From the Ground Up: Kulanu-Abayudaya Education and Economic Development

image: Uganda context mapUganda

Dear Friends,

As always, this year’s trip to Uganda focused on evaluating on-going projects and developing initiatives that strengthen self-sufficiency and reduce poverty in the Abayudaya Jewish community.


Community Meetings

Our visit with the Abayudaya this January was particularly productive due to the presence of Kulanu President Harriet Bograd. Harriet is a great multi-tasker and a strong leader whose wisdom and pragmatism inspired us all. Meetings focused on Abayudaya community oversight of budgets, the evaluation of 20 different ongoing projects, as well as long term planning. Harriet and I met with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the elected Abayudaya community board, farmers, crafts people, health educators, youth, school nutritionists, and micro-finance project leaders, as well as with school headmasters and their staffs.

In addition, Harriet worked with Abayudaya leaders on tourism ideas and helped create a website and informational materials for the Abayudaya Guest House. She also worked with members on improvements to the Kulanu-Abuyadaya craft project, and consulted on marketing at the craft shop in the village of Nabagoye Hill. Last but not least, we conducted sustainable development planning workshops with Rabbi Gershom and community leaders, including work on a new anti-poverty pilot project for the poorest farm village, discussed below.


Delicious Peace Cooperative

It is truly gratifying to report that Kulanu’s years of advocacy at the US embassy in Uganda continue to bear fruit for the interfaith Delicious Peace Coffee project. The Jewish, Muslim and Christian farmer collaboration and the cooperative’s strong productivity are a win-win for US policy goals in the region. Working with Kulanu, USAID LEAD Program Director Susan Corning, Delicious Peace Chairman JJ Keki, and the Thanksgiving Coffee Company, the farmer’s cooperative has been awarded several business development grants.

image: Delicious Peace Vanilla Project (Photos by Laura Wetzler)
Delicious Peace Vanilla Project (Photos by Laura Wetzler)


Last year the cooperative built the USAID-supported coffee pulping station, and this year, the cooperative is constructing a USAID-supported 3-story building for a warehouse and offices. Even while in construction, the new building is already housing the cooperative’s first forays into curing vanilla on its own site rather than sending it away for processing to a middleman. (Yes, as reported last year, the cooperative is venturing into other products in addition to coffee!) USAID is also sponsoring the attendance of JJ Keki at two international coffee conferences this year. This Spring, USAID is supporting extensive field school training on best practice farming for robusta coffee cultivation in the village of Namutumba. The village, whose lowland elevation cannot sustain Arabica coffee, is learning to cultivate robusta instead. In keeping with this goal, JJ and I met with potential robusta coffee buyers in Uganda’s capital of Kampala. During my stay, I was also delighted to meet pioneering Delicious Peace Cooperative farmer Peter Mukone to learn about Peter’s groundbreaking introduction of cocoa farming to eastern Uganda. At the coop’s request, I was able to successfully connect leaders of our Delicious Peace Project to three major international cocoa bean buyers, just in time for their first cocoa bean harvest in May. Congratulations to all the farmers, to Margot Ellis and Susan Corning of USAID, to Kulanu supporters, to Mike and Herb Stein for keeping faith with the vanilla project, to Thanksgiving Coffee and to JJ Keki for his fearless leadership.


Abayudaya Grain Mill Warehouse Project

One of the most exciting new projects to emerge from Kulanu/Abayudaya farmer business development workshops is a proposal to create a small grain mill, warehouse and office/shop complex to promote economic recovery in Namutumba, one of the poorest and most remote Abayudaya villages. The poverty of this particular community, located five dusty miles off the main road, was exacerbated when dictator Idi Amin was persecuting the Abayudaya community some 25 years ago. During that period, Amin’s forces stole their land on the road and forced the synagogue and its community into hiding in the remote flatlands. To develop economically viable agricultural and business options to support Namutumba and lift the living standard of these courageous people has been a difficult challenge due to the location of the village, 50 miles from the main Abayudaya center in Mbale.

