Category Archives: JRC Africa Trip 2008

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…

Guest Posts from Rwanda

There have been several instances on this trip in which smaller groups have opted for side trips separate from our main itinerary. I’ve asked two participants to share their experiences with you – our first report comes from JRC member Rich Katz, who visited a Rwandan organic farm with fellow JRC’ers Ray Grossman and Jonathan Nachsin (above). Here’s Rich’s report:

“It’s Milk – Not Meat”

One of the best examples of a grass-roots effort to improve the lives of poor and low-income families and individuals in Ruanda the work of Richard Munyerango, the Managing Director of the GAKO Organic Farming Training Center just outside of Kigali. We first met Richard when he participated in the Earth Box training session we conducted at the Remera Center earlier in the week. At that time, he invited us to his farm and training center to see what he is doing to promote more nutritious diets for the people who cannot afford them.

The Center was started to help the widows of genocide and children who are heads of households, and it has expanded since. By working with local associations who suggest the names of participants, he invites eighty people at a time to his training center for a month to learn organic farming techniques.

It is his opinion that people will be able to reduce the expense of their medications if they eat better food, which they can grow locally without the use of expensive chemical fertilizers. In addition, he sends trainers to each province of Rwanda to work through the local health agencies to promote organic farming practices. Since its inception, the Center has trained over a thousand people all over the country.

Richard’s farm consists of two small plots of land, gently sloping down a verdant hillside. At the upper end, he has built a modern classroom building and two dormitories for men and women. We were most impressed, however, with the number of small demonstration/experimental earthen mounds that he developed, each of which is devoted to growing a particular fruit or vegetable. We saw mounds that were growing cabbages, leeks, strawberries, spinach, kale, peppers and so much more. There were also small areas devoted to growing corn and bananas.

At the lower end of the property, Richard has a demonstration project for training people how to use cow manure and other animal products to produce compost, which he uses to amend the clay soil that is so prevalent here in this part of Rwanda. It is this composed material that makes the mounds so productive. He derives the compost from cow manure (hence the title of my post).

We learned so much from Richard about his method of organic farming, and at the same time we were pleased to be able to help him better understand the process we use in the States (using earthworms to create compost). He appeared to be very interested and excited about the possibility of adding this practice to his already considerable the curriculum. We also mentioned the nascent practice in the US of developing farming co-ops to connect growers and buyers, so that the farmer has a reliable source of capital and owners/consumers have a reliable source of organic produce. All in all, this was a very valuable and mutually beneficial experience.

Our second report comes from Kelsey Waxman, who attended a yoga group (above) run by WE-ACTz at the Remera center while the rest of the group went to the Nyamata genocide site. She was joined by two other JRC members: her mother (and inspired trip organizer) Elaine along with Beth Lange.

Here’s an excerpt from Kelsey’s travel journal:

We were then dropped off a Remera again: me, Mom and Beth for the afternoon yoga class. We went out on the cement porch with ten women, all chatting giddily in Kinyarwanda. They all had on African print fabric yoga pants and there was much disputation about when to start.

Two women led the class through a basic primary Ashtanga set, and the women laughed, chatted and helped each other through the entire thing. It was apparent that some of them had done this before. Some were more flexible than anyone I’d ever practiced with.

After quite a few laughs, they asked us to teach them some poses. My mom, being an experienced yogi, led them through some crazy poses like pigeon, headstand and the boat. The faces of agony and hilarity some of the women made during the boat pose were so funny and the faces of the other women made those imitating them sent us all into giggle fits. More and more people came around and either watched or participated, laughing along with us,

It was the end of the class, during Shavasna, corpse pose. You’re supposed to be completely quiet…like a corpse, but everyone chatted like little girls through the entire ten minutes. It was so funny, everyone pouring through the doors, sharing laughs and yoga mats. After, Beth pulled out the camera and we took many, many pictures with our new yogi friends.

