Abayudaya Update '08: Wetzler's Trip Report

Abayudaya Update: Trip Report

I am happy to report on my recent trip as Kulanu Coordinator for Uganda.

Kulanu-Abayudaya Eco-Tourism Success

“The Jewish Life in Uganda Wildlife Safari and Mitzvah Tour,” a Kulanu-Abayudaya eco-tourism economic development project, is now in its sixth year providing tourism training and vital employment.

The annual Abayudaya Music & Dance Festival performances, exclusive to the tour, were the best ever. This project serves an important cultural function as it brings performing groups from each of the Abayudaya villages in a 70 mile radius (a rare occasion due to transport costs), to share dance, songs, and stories together. It also raises substantial funds for the community.

On safari, we spotted many giraffes, hippos, Nile crocs and elephants and we had a delightful and thrilling encounter with a lion and her three cubs from the safety of the open-topped safari vehicle.

Custom tours can be arranged and I hope you will consider a Jewish heritage trip to visit the Abayudaya with your family or synagogue. Or join us on our next annual mitzvah tour in January 2009.

Wonderful Abayudaya Leaders

Mazal tov to Rabbi Gershom for being ordained by the Conservative Movement. What a great accomplishment and a dream come true. As usual, Abayudaya leaders Chairman Israel Siriri, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Headmaster Aaron Kintu Moses, master farmers JJ Keki and Ruth Nabaigwa, Women’s Association Chair Naume Sabano, Abayudaya Medical Officer Samson Wamani, Youth Counselor Rebecca Nantabo, SKHS Headmaster Seth Yonadav, and others are doing an outstanding job working for progress in their community.

I feel very privileged to be a Kulanu volunteer working with these amazing leaders. We do an average of three meetings a day together during my annual 4-5-week trip, consulting, and doing monitoring and evaluation of Kulanu Abayudaya projects. I met with the Abayudaya Executive Committee, the education board, farmers, the micro-finance, tourism, craft, public health and youth committees, women’s association, embassy and city officials, Ugandan business leaders, and more. We do lots of strategic planning, brainstorming, and trouble-shooting together.

Building and Sustaining Two “Peace Schools”

Hadassah Primary School has had several major accomplishments this year. The first graduating seventh grade class to go through their entire primary education at the school took their national exams and passed well into high school. Mazal tov to Headmaster Aaron Kintu Moses, the teachers, and all the children and families! Not bad for a school that started seven years ago with one teacher and no money, under a tree! Thanks to the Estelle Friedman Gervis Family Foundation, a brand new dormitory has been completed at Hadassah Primary School to house the children from remote villages attending the only Shabbat-observant primary school in Uganda. Also completed is a new small primary school kitchen with sinks and running water (!), ventilated wood stove, and storage closet, thanks, again, to the enormous generosity of Estelle Friedman Gervis Family Foundation. This Foundation also funds our Child Hunger Program feeding 600 Jewish, Muslim and Christian children a day at both schools, our unique “Train the Trainer Public Health Education Program” out in the villages, and other school assistance. We cannot thank Barbara Gervis Lubran enough for these wonderful mitzvot.

Hadassah Primary School is not complete yet. To complete the building of this school the children need several more classrooms, one more dorm, a library room, and a small dining enclosure so the kids do not have to eat in the rain.

For both the Hadassah Primary School and Semei Kakungulu High School, ongoing operating support is just as important as the buildings to enable the Abayudaya to pay the dedicated young teaching staff and buy books. As of now, government schools are paying higher salaries than Abayudaya can afford. Their schools are losing good staff. We need a volunteer to lead a capital campaign and help secure an endowment to ensure success into the future. We are working on strategic planning, possibly including a business that will help subsidize the meager tuitions paid by the economically impoverished families of our students, but we need your help now. Please consider making a commitment to adopt these special schools that serve African Jewish, Muslim, and Christian children studying together in peace.

