Category Archives: Uganda

Harvesting Peace

As promised, we went to the Abayudayah Jewish community on Shabbat morning for services. It was actually a fairly auspicious time to be visiting: last week their new spiritual leader, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, was formally installed in his home community. Rabbi Gershom has been studying for the past several years at the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles and his return to Uganda has been a much-anticipated and long-awaited moment. By all reports, his installation was a major event, attended by many leaders from the American Jewish community as well as throngs of Ugandan Jews.

To judge from our experience, Rabbi Sizomu has clearly settled comfortably into his new role. He presided a lovely service together with other members of the commumity (including JJ Keki, who led us in some rousing Ugandan-style Psalms). Also attending the service was Rabbi Jerome Epstein, Executive VP of United Synagogue, who was there to dedicate new Beit Midrash (House of Learning) that the Conservative movement had funded for them. After the service we shared oneg and lunch with the Abayudayah before heading back to Mbale for some Shabbat R&R. (Sorry no pix of this visit – Shabbas after all…)

On Sunday morning we completed our interfaith “hat trick” by attending church services at the Namanyoni Anglican Church (that’s me below with the head of the church – and Peace Kawomera board member – Stephen Kabala). Just as at the Nankusi mosque on Friday, we were received with welcome and graciousness, especially as they did not have much advance notice of our visit. After the service, they greeted us with the now obligatory speeches, and I had the opportunity to lead the congregation in an impromptu Bible Study of the Jewish weekly portion.

We have been so impressed all week at the deep level of interfaith cooperation and support in Uganda. I made a point of telling our new friends, quite from the heart, that they are true teachers; that we in the United States and the West have not yet learned how to live the way they do here.

After lunch we were back with our good friends at the Peace Kawomera coop, for a better look at their operations. The coop is clearly on the verge of reaching a new level of viability. They are currently building an impressive new warehouse/office facility and thanks to a USAID grant, they have recently acquired a new high-powered pulping machine for use by all of the farmers in the coop (below). Up until this point, farmers have been pulping the beans by hand. (More in this in my next post).

We ended our day by helping JJ with the coffee harvest (top pic). We set out over the hillside, scouring the plants for the red beans, which are just now beginning to emerge (the height of the season will occur this September). It really was a thrill, especially for those of us at JRC, who have been selling and drinking Mirembe Kawomera for years.

In my next post I’ll report on the process by which the harvested beans are pulped, dryed, cleaned, and milled before they set out for the US to be roasted and distributed. It truly takes a community working together to produce a cup or fair trade coffee…

PS: Tomorrow we drive back to Kampala to begin our journey home.

On Coffee and Coexistence

That man in the picture above is JJ Keki – Ugandan farmer, musician, fair trade entrepreneur, local politician and interfaith activist (I’m sure I’m missing several more job descriptions…) JRC has gotten to know JJ well over the years through our our relationship to the Peace Kawomera interfaith fair trade coffee cooperative. JJ (a Ugandan Jew) is a co-founder of the coop along with Elias Hasulube (with JJ below) a Muslim farmer. The coop includes the participation of 705 Ugandan Jewish, Muslim and Christian farmers – and is an unprecedented example of interfaith cooperation in support of fair trade and sustainable development.

On Friday morning our group split up once again: the medical providers volunteered at the FDNC clinic and the rest of us spent our day with the folks from Peace Kawomera. We met first at the coop office (located in the Namayonyi Sub-County) with Elias, who serves as their fair trade and organic certification expert, and their financial secretary Kakaire Hatube. Joining us as well was John Bosco Birenge, and agriculturist who was recently hired by the coop to help the farmers with organic farming skills.

The governance of the coop board is guided by impressively democratic standards. The board has seven members, which must include Muslim, Jewish and Christian reps. The farmers themselves directly elect the board and chairpeople, and the bylaws require that there be an equal number of women, youth and elders represented. Their adherence to organic and shade grown agriculture as well as fair trade/sustainable development values is equally as strong. This is clearly a farming community that cares deeply about the principles by which they work and live. (Below: some JRCers outside the coop office)

After meeting with the coop staff, we took a short ride out to JJ’s home, where he gave us a personal tour of his coffee farm. Coffee growing is a difficult and fragile art form: it takes the plant three full years to grow from planting to harvest and any number of factors can compromise the quality of the beans along the way. Last year, in fact, the coop sustained a net financial loss because of heavy rains (as well as the fluctuation of the American dollar). Agriculturist John Bosco was hired by the coop largely for this reason: to help the farmers with important tips on how to improve their quality and yield.

JJ’s farm is set on the slope of a lush, gorgeous Ugandan hillside The farm includes a variety of crops: along the way we saw the coffee plants nestled among guava, papaya, banana, avocado, casava and much more. JJ commented that this is why he believes coffee promotes peace: because it thrives best when it coexists next to other kinds of plants. (The picture below shows a coffee plant coexisting with a banana tree).

I’ve written extensively about Mirembe on this blog – largely because I have just been so inspired by the example they set for us. I truly believe that the folks at this modest coop in Uganda are, in their way, showing the rest of the world how to live. If you are a coffee drinker, I encourage you to support their efforts – Miremebe Kawomera is roasted, distributed and marketed by Thanksgiving Coffee and for every bag they sell, one dollar goes back to the coop. Moreover, the coop’s fair trade social premiums support their community development efforts (which includes the Nankusi Primary School that we will visit on Monday).

We’re going to return to JJ’s farm on Sunday to pick coffee – but in the meantime, we were able to do our part by donating a new laptop to the coop. Up until now, they have kept their financials on a hand-written ledger. In the pic below you can see JRC members Rich Katz and Beth Lange giving Kakaire and John Bosco a tutorial on Excel spreadsheets. We all hope this will provide a much-needed boost to their office support.

