging in age from 10- 15 – there are also some groups for younger adults from 24-30 as well.

The Peer Parents themselves are clinic patients at WE-ACTx as well, which gives them the ability to serve as very real role models for the children: healthy, strong young adults who can can their trust, educate them on the importance of taking their ARV meds, and give them hope about their future. The Peer Parents are truly an impressive community unto themselves – smart, charismatic young people with remarkable leadership skills and sensitive understanding of how to live with a serious chronic illness with dignity and purpose.

Since it was Sunday, we meet with all the Peer Parents for their “Supervision Sunday” session, which they devoted wholly to a discussion with our group.  Each of them spoke with us openly and honestly about the challenges and joys of being a “parent” to their “families” – helping them to open up about issues such as stress, depression, family issues, drug abuse, and the importance of taking their meds regularly.

Our session ended with the Peer Parents leading us all in a group game similar to the one we did on the previous day. In my previous post, I referred to the “power of silly games.” I know now they were much more than that. These kinds of exercises built trust, skill, self esteem, and most of all, I think, as sense of safety in a group that becomes an important surrogate family for many of these children.

After lunch we visited Islamic Center in Nyamyrambo, (one of the sites we visited four years ago) where WE-ACTx rents the extensive grounds for many of their ongoing youth programs. We brought along forty yoga mats that we brought from home, as WE-ACTx has recently began a successful youth yoga program, Project Air. Due to a shortage of mats, the younger children could only do standing poses – so our arrival with forty five mats occasioned no small excitement among the children.

They watched as we laid them down in rows; when we were done, they lept on them as if they were jumping into swimming pools. They then were led in a fabulous yoga session by Joseph (top clip) a Peer Parent and extremely talented youth yoga teacher, who clearly knew how to make yoga real and fun for young children.  It was almost as much fun for us to watch – especially knowing that many of the kids were clearly relishing the opportunity to show off their skills for their guests.

Immediately afterward, our group met with several of the Peer Parents who were part of self-created support/awareness group called YES (“Youth Ending Stigma”).  Because of their common experience of HIV/AIDS, these young people have experienced all too often the stigmas associated with this disease in Rwandan society. They formed YES in order to give support and strength to one another and to raise awareness as role models of healthy living with HIV.  They are also collaborating to write about their personal experiences in a narrative project in a work-in-progress book that they hope will demystify the issues around HIV-AIDS through personal testimony. (In the pic above: Peer Parent and YES  member Aime, who himself was once a part of the WE-ACTx youth program.)

I can’t say enough about these young leaders, possessed of formidable skills attained against all odds, now mentoring the children of their own community. As is sadly the case in so many communities throughout the US, I can only begin to imagine how far they’d go in applying their gifts if they lived a society that afforded them greater opportunities.  In the meantime, they’re making a very real and transformative difference, child, by child, here in Rwanda. And that in itself is truly an inspiration.

Below, two more amazing people who truly inspire us: WE-ACTX’s Mardge Cohen (Left) and Mary Fabri (right).


From Joy to Sorrow and Back Again

Thte first part of our day was spent at the WE-ACTx Nyaconga center outside Kigali. Among other things, this site is used for a new peer youth program called “Peer Parenting” in which older children work with the younger children of the area – almost all of the orphans and either infected or affected by HIV-AIDS.

Mary Fabri told me that before WE-ACTx started working with the kids of Nyaconga, the children were obviously listless and outwardly depressed. This description certainly did not square with our experience of them yesterday. We spent the better part of the morning with them playing organized group games led by two youth teens – amazingly charismatic and talented team leader “peer parents.” One of the games seemed to be a Rwandan version of “Duck, Duck Goose.” Another bore a striking resemblance to the Israeli folk dance “”Yesh Lanu Tayesh.”

By the end, we were fairly exhausted (the adults anyways) but thoroughly enjoying each others’ company. (See pic above).  I’ll never again underestimate the power of silly fun to bond people t0gether instantaneously. More importantly,  I think it was an important testimony to the power of medicine (in this case, life-saving ARVs) along with community/leadership development to realize a more holistic vision of healing.

Another unexpected treat of the visit: we got to see a lovely mosaic at the center created by girls who participated in a WE-ACTx exchange project that brought teenagers from Rwanda to Chicago and girls from Chicago Freedom School to Rwanda. This mosaic (see detail above) was one of their joint projects. Note the Chicago skyline on the bottom left corner!

After lunch we made a return visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre (above), which serves as Rwanda’s national genocide museum and memorial. Like my last visit, I found it to be one of the most powerful museums of its kind. It doesn’t have the technical bells and whistles of more contemporary museums, but simply tells the story with straightforward simplicity, punctuated by video testimonies of survivors. I’ve always been moved and impressed that it contains one entire floor dedicated to other genocides throughout human history – a necessary statement that no one’s pain is disconnected from another.

The Centre is also the site of a mass grave of 250,000 who were slain during the genocide which, of course, makes it much more that a simple museum – it is truly sacred ground. It was the first real connection to the genocide for our group on the trip – needless to say, an enormously difficult – if important – part of our visit.

But as is often the case in Rwanda, we went from joy to sorrow, and back to joy again.  After the Centre visit, we decided to swing by the art studio of William, the young man who directed the mural project at the WE-ACTx offices yesterday. He had told us if we had time, he’d love to show us his work.