USAID Grant to Kulanu-Abayudaya Coffee Project

I was most excited to see our years of effort at the US Embassy come to fruition with a $32,000 grant from USAID to the Peace Kawomera Coffee Cooperative for construction of a small coffee pulping station. Pulping is one of several steps in coffee processing, washing the red pulpy fruit called the “cherry” from the parchment-covered “beans” which must be further dried and processed. The grant also includes extensive organic training to help increase crop productivity and quality control.

In addition, the farmer development rebate from the retail sale of each bag from the Thanksgiving Coffee Company provided the funds that allowed the farmers to buy their first piece of cooperative land, upon which the pulping station was built. Thank you, Thanksgiving Coffee! It was great working with JJ Keki and USAID trainer Mark Woods and co-op farmers in many days of budget meetings and field assessments. In addition, I led a tour with Aaron Kintu Moses, Seth Jonadav, and Israel Siriri for the director of USAID operations in Uganda, Margot Ellis, at her request, sharing the progress of the two Abayudaya schools and 20 Kulanu-Abayudaya projects. I also worked with JJ and cooperative coffee farmers on long-range planning.

In other coffee news, thanks to Rabbi Jeff Summit and Tufts University for honoring our ongoing interfaith coffee project with the Jean Mayer Global Citizens Award. It was wonderful to share this honor at the ceremony with co-creator JJ Keki and Delicious Peace Coffee Cooperative members visiting from Uganda, and our angels Paul and Joan Katzeff, Ben Corey Moran, and Holly Moskowitz of Thanksgiving Coffee. Please place your order at www.mirembekawomera.com for this fair trade, kosher, organic coffee now! Even better, form your own buying club and help us get it served in the synagogues, churches, and mosques in your area.

Anti-Poverty Agriculture Projects

In further farmer developments, we have been working on new poverty-fighting projects that will help those Abayudaya farmers living in the low lands of Busoga, 70 miles from Mbale, who cannot grow arabica coffee for our coffee project. Namutumba village is five miles off the main road and is the home to the most economically disadvantaged members of the Jewish community. We began with water catchment tanks, adult literacy projects, farmer development workshops, and highly successful pilot micro-finance small-business loan projects (that are sorely in need of additional funding.) This year we did several field trips and a workshop on the concept of “value adding” (fresh to dried fruit, fresh fruit to jam, peanuts to peanut butter, etc.) and sanitary food processing. We also toured professional processing plants in Uganda, following up on last year’s solar dried fruit field experiments on wooden drying trays purchased through a farmer development grant from Kulanu.

Over the past year, with the help of Kulanu, farmers created a business they call the Abayudaya Food Company, with a goal of growing, dry processing, packaging, and exporting the abundantly delicious pineapples, mangos, sweet bananas, and jack fruit grown in Uganda. This project will prepare dried fruit both for market, and for use in emergencies in economic hard times to provide family food security in the majority of Ugandan farmer homes without electricity and refrigeration.

On this trip we created an exciting strategic partnership with African Organics of Kampala, an experienced African-owned, certified-organic dried fruit company currently processing, packaging, and exporting organic dried fruits and vegetables to Europe, and Kopali Organics of the US, a business lead sent to me by Kulanu supporter Ellen Tacher. African Organics was particularly impressed with the first efforts of Namutumba village farmer Ruth Nabaigwa’s dried pineapple field samples, which were delicious and fared very well in all important moisture content tests. An added benefit of this new relationship is that African Organics will be also be working with master farmer JJ Keki on a specialty vanilla business.

With these new partnerships with African Organics and Kopali Organics as organic trainers and fruit buyers, we are hopeful that struggling low-land farmers can get the all-important and expensive international organic certifications for their delicious fruit and realize the same success as the coffee project. In addition, I have negotiated a 5 percent sales commission on the gross of every current sale by African Organics to the US client we acquired for them, Kopali Organics, to go directly to the Abayudaya farmers to help start up their new business. This small sum is a start, but it is not enough. Farmers have developed a five-year business plan. They hope to get training from their new partners, put their plants in the ground, rent a small storage warehouse, get international organic certifications that will help them earn top dollar in the market, and hire transport to get their fruit to a waiting Ugandan and US market. Down the road, they dream big: they hope to do their own “value adding” by building their own modern processing (drying) and packaging facilities to facilitate export. They will begin by becoming organic producers for African Organics.