“Amahoro” Means Shalom

On Shabbat we began our day with a study and discussion of the Torah portion – the central themes of Parshat Pinchas (zealous violence and its complex aftermath) were uncannily appropriate to our experiences of the past few days.

The central experience of our Saturday was a visit to CHABHA (Children Affected By HIV/AIDS) – an NGO that supports youth-led initiatives serving children left vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. A myriad of local children turned out for our visit. CHABHA’s Rwanda director, Richard Mutabazi greeted us and welcomed us on behalf of the organization, and helped us to converse with the children. As has been the case everywhere we went, our presence in the town caused a great sensation: children sprinted up to us as their shouts of “Muzungu!” (“white people”) filled the air.

These particular children were part of a local youth-led initiative called Amahoro (“Peace” in Kiryawanda). Amahoro presents a remarkable model of young Rwandan leaders who support and educate children orphaned by AIDS. The AMAHORO Association now counts more than 2500 orphaned children, many of whom live with one parent or other family members.

By far the highlight of our visit was a dance performance by the children of AMAHORO. As we watched, transfixed, the girls went up to our group and invited us to join them. As I danced with one particularly gifted dancer, huge shouts of laughter went up from the crowd (and I don’t think they were responding to my dancing prowess…)

We had a similar experience in JRC’s last trip to Africa – I remember all too well how dancing can be the “great equalizer” for peoples from vastly different social contexts. I guess that is my fancy way of saying it was so wonderful to connect with these children in this joyous way, even for this brief moment in time.

PS: Another member of our group, Hannah Gelder (above), is blogging about our experiences as well. I encourage you to read her very eloquent personal impressions of JRC’s journey…

Kaddish at Nyamata

In my previous post I mentioned an emotional visit to Kigali’s public hospital – that actually doesn’t even begin to do justice to the intensity of our experience. Mardge Cohen arranged the visit for us, to give us a better sense of the Rwandan health care system. Until this visit, we had only seen privately funded clinics, not actual hospitals used by large numbers of Rwandans.

A local doctor gave us a tour of different wards, including the pediatric care unit. For privileged Westerners socialized who take a certain standard of medical care for granted, it was a sobering experience to say the least: beds crowded together, patients and family members thrown together in a jumble in decrepit room after room. Most of us like to talk about the ways our own American medical system is broken, but the brokenness of public health system in Rwanda is truly difficult to fathom. The public hospital doesn’t supply patients with food or bedding; these items must be provided by individual families. We also learned that when hospital stays are completed, patients are expected to pay in full. Unbelievably, those who cannot pay must stay in the hospital until they are able to pay their hospital bills.

Private medical insurance is available in Rwanda, but it is obviously beyond the means of most Rwandans. There is also a national system known as “Mutuelle,” which is less expensive, but the social safety net system here overall is close to non-existent. It’s just so overwhelming to see the sheer number of people holding on for dear life or simply falling through the cracks.

On Friday our group split up into groups. One visited a WE-ACTx supported maternity clinic in rural Nyacyonga and the rest of us accompanied WE-ACTx social workers on their home visits to families. Our group visited the home of Beatrice and her 14 year old daughter, Leontine, both of whom are infected with HIV. We visited with them for close to two hours, sharing our stories and learning as much as we were able about one another.

Beatrice was infected by her husband, who later died – and she passed the HIV on to Leontine when she was pregnant. With disarming frankness, Beatrice told about how angry and depressed Leontine became when she first learned how she contracted her illness. She was near suicidal when they discovered the children’s program at WE-ACTx. Today Beatrice is a happy and confident teenager and a leader in the program. (We’ll get to see her perform with the children’s dance troupe this Sunday).

Our final visit of the day was an excursion to Nyamata – a rural village which is home to an infamous genocide site. In April 1994, a mass of Tutsis attempted to find sanctuary inside the church. 2,000 were eventually slaughtered inside and 10,000 were killed in the surrounding area.

