Category Archives: Africa

Coaxing Dignity Out of Despair

On Thursday we shifted our volunteer efforts to CHABHA (“Children Affected by HIV/AIDS), an international NGO that supports grassroots projects in Rwanda and Burundi that care for orphans and other children affected by HIV/AIDS. In Rwanda, CHABHA works with three neighborhood organizations: AMOHORO, which is located in in Kucyiru, Kigali, AGAPE, in Kicukiro, Kigali, and AJESOV in Nyamata (about an hour south of Kigali).

On Thursday morning we first met with the remarkable CHABHA staff: Executive Director David Loewenguth (above right), Coordinator of Associations Micheleine Umulisa (above left), and Patrick Nimubona, who coordinates the Bright Future Program for CHABHA. Bright Future International is an independent NGO that serves underprivileged children around the world. BFI partners with CHABHA, who provides the children for their programs in Rwanda. (Untangling the enormously complicated international NGO/local organization partnerships has been a popular subject of conversation on our bus rides…)

One of CHABHA’s most important functions is to accompany association workers on their regular home visits to the families they support. These visits help CHABHA and local association staff to track the status, needs and conditions of these households – on a deeper level, they clearly enable workers to establish deep and lasting relationships with those they are serving. In some ways it seemed to me that these regular connections provided nothing short of a spiritual life line to these families.

For our first series of home visits, we traveled to the AGAPE association in the Kicukiro district of Kigali and and accompanied CHABHA staff person Micheleine (above left), AGAPE administrative assistant Anna-Marie (middle) and AGAPE worker Grace (right). It’s hard to describe the emotional impact these home visits had upon us – and we’re still having a hard time sorting through the intensity of visiting these families, home after home.

On our first stop, we visited a single mother of four. Her home, like almost all the homes we visited, was made of mud brick. She welcomed us graciously and our group crowded in her small, very dark living area. Her home only had one other room – a smaller bedroom area separated from us by a curtain. Anna-Marie spoke with her and Micheleine interpreted for us.

The mother and her children were all HIV positive. For her regular job, she washed clothes for her neighbors, but at the moment she was too ill to work and as a result, she has no food to feed her children. (Malnutrition is a huge problem for individual with HIV/AIDS because the ARV medications do not work if they are not taken with food.) She also told us that she used to have some rabbits (that CHABHA supplies to be raised, bred and sold for food) but they were recently stolen.

We were overwhelmed with the enormity this mother’s despair. At the same time I couldn’t help but be struck by her innate sense of dignity. Though she was clearly feeling unwell, she was deeply gracious to us and obviously wanted us feel welcome in her home. At the end of our meeting, Anna-Marie said a prayer for her and her family in Kinyarwanda. I asked if I could say a short prayer for her in Hebrew; Anna-Marie said of course. After I concluded a Mishabeirach (Jewish prayer for healing), the mother then offered a prayer for us.

We five more homes before we finished. By the end, we were overcome by familial circumstances more dire than any of us could ever comprehend. While it sometimes felt as if the support offered was but a drop in the bucket of in terms of their sheer need, by the end we came to realize that NGOs such as CHABHA and local neighborhood associations such as AGAPE are the real front line heroes in addressing the scourge of extreme poverty. Anne-Marie, for instance, is far more than a neighborhood association worker – she is clearly is a spiritual matriarchal figure for the families of AGAPE.

There are many more similarly powerful stories I could tell about out myriad of CHABHA home visits that we made between Thursday and Saturday and I hope perhaps I’ll try to add one or two more before I’m through blogging our trip. (One postscript about our first visit: at the end of the day, we returned to the CHABHA office. When we told David about the mother’s situation. He said that in extreme cases like this – i.e., in which families were unable to feed themselves – CHABHA workers revisited immediately with emergency food provisions).

After lunch one of our groups visited an organic learning farm and agronomy class run by CHABHA in partnership with (yes, yet another international NGO), Gardens for Health. The garden and class were located at a school on the edge of Kigali. Getting to the site was an adventure in itself, bouncing up and down in a truck up and down a winding rutted road until we reached the school in the Bumbogo district.

We met with Samuel, the agronomy teacher, who showed us their learning garden (above), which was lined with rows of beets, cabbage and carrots. The ground was dry and rocky, but the crops appeared quite lush. Samuel (back row, middle) said that as part of their organic farming curriculum they raise local livestock and use the manure for composting. Though few of these children have much land to speak of at their homes, the intention is for them to take this knowledge and cultivate kitchen gardens for food and income generation in their communities.

We then went into the school yard with Samuel to sit in on the class. (It took some time getting there as school was just letting out and we were immediately engulfed by excited young students. By the time we got to the class, Samuel had just started the lesson, the subject of which was eggplant. (One student explained to us that there are two kinds of eggplant – and that in Rwanda they grow the smaller kind for local consumption and the larger purple kind for export.)