These very poor Jewish farmers need your help by way of a new Kulanu Farmer Development Grant or by way of donations to our existing village micro-finance projects. If any of you have an interest in small business development as the way out of poverty, please contact me. These Jewish farmers are the poorest of the poor with a great opportunity. We have inquiry orders for over a ton already— the international organic dried fruit market is huge. The farmers lack capital. Abayudaya farmers are hard workers blessed with fertile soils. Help them make use of this great opportunity. It could really change their families’ lives for the better out in these remote African villages. We have a track record of success. The coffee project is getting world-wide press. Won’t you be part of this historic new Kulanu-Abayudaya anti-poverty project?

Adult Literacy

In other projects, I worked with Adult Literacy teachers and Aaron Kintu Moses to create an ongoing schedule of support meetings for these young teachers working in isolation in the villages. I was happy to be greeted by and speaking with elders who are learning English and to deliver gifts of new books to the program.

New Deaf Education Project

When I was out in Namutumba on the farmer workshop, I was introduced to five beautiful hearing-impaired Abayudaya children, with a request for help. These lovely kids aged 2-12 have been struggling to learn at the local Namutumba public school in classes of over 100 hearing students. Parents feared to send these vulnerable kids to the Abayudaya schools, which have no special education teachers on staff, 70 miles away, so very far from the children’s home. After some inquiries and a search across eastern Uganda on motorcycles (don’t ask) with medical volunteer and former deaf educator Hedy Cohen and student counselors–in-training Susan Sabano and Miriam Mubole, we found the Kavule Parents School for the Deaf. There we met the headmaster Helen Ariozet, a lovely lady who herself had studied at a school for the deaf in Kenya and could read and write in English, Luganda, and Swahili. Ms. Ariozet gave us a tour and told us this was one of only two schools for the deaf in Uganda. We met the school director and got information about the program, tuition, and boarding. Working with parents, Abayudaya Med Officer Sam Wamani, and other Abayudaya leaders, we created a pilot year program to oversee the care and education of these five students at the Kavule School, budgeted at a total of $2000 per year for all five children. Where else can such a relatively small sum have the potential to do so much?

When I arrived home I was lucky to find Dr. Liz Feldman from Chicago, who generously made a five-year pledge to support the first Kulanu Abayudaya Deaf Education Project. We could not have begun the project without such a pledge to sustain it. Kulanu, parents, Wamani, and Miriam Mubole, a college student-teacher from their home village, will monitor the children’s progress and the school carefully and see how they adjust in their first really appropriate school learning environment. We hope for the best and pray this is the beginning of something wonderful for these Abayudaya children. In addition, we are trying to network with US deaf education teachers to facilitate a Uganda-requested exchange program and collaboration with this very poor rural school. Please let us know if you have any contacts in the deaf community who are interested in volunteering.

In addition to her generous five-year commitment to the Kulanu-Abayudaya Deaf Education Project, Dr. Liz Feldman will also be coming to Uganda next January to volunteer. She will work closely with Wamani, who runs the innovative and successful Kulanu Abayudaya “Train the Trainer” Public Health Education Project, training teenagers from SK High School to teach vital public health information on safe sanitation practices, malaria and HIV prevention and treatment resources, first aid, and family planning back to their home villages, through music and drama. A great pleasure on my trip this year was connecting with American surgeon and volunteer from Duluth, Dr. William Portilla, who had contacted me before coming to Uganda. After joining us on Shabbat, Dr. Portilla invited young Med Officer Wamani to meet administrators and sit in at the Mbale Cure Hospital, where Dr. Portilla was donating his skills and time teaching and operating on Ugandan children needing cleft palate surgeries. You meet the most terrific people when you volunteer in Uganda!