The inside of the church remains much as it was during the actual genocide – the sanctuary itself is filled with the bloodied and torn clothing of the victims. The basement of the church and an underground crypt outside essentially serve as mass graves, filled with row upon row of human skulls and bones.

Incongruously enough, as we emerged from the crypt, the air was filled with the joyous sounds of Afro-Pop filling the air. A local church was celebrating a “Festival of Hope” just down the road. For many of us, the paradox of the moment was just right: in a sense we were experiencing both the horror of recent Rwandan history as well as the hope of the Rwandan present.

Even so, the visit shook our group to the core. Before leaving for Kigali, we gathered together for Kaddish (above). During the drive back, the sun set over the green hilly countryside. Rwanda is just such a beautiful country in so many ways. Looking out at this gorgeous, tranquil landscape, it is impossible to comprehend the sheer hell that was unleashed just fourteen short years ago.

PS: Our visit to the Kigali Genocide Museum was featured on the Rwandan news yesterday…

A Legacy of Pain and Hope

Day 2 in Rwanda:

Our first two destinations were two local community associations that are supported by WE-ACTx. Icyuzuzo is an association of Rwandan widows located in the Nyamirambo district. Icyuzuzo (Kinyarwanda for “compliment” or “complete”) serves 5000 clients in the surrounding districts, sponsoring clincs, vocational training, HIV prevention education, palliative care and capacity building projects.

Upon our arrival, the doctors/nurses in our group (above, with Mardge Cohen, third from the right, Executive Director Eugene Twagirimana, right) and President Constance Kubwimana , sixth from the right). separated off to help provide care in the clinics while the children worked sorting medications. The rest of us met with Eugene and Constance (with me below) to learn more about their work with Icyuzuzo.

Among other things, we were sobered to learn about the growing income disparity in Rwanda. While the country outwardly appears to be economically rebounding since the 1994 genocide (Kigali is a clean, well-run and orderly city, and new construction abounds) most of the new growth comes from foreign investors – and very little of it is tricking down to the local population. NGOs such as Icyuzuzo are for the most part the only safety net available to the Rwandan poor. As is the case throughout much of the developing world, these grassroots institutions are stretched beyond the limit.

Our next stop was a capacity-building center in the Ramera neighborhood, to an association that produces beautiful fabric crafts. In addition to learning about the various services provided by the center, we had the opportunity to demonstrate a new and potentially exciting income-generation project. Before leaving Evanston, we purchased and packed thirty EarthBoxes – a relatively new growing process developed by commercial farmers, designed to grow a large number of crops in a relatively small space. (It was quite an adventure getting huge quantities of soil, plastic boxes and organic fertilizer through security at O’Hare!)

We brought and demonstrated the EarthBoxes at the behest of WE-ACTx; our visit was attended by several representatives from other local organizations and at least one government official (that’s JRC member Rich Katz explaing the process below). This project has real potential for local capacity building, particularly for WE-ACTx clients who do not own land. However there are clearly many variables and much will depend on the Rwandan’s ability to find local soil and substrate to replicate the process on an ongoing basis.

During this visit I had an interesting conversation with the director of counseling for WE-ACTx, who asked me how Jews continue live with the legacy of of genocide. I shared with her what studies have taught the Jewish communtity about second/third generation children of survivors and I shared a bit about the challenges of living with the darker aspects of our history. We talked about the ways the Rwandan experience is both similar and markedly different than the Jewish one. Obviously the wounds here are very fresh; and unlike the Jews of Europe, the goverment is committed to bringing all aspects of Rwandan society back together in one extremely small country.

Whether this will succeed over the long term or not is an open question. One woman who joined our conversation expressed her doubts – saying that while the political reconciliation is important, much of the underlying pain and hatred continues to simmer under the surface. How many generations does it take for this kind of pain to dissipate in a community? The Jewish people have been learning this for some time – Rwanda is now struggling with the tragic question as well.

Our final visit was a heartbreaking tour of Kigali’s Public Hospital. More on this in my next post…