In keeping with the spirit of interfaith coexistence, we visited the nearby Nankusi Mosque for Sabbath services after lunch. We were received by the Muslim community with incredible graciousness; we brought them welcome and blessings from the Jewish community and I offered a brief D’var Torah for the occasion. Afterwards, virtually every member of the community came up to us, shook our hands, and wished us “Salaam Aleikum.” (The pic below shows Hannah Gelder with Elaine and Kelsey Waxman outfitted in their hijabs for the occasion).

We’ll be attending the Abayudayah Ugandan Jewish community for Shabbat morning services on Saturday as well as a local Anglican Christian Church this Sunday. (I like to call this the Interfaith Sabbath Hat Trick…)

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…

JRC in Africa

Tomorrow I’ll be traveling, along with 25 other JRC members, on our congregation’s second service trip to Africa. I am immensely proud of JRC for organizing this effort, which reflects our deep and growing commitment to global service work in general and to addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic in particular.

From July 7- 15 we will be in Rwanda hosted by WE-ACTx, an important Kigali-based NGO that seeks to increase women’s and children’s access to HIV testing, care, treatment, education and care at the grassroots level. In particular, WE-ACTx has done inspirational work in helping survivors of genocidal rape and violence, focusing its efforts on empowering HIV-postive women and girls to take charge of their lives and become leaders in the fight against AIDS.

Our trip was inspired in large part through our congregation’s relationship with Dr. Mardge Cohen (above), a woman’s care specialist who worked for many years at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago and is one of the primary founders of WE-ACTx. Mardge is a longtime friend of JRC and was pivotal in helping us make the connection to Rwandan efforts to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We have learned a great deal from Mardge over the years and are thrilled that we will now have the opportunity to bear witness to her work. (Here’s a great, extensive Chicago Tribune article about Mardge and her efforts in Rwanda).

In addition to volunteering at the clinic in a variety of capacities, we will observe the work being done in Rwanda to heal from the very deep wounds of the 1994 genocide and learn about the ways in which Rwandan society continues to work to overcome tribal differences to create a viable future for their people.

From July 15-23, we will be in Uganda, visiting old friends we made from JRC’s last service trip in 2005. Our home base will be the town of Mbale and we will be volunteering once again with the Federation for the Development of Needy Communities – an NGO devoted to the sustainable development of communities in and around the rural area of Natandome. We will also visit the Mirembe Kowamera Jewish/Muslim/Christian Fair Trade Coffee Co-op with which JRC has partnered for many years. (We are hoping to be able to participate ourselves in the upcoming coffee harvest). Our itinerary will also include a Shabbat visit to the Abayudayah Ugandan Jewish community, with whom we also had the pleasure of visiting three years ago.

Among the many things that will make this trip so special is the significant participation of JRC’s young people (including my son Jonah). I am especially happy that they will have dedicated time to spend with young Rwandans (focusing, inevitably enough, on computer skills). All in all, it promises to be a memorable and powerful July. I plan to blog about our experiences as they occur so please plan to drop in and visit regularly over the next few weeks…

On Tutsis, Jews and Palestinians

I’m currently reading “A Thousand Hills” by historian Stephen Kinzer – a recently published bio of Rwandan president Paul Kagame. It’s an incredibly absorbing read, offering a history of the country and region as well as a portrait of a remarkable African leader who is spearheading Rwanda’s post-genocide rebirth against all odds.

Early on, Kinzer offers this fascinating insight about the Tutsis who were exiled from Rwanda by Belgian-backed Hutus in the late 1950s:

These Tutsi exiles, scattered across Africa, Europe, North America, and even Australia, may be the only group that has been regularly compared to both Jews and Palestinians. Like Jews, they prized education and seemed to succeed wherever they landed, despite the odds against them. Like Palestinians, they were condemned to eternal exile by a regime that hated and feared them. (p. 35)

I’d love to find more on this point, which I have never encountered before.

In the meantime, I highly recommend “Hills,” as well as Kinzer’s two previous books, “Overthrow” and “All the Shah’s Men” (which has recently been reprinted with a very timely new introduction).

An Interfaith Conversation on Fair Trade

Check out the Mirembe Kawomera blog for some interfaith musings on the meaning of Fair Trade, moderated by my friend Ben Corey-Moran at Thanksgiving Coffee. I was honored to provide the Jewish point of view, alongside Reverend Will Scott (of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco), Nyla Khan (a teacher at the Islamic Foundation School in West Chicago) and Reverend Anne Myosho Kyle Brown (of the Kumeido Zen Center in California).

Here’s an excerpt from my piece:

I find a great deal of spiritual power in this teaching: that the world becomes ours to enjoy only when we acknowledge that it really doesn’t belong to us. I also believe that this insight has profound implications for a world in which humanity too often claims exclusive proprietorship over its bounty – where increasingly powerful interests are claiming ownership over increasingly diminishing resources.

I sometimes find myself wondering, what would it mean for our global world economy if we truly took this teaching to heart: that none of it was ever really ours to begin with? One thing I do believe is that it would force us to confront the chronic sense of entitlement we have toward the earth’s resources. And I also believe it would give us a much deeper sensitivity to the process by which goods and services reach our door.

You may recall my earlier posts about Miremebe Kawomera the incredible Ugandan Jewish/Christian/Muslim Fair Trade Coffee cooperative with which JRC has partnered actively over the years. I’m excited to report that we will be visiting our good friends at the MK coop as part of JRC’s congregational service delegation to Rwanda/Uganda this July. Stay tuned for much more on this one!