Abayudaya Women’s Conference

Samson Wamani was the featured speaker at the January Women’s Association Conference, sponsored by Kulanu through support from Roberta Roos, Jeanne Bodin, and Woodlands Community Temple. His topic was appropriate local diet and treatment of diabetes in a rural village environment. Several community members have been diagnosed with diabetes, a dangerous disease if left untreated. Medical volunteer Hedy Cohen consulted on family planning and village HIV testing. I worked with the women on issues of concern to them and reported on Kulanu Abayudaya projects throughout the villages. A young Kulanu Bar Mitzvah, Justin Beckerman, had created hand-made mezuzot for the community and I was delighted to deliver them to the Abayudaya mothers, who were so happy to receive them. These women’s conferences play a vital role in the community as it is among the few times in the year the very hard-working, overburdened farm women of all the different Abayudaya villages get to see each other, due to the expense of transport. They plan and facilitate the conference themselves and discuss issues and share ideas. They begin with a dvar torah and a report from each synagogue, and the discussion topics beyond the invited speakers include lively debates filled with joy and laughter about women’s work, home, and village life.

Kulanu is proud to sponsor these women’s empowerment conferences as we have been told by Abayudaya women they have developed valuable leadership skills from presenting and speaking for the first time in front of a large group at the women’s conferences.

Micro-Finance

Women leaders are playing an important role in our micro-finance projects, especially farmer Ruth Nabaigwa, the leader in the most remote village of Namutumba. I wish you could hear the stories of how the recipients of these small loans work them into profits that they turn back into feeding their families and planting for next season. It is inspiring to hear the challenges these farmers face and how they overcome them and strategize to get their produce to market at the best time. Joseph Mubale, who is our coordinator with Naume Sabano, has been expanding his bookkeeping skills through an accounting course and is a wonderful teacher in the community.

Ken Schultz, a very longstanding friend of the Abayudaya community, has created the Independent Development Accounts Growth Through Savings Program that provides donor matching funds to help coffee coop farmers learn how savings accounts can help plan for the future. Kulanu is helping Schultz manage funds for this program. These micro-finance projects are doing well as pilot projects but we need your help. Contact me for more information on how you can help us use micro-finance of small business to fight poverty.

Youth Counseling

Rebecca Nantabo is doing a great job in our “Mama in the Schools” Youth Counseling Program, sponsored by Estelle Friedman Gervis Family Foundation. Two wonderful high school graduates waiting to head off to college are spending the year learning youth counseling skills at a local program and assisting Mama Rebecca. We are very proud of Abayudaya students Susan Sabano and Suzanne Nambi for their dedication to the community. Rachel Namadosi Keki, who just completed her college studies in education, is also serving the community as volunteer coordinator, working closely with Kulanu to place US volunteers.

Kulanu sponsored an Abayudaya Youth Conference at SK High School that was enormously successful with the kids. Samson Wamani, Mama Rebecca Nantabo, Hedy, and I facilitated a dialogue on teen sexuality issues, and the students asked very good questions. These rural high school students are struggling with a changing African society of cell phones, computers, and TV in Mbale town and mud huts back in their village. The kids expressed their gratitude for Kulanu Abayudaya programs, including the Youth Conference and, especially, our school child hunger project feeding students at the two Abayudaya schools.

Food Crisis

Which brings us to our most difficult challenges this year. As well as being a tragedy for Kenya, the terrible election crises which caused deaths and rioting, border and road closures in Kenya, are wreaking economic havoc in Uganda. All gasoline and many products come into Uganda solely through Kenya. Within four weeks in January, gasoline, building materials, food, and medicines tripled in cost, creating enormous hardship for Ugandans. Just as we began construction on the new SK High School girls’ dorm (so girls from far off Jewish villages can attend the school), building material costs shot up and our budget took a hit due to uncontrollable region-wide circumstances. We’ve got the building constructed with a roof but we have had to halt construction on the inside walls, doors, windows, and wiring until more funds become available through donations. Our food budgets are also short for our child hunger program due to skyrocketing food costs. This situation is hitting Ugandan families very hard, making our school food program all the more vital. All our projects are affected in one way or another and are in need of additional support.

The Abayudaya are a vulnerable 700-member Jewish minority in a country of 23 million in a region facing instability. Please talk to your friends about Kulanu’s work. Spread the word. Kulanu needs the help of individuals and family foundations, anyone who can help us help others.