Samuel shared their very extensive agronomy curriculum with us, after which the students introduced themselves to us one by one. More than a few explained that they were taking this class to help their communities with their new-found skills. We were then asked to introduce ourselves to the class – and asked to mention our favorite vegetable. (Elaine: swiss chard, Rich: cabbage, Me: tomatoes).

During Q &A, Rich Katz, ever the passionate Middle School teacher, asked the students too divide up into four groups and decide among themselves what they thought were the most effective methods for retaining moisture in earth after watering. (One boy looked at me, smiled, and said “No problem!”) They came up with a variety of spot on answer: spreading leaves next to the crops, using plastic, using drip irrigation, etc. By far our favorite Q &A moment occurred when they were asking us questions. One boy, maybe thirteen or fourteen asked Liora if she was single. As you might expect, hilarity immediately ensued.

While we were in Mubogo, the other half of our group stayed at the CHABHA office, where they sat in on classes with Project Independence, CHABHA’s after school vocational training program. Another smaller group went back to Nyaconga, to put the finishing touches on the WE-ACTx jewelry coop space. There was, needless to say, much to share around the dinner table on Thursday night.

Friday morning, we’re visiting AJESOV, another CHABHA-supported association located in Nyamata. On the way we will be visiting two well-known genocide sites that are now maintained as memorials. More on this in my next post.

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.

Creative Women’s Empowerment in Rwanda


Tuesday began with another return visit: this time to the Ineza Woman’s Sewing Cooperative in the Ramera district of Kigali. Ineza was founded in 2006 by WE-ACTx, who helped group of women with ten sewing machines to create an income generation project for their community.  They were initially supported by WE-ACTx, who helped connect them with the Latin School in Chicago and eventually Ineza dolls were sold at (of all places) the swanky Barney’s store in Chicago’s Gold Coast for $50.00 to $100.00 a piece.


Now a thriving women’s craft cooperative, Ineza sews a variety of items out of beautiful African textiles, including handbags, clothing, laptop cases, wallets, etc. They have now grown to the point where they are financially independent of WE-ACTx and maintains their own bank account. Their gorgeous merchandise has also become available via the internet through Manos de Madres, so as soon as you finish reading this post you should check them out and buy their products.

After lunch, the youth members of our delegation joined the young people of the WE-ACTx youth program for the afternoon while the rest of us volunteered at another WE-ACTx  income generation project – a new women’s jewelery cooperative in Nyaconga (below).

The women of Nyaconga make lovely glass beaded bracelets as well as recycled paper necklaces and earrings. Right now their work space and showroom is located in a large drab space that does little to show off their beautiful work.  So with the help of our new artist friend William (who designed the mural painted last Friday at the WE-ACTx children’s library) we were mobilized to paint the walls of the space in colorful shades of light purple, pink, green and yellow (below).

I have to say we’re getting pretty good at painting – and it’s been enormously satisfying to help support these economic empowerment efforts in this way.  Four of us will return to the showroom on Thursday to finish assembling the showcase and arrange the large amounts of jewelry inside.

Our teenagers reported that they had an amazing, joyful afternoon with the WE-ACTx young people. I’m going to try to coax one or more of them to write guest posts about their experiences. Stay tuned…

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!

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.

Libya and the “Never Again” Doctrine

I’ve always believed that in the wake of the Holocaust, the popular Jewish imperative “Never Again” shouldn’t just apply exclusively to Jews, but to all peoples everywhere.  While it might come out of our particular experience, it must be considered a universal imperative. Since we Jews know first hand about such things, never again can we remain silent when any people’s existence is threatened by murderous regimes.

To be completely fair, however, it’s easy enough to determine to not stand idly by in the face of government-sponsored brutality – but it’s quite another to determine what in fact should be done.  Our current military operations in Libya provide the perfect case in point.

Among the many pieces I’ve read on these horrible developments, I was interested to learn that Ban Ki-Moon had in fact invoked “Never Again” while discussing Libya during a recent tour of the US Holocaust Museum. And it was extremely significant to me to learn that National Security Advisor Samantha Powers – an eloquent voice of conscience on the subject of genocide – was among those who urged Obama to support military action against the Kadaffi regime.

However, while I do indeed believe in “Never Again,” and while it has been increasingly agonizing to read the tragic reports coming out of Libya, I must reluctantly admit I do not support our military operations there.

First, and probably foremost, whatever is happening in Libya, it is not close to the scale of a genocide. If that sounds overly crass, it is worth asking why we are eager to engage militarily with Libya yet have chosen not to act on behalf of Cote D’Ivoire, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or any number of other countries whose governments are committing atrocities that are no less brutal than Kadaffi’s (and in some cases more so.)