While we expected a modest one-man art studio, we were delighted, upon arrival, to discover that William was part of the Ivuka Arts Center – a collective of seventeen artists that provides a home for work and sponsors art and dance workshop for Rwandan youth in the community.

While we were at Ivuka, we had the opportunity to see several of the artists in action and viewed much of their work.  Coming here directly from the genocide center, I was particularly struck that none of the art directly evoked the pain of Rwanda’s recent history. Rather, there was an obvious pride and joy in Rwandan identity and culture. Given the high quality of the art, were particularly amazed to learn that these artists are largely self taught.  Clearly, this is much more than an artists collective. Quite by chance, we happened upon another inspiring Rwandan community development project!

From the Ivuka website:

Since its inception in 2007, Ivuka has become the face of Rwandan art to both the national and international communities alike. In the last 2 years Ivuka has become the most sought-after fine arts destination for expatriates and diplomats in Rwanda. Yet despite this incredible success, Ivuka Arts Founder and Director Collin Sekajugo still envisions the studio primarily as a place where art is used to change lives.

Through Ivuka’s mentoring program, artists who formerly struggled to make a living are honing their skills, finding platforms for exposure, and gaining name recognition. Children who formerly begged on the streets are finding hope and educational opportunities through RwaMakondera, Ivuka’s traditional dance troupe.

In a very real sense, Ivuka has become more than “The Rebirth of Contemporary Rwandan Art”.  It has become the start of a bright new life for each person it touches.

We spend a wonderful few hours at Ivuka, which also included significant art purchases and extended playing with Rwandan children who had been attending a workshop. Below is a picture  of our friend William (white shirt, fifth from right) and Emanuel (black shirt, left), who is a central leader of Ivuka and its programs.

Sometimes, the most remarkable experiences on your journey are the ones that aren’t on the itinerary…

Back in Kigali with WE-ACTx

Our first full day in Rwanda was spent at the offices of our good friends at WE-ACTx in Kigali. I’ve written extensively about this amazing organization and it’s been wonderful to see the growth and success that they’ve accomplished in the past four years since we’ve been here.

The overall AIDS rate in Rwanda is currently at 3% – with lower numbers in rural areas and higher levels in urban centers.  Generally the emphasis is shifting from direct treatment to maintenance (health workers making  sure folks are taking their meds) and AIDS education and awareness, trauma treatment, and an expanded youth program.  WE-ACT-x has grown to the point now that former youth participants are no working as counselors and a new youth yoga program is meeting with great success. (Among the things we brought over with us from Chicago: 30+ yoga mats…)

We spent the day at the WE-ACTx office volunteering: sorting meds (that’s out teenage contingent above showing off their handiwork) and helping to paint a colorful mural in a new youth library (next down) Also engaged in some very interesting conversations with workers and locals about the complex realities of Rwanda post-genocide. More on that later.

Today, more quality time with WE-ACTx and a return visit to the Kigali genocide museum. Stay tuned.

Coming Soon: Return to Rwanda

With fellow delegation particiant Hannah Gelder and the children of the Amahoro youth program (supported by CHABHA)

For the next two weeks I’ll be blogging from Rwanda where, I will be joining fifteen other participants in JRC’s third service delegation to Africa.  We’re returning to visit and volunteer with our good friends at WE-ACTx, a visionary NGO that works to increase women’s and children’s access to HIV testing, care, treatment, support, education and training throughout Rwanda. We’ll also spend time with CHABHA, another important NGO that funds and supports orphans and other children affected by HIV/AIDS in Rwanda and Burundi.

You may remember that our last trip included a visit to an infamous massacre site as well as conversations with individuals who briefed us on the latest efforts to heal Rwandan society in the wake of the devastating 1994 genocide.  While it has not been a straight path (nor has it ever been) I do believe that the Rwandan example has much to teach the world about how to move past tribal enmity and the tragic legacy of colonialism.

I’m particularly thrilled that this time around our group will include six teenagers, who will be spending significant time with Rwanda youth programs supported by WE-ACTx and CHABHA. As a father of a teenager who attended our last African delegation, I can personally attest that these kinds of service trips can be genuinely life-changing experiences for young people.

As before, I’ll be posting regularly about our experiences If you’d like to read my posts from our last delegation, go to the Categories drop-down menu on the right and click on “JRC Africa Trip 2008.” Reading through these posts brought back some powerful memories for me and I’m eager to create new ones on our most current trip.

Stay tuned!

A Rabbi Dad Kvells!

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It’s Mazel Tov time. This past Shabbat, our family celebrated our son Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah with our family, friends and incredible congregational community. A joyous kvell-o-rama!

As you may remember from earlier blog posts, Jonah attended JRC’s congregational trip to Rwanda/Uganda this past summer. In honor of his Bar Mitzvah, he’s been selling Mirembe Kawomera coffee every week at our congregation and he’s also raising money for our Fair Trade fund to help the Mirembe farmers with their capacity building. If you’d like to share in our naches, buy coffee!

Click below for some remarks from Jonah:

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The Season of our Sustenance: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah

As I sat down to write my sermons this New Year, I somehow found myself returning to the theme of “sustainability.”  Click below for my remarks on Erev Rosh Hashanah:

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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…