2006 Mitzvah Tour to Uganda It Is a Joy To Do This Work

Laura Wetzler

I am back from five weeks in Uganda, and I wanted to update readers on some of my recent volunteer activities as Kulanu’s Coordinator for Uganda.

During my recent visit, I was very happy to work with the community on over 20 projects. Abayudaya community leaders are an inspiration and it is a joy to do this work. Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Chairman Israel Siriri, Aaron Kintu Moses, Seth Jonadav, JJ Keki, Naume Sabano, Sam Wamani and Samson Shadrack are doing such an incredible job as leaders of this growing Jewish community. The primary focus is community empowerment through education. Abayudaya leaders are hard-working visionaries who are doing remarkable things, with your support. Here is a sample of Abayudaya-Kulanu administered projects:

We cut the ribbon on two beautiful new classrooms at Hadassah Primary School, built with Kulanu grants from the Weinberg Foundation, Temple Beth El in Fairfield, Connecticut, and others. Lynne Elson helped purchase desks and chairs for these classrooms. Temple Beth El and Elizabeth Lewis helped sponsor vocational education this term.

There are five new latrines and a new generator at Semei Kakungulu High School, funded by Seattle Rotary through the efforts of Peter and Hinda Schnurman, administered by Kulanu. Hadassah Primary School is in need of similar latrines. We would love to do more with Rotary International, a great organization, if any of you are members?

We opened the new chemistry lab classroom at SKHS, thanks to help from young Kulanu fundraiser Navit Robkin. Science, math and computer teacher-volunteers are greatly appreciated in the community. David Wise recently helped enormously volunteering this past summer teaching math at SK High, and is currently trying to raise money for Ugandan curriculum-based math textbooks for a return visit in 2006.

We also said a Shehechianu at a beautiful new synagogue building and large new water catchment tank at Namatumba, built with Kulanu donations from Woodlands Temple in White Plains, NY, through the efforts of Roberta Roos and Jeanne Bodin. Roberta and Jeanne are also very active with Abayudaya Women’s Association projects.

Kids from poor families are able to take their Ugandan national school exams at SKHS this year thanks to the Jack and Pauline Freeman Foundation.

Thanks to our dear mitzvah partners at American Jewish World Service for support of Kulanu on-site volunteers and the Abayudaya-Kulanu Mirembe Kawomera Coffee Project.

We worked these weeks, as we do all year, on malaria prevention, and health, hygiene, and nutrition education thanks to grants from the Estelle Friedman Gervis Family Foundation and the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute and other donors. Our health education/disease prevention team includes school headmasters Aaron Kintu Moses and Seth Jonadav, Abayudaya medical student Samson Wamani, teachers, community health workers, the Abayudaya Women’s Association, Abayudaya youth, and Kulanu on-site volunteers, all networking with local NGO resources. We also talked about the terrible lack of water during dry season and worked on truly viable options based on experience on the ground. I delivered several suitcases from Sid Rozenzweig and Intervol filled with much needed medical supplies to Abayudaya medical student Samson Wamani. Also delivered were donated reading glasses from Dr. Suzanne Arnapolin and Dr. Ronnie Williams.

Internationally, women are key to community development and Abayudaya women wanted a more active role in their schools. Together we created an Abayudaya Women’s Association School Support Project to train an Abayudaya mother, Rebecca Nantabo, through Mbale Red Cross and Family Planning, to work as a para-professional youth counselor in the high school and primary school. All Abayudaya women are taking the health and family planning training at Kulanu-sponsored women’s conferences.

We worked further developing Abayudaya-Kulanu tourism, craft, coffee, CD music and guesthouse projects, all of which foster self-help economic development. The “Jewish Life in Uganda Mitzvah Tour and Wildlife Safari,” now in its fourth year, features a fantastic African wildlife safari, followed by an unforgettable nine days visiting the Jewish community schools, projects and shuls. Samson Shadrack is our Abayudaya guide. Our accommodations are at lovely hotels but this is still the best bargain in African safari tourism. This year, several of us added an additional excursion (from which Abayudaya earn a commission) to see rare mountain gorillas in Bwindi forest. The Abayudaya Song and Dance Festival, a great community-wide celebration of African Jewish culture, developed and supported by this Kulanu tourism project, brings together singers and dancers from four villages and is not to be missed. Hope you can join us next year and bring friends to visit with friends!

We brought the Abayudaya Bank/Howard and Judith Mayer Small Business Micro-finance Program out to Namatumba and Nasenyi. These villagers have trouble traveling so far without means of transport to the bank project on Nabagoye Hill. We included small business workshops in the loan fund trainings. I was kvelling! Naume Sabano and Joseph Mubole taught large gatherings of Abayudaya how these low-interest, long-term loans function, how to create a farm cooperative, and how to plan a small business, based on previous workshops we had done together with Howard and Judith Mayer. If you know anyone interested in contributing to the small business loan fund (based on the Grameen Bank model) be sure to let them know we have an unheard-of 98 percent loan repayment rate.