On this point, Israeli journalist Yael Lavie comes to a fairly blunt conclusion:

Call me a cynic, call me a product of the Middle East or better yet a citizen of this region who witnessed the outcome of western intervention over the course of the last 20 years – but the war that has just begun is not just. It is not being waged to stop the Libyan people from being killed. If that were the case we can name many ongoing genocides around the world, such as the decade long holocaust in the Sudan, where no western UN resolution motivated military action has ever been taken and ask why now?

As it stands right now we may be facing another attempt by the west for enforcing regime change in the Middle East with the usual western personal agenda – the agenda of oil. There is one thing recent history has proven to us time and time again – Where there is no oil, there is no intervention.

Even if one doesn’t share Lavie’s level of cynicism, we’d do well to ask whether or not it’s our place to engage militarily with every oppressive regime around the world.  Especially given our recent history of military regime change with Muslim nations, our operations in Libya might at least give us cause for concern.

As for me, I believe it is profoundly ill-advised for our country to pursue yet another war against an Arab country. While it is true that the Arab League voted to back a no-fly zone, that support is already waning now that air strikes are killing Libyan civilians.  Make no mistake: we are now waging war in Libya.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, as usual, hit this point right on the head on the eve of the UN Security Council vote:

While the action is billed as protecting the civilians of Libya, a no-fly-zone begins with an attack on the air defenses of Libya and Qaddafi forces. It is an act of war. The president made statements which attempt to minimize U.S. action, but U.S. planes may drop U.S. bombs and U.S. missiles may be involved in striking another sovereign nation. War from the air is still war…

The last thing we need is to be embroiled in yet another intervention in another Muslim country. The American people have had enough. First it was Afghanistan, then Iraq. Then bombs began to fall in Pakistan, then Yemen, and soon it seems bombs could be falling in Libya. Our nation simply cannot afford another war, economically, diplomatically or spiritually.

None of this is meant to diminish the sacrosanct imperative of “Never Again.” But beyond the moral absolutes there are difficult and painful questions we must face when confronted with human rights abusing nations: when should we deem it necessary to authorize the use of military force? Why are we compelled to act in some cases but not others? To what extent are our decisions motivated less by need than by national self-interest?

I’ll give the final word to a recent Nation editorial:

(There) is a worrying dimension to this intervention, in that it reflects a mindset that associates US foreign policy, whether alone or as part of an allied force, with heroic crusades to bring down the bad guys. But it is exactly that mindset that has done so much damage in the Middle East over the years and that has saddled us with the costly burdens of two ongoing wars in Muslim lands. And Washington’s support for military action in Libya, on avowedly humanitarian grounds, should call into question ever more sharply the cynical American acquiescence in brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain.

The democratic awakening in the Arab world presents the United States with an opportunity to put that past behind us. It offers us a chance to align our interests with democratic change and economic progress. It would be a tragedy if we allowed the intervention in Libya to distract us from these difficult and important challenges. We need to deal with longstanding allies like Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which continue to resist democratic reforms—and to help the Egyptian people consolidate democracy and create jobs and economic opportunity. The most productive role for America in the Middle East today is diplomatic and economic, not military.

Interfaith Jamming the the Desert!

Just learned that the great alt-Jewish band The Sway Machinery, recently played at “Le Festival au Désert” – an amazing international music festival held annually in the Sahara desert near Timbuktu, Mali. Apparently, SM played before a largely Muslim audience and performed with several local African musicians as well. Click above for a taste.

Afro-pop Worldwide:

Koudede was followed by Sway Machinery’s own set.  They were strong and energetic.  They brought the audience into their groove within seconds.  While (band leader Jeremiah) Lockwood sang singing in Hebrew, the Muslim crowd respected the music and showed its appreciation by dancing along.  Haira Arby joined the group for their final song and showed once again her mastery of music.  She was immediately in the groove and brought her own authenticity to the number.

The Sway Machinery website reports:

In an unprecedented act of intercultural exchange, underground rock cult favorites and iconoclastic champions of historic Jewish music traditions, The Sway Machinery, have been invited to perform at The Festival of the Desert in Esekane, Mali, in the depths of the Sahara Desert this January. The Sway Machinery will bring its unique vision of Jewish Spiritual Music traditions to the heart of Islamic Africa, performing for an audience of thousands!

While in Mali, The Sway Machinery will record a new album, featuring collaborations with stars of the Malian music world. A documentary film about this journey is also in the making!

“The Sway Machinery Pilgrimage, as they have entitled their Africa project, is a beautiful example for the world of the great role artists can play in building bridges of love and understanding between cultures. This project is of clear importance in establishing new and positive images of Jews and Muslims engaging with each other”  (Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Chairman, Cordoba Initiative).