We did many meetings with the fair trade Mirembe Kawomera Coffee Cooperative leaders working on a five-year strategic development plan. The coffee is certified organic two years ahead of schedule. In one year, farmers have gone from producing 1 metric ton to 3 metric tons of coffee, thanks to the $1 per retail bag rebates from Thanksgiving Coffee Company from which farmers bought six new coffee pulpers for the cooperative. Thanks to Paul and Joan Katzeff at Thanksgiving Coffee (www.thanksgivingcoffee.com) and their great staff, Ben Corey-Mann, and Holly Moskowitz (an Abayudaya volunteer last year).

When JJ Keki and I started this project we had no idea it would grow so fast. Kol hakavod to JJ for this remarkable achievement! It was so inspiring to see many farmers’ mud shacks slowly being replaced with sturdy brick housing as a result of this Abayudaya-Kulanu project. Many US synagogues, schools and churches are using the coffee at all their events and to help build Interfaith coalitions in their communities. Thanks to Shanaan Meyerstein, a former Columbia student and Abayudaya volunteer, and owner Edoe Cohen, the wonderful new kosher Café Nana at Columbia University Hillel (W115 St. NYC) is serving Mirembe Kawomera Coffee exclusively. David Weisman made sure that Mirembe Kawomera Coffee went into every Purim basket at his shul this year. Thank you to everyone who is buying and serving this delicious kosher, fair trade, and now organic coffee. You are performing the highest form of tzedekah: helping to create sustainable employment.

We celebrated the publication of the first issue of the Abayudaya Girls Magazine, a creative writing newsletter written by Abayudaya teens, with technical assistance from Kulanu volunteers Sarah Gunther, Linda Jum and Eden Brandwein. We delivered a computer and camera dedicated for training Abayudaya youth. Anyone who can pursue a corporate source for computer donations, please contact Harriet Bograd.

We created a new Abayudaya Adult Literacy Project. Fewer than 5 percent of Abayudaya adults speak, read or write English, Uganda’s national language. We need only $2000 per year to fund this program, which will send Abayudaya reading teachers to four distant farm villages every week and supply English primers for illiterate Jewish farmers.

Thanks to headmaster Seth Jonadav, volunteer Hedy Cohen, Angela and Carl Milner, and the Estelle Friedman Gervis Family Foundation, we created a new SKHS Child Hunger Project. The sad reality is that economically impoverished Ugandan high school students come to school hungry, making learning difficult and leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. Please help us help these kids.

This is only a partial list of what Abayudaya and Kulanu supporters are accomplishing together. Forgive any omissions due to space limitations; every contribution is deeply appreciated. Special honor to those many wonderful Bar/Bat Mitzvah and student projects, which inspire all of us greatly. Thanks to Lauri Donahue of Toledo for helping out with school projects. While in Kampala, I visited with Abayudaya college students who are so deeply grateful to Rabbi Jeff Summit of Tufts Hillel for the enormous mitzvah he performs by raising tuition money for Abayudaya college education in Uganda.

Finally, as you know, Kulanu helps Abayudaya support both Hadassah Primary School and SK High School. When current Abayudaya leaders got their education (with support from Kulanu and Rabbi Jeff Summit) the first thing they did was create their own schools. These Kulanu-supported schools, serving approximately 400 impoverished African children of all faiths, help protect this Jewish community, as Abayudaya children in Ugandan public schools are frequently targets of anti-Jewish harassment.

I want to report some of the details and needs of this work. Kulanu has an immediate need for $13,000. to fulfill a school matching grant from the Weinberg Foundation. In addition, the Abayudaya need approximately $20,000 per year per school in sustaining operating support. For the long run, Abayudaya need approximately $90,000 per school for capital improvements to build proper dorms for Abayudaya boarding students from far-away villages, classrooms, decent sanitary facilities, food canteens, and small school libraries.

Those of you in education know these are comparatively low costs to complete and sustain two schools. Every Jewish school in the world relies on Jewish community support. We know that the economic development projects in place now will eventually help the schools raise more of their operating funds from tuition in the future. For now, while the schools are being built, it is a constant struggle to help the Abayudaya fulfill their dream of a good educational foundation for their kids in a safe environment.

Can you join our resource team and help us connect to major donors so Abayudaya can educate their children in decent, safe schools, learning in peace with their neighbors? If you would like to adopt or help out on any of the projects mentioned above, small or large, we desperately need you, your expertise, and your networking. Please help Kulanu help African children have some of what American children happily take for granted.

We have a new fundraising flyer available by request. We don’t spend a lot of money on promotion because our funds go directly to the community, but we hope the flyer will be of some use to you in your efforts on behalf of Kulanu and the communities we serve. Would you be so kind as to distribute the flyer at any upcoming events? Please be aware we now have a Kulanu-Abayudaya slide show on disc available for your use, compiled by Volunteer Coordinator and photographer Dr. Chaya Weinstein and Kulanu Treasurer, Harriet Bograd.

Kulanu accepts donations for Abayudaya projects designated in the memo line for “Abayudaya” or “Abayudaya Education” or “Abayudaya Health.”.

Kulanu is a unique, direct-action, all-volunteer organization with minimal overhead and 10 years of international experience. A tikkun olam-social justice donation goes so far on Kulanu projects. You can really make a difference.

Thanks so much for helping to get the word out. Our grassroots network is our greatest strength.