image: Children awaiting lunch at Abayudaya elementary school (Photos by Laura Wetzler)
Children awaiting lunch at Abayudaya Elementary School (Photos by Laura Wetzler)


Some help has come. Water tanks, two wells, and a low power solar electric battery have been installed in the village. Kulanu has initiated a small micro-finance loan program and organized farmer workshops. Village children attend Kulanu-Abayudaya sponsored schools. Nevertheless, so much still needs to be done in Namutumba and in the other Abayudaya villages where the persistence of poverty is the enemy. Real change will happen in this potentially rich agricultural area only with more farmer training and business capital.

In the case of Namutumba, farm families grow corn, cassava, millet, sorghum, robusta coffee and pineapples. But farmers have no nearby warehouse to store produce until prices rise, nor a mill to grind their grains into value-added flour. Community members have no place to buy a bar of soap, charge an emergency cell phone or buy an aspirin or a cold drink.

The new economic development project will create a small trading center, complete with electricity, to serve the needs of over 3000-5000 people in the area, both Jews and non-Jews. It will employ a minimum of seven Abayudaya members (and more in ancillary businesses), provide much needed farmer services as well as on-site, in-village training in best practice agriculture, safe food storage, mill repair and maintenance, and bookkeeping and accounting skills. Profits generated will go to the village synagogue to help support social services for the most vulnerable members of this struggling rural Jewish community. These would include widows, orphaned children, the sick, the elderly and the disabled. It would also provide a small stipend for the village rabbi and pay for the completion of the village’s synagogue (floors, windows, etc.) We hope it can be a model for other economically challenged Abayudaya villages.

A grant proposal, submitted to a well-known foundation, was crafted after weeks of business planning meetings with Abayudaya Chief Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Namutumba Rabbi Eri Kaidiwha and other village community leaders, on every aspect of the design, organization and operation of the mill, warehouse and shop. Together we did market research and took field trips to working mills, met with experienced mill mechanics, and acquired specifications and costs at wholesale equipment supply distributors in Kampala. Community members worked with Kulanu’s ten-point business plan questionnaire to organize their business structure, plan for their expenses, cost their services, and determine how to distinguish themselves in the marketplace. The community has already sent a young man to begin training in operation and repair at a town mill business in preparation for running the village’s small mill.

The process described above demonstrates Kulanu’s philosophy of “development from the ground up.” The very exercise of creating the business plan has helped build skills. If Kulanu can secure funding, the project will be implemented in three stages, beginning with extensive training, followed by building construction and then small-scale mill and power source installation. We are also exploring the possibility of the village trading center, located far off the electricity grid, being powered by more efficient solar technology from Israel, as opposed to a diesel engine as is customary. If solar energy is technically feasible (and we don’t know yet if it is), it would be the first solar-powered small-scale grain mill in Uganda and could become a model for other rural areas around the world. The cost of the entire project, training, construction and equipment, is relatively modest by US standards. A grant in the amount of $45,000 will enable Kulanu to continue its goal of sustainable development from the grassroots up.


Abayudaya Women’s Association Conference, Micro-finance, and Abayudaya-Kulanu Deaf Education Project

image: Abayudaya student (Photo by Laura Wetzler)
Abayudaya student (Photos by Laura Wetzler)


Mazel tov to Naume Sabano, Athalia Musenze, Ruth Nabaigwa, and Dinnah Samson and all the members of the Abayudaya Women’s Association. The Kulanu-sponsored Abayudaya Women’s Association Conference, made possible three times each year by Jeanne Bodin and Woodland Temple in Westchester, NY, was held this year in Namutumba. It was, as always, a highlight of our visit, as Abayudaya women from five villages greeted each other excitedly, and sat down to a full day of discussion on best practice farming, the counseling of adolescents, income generating craft projects, microfinance and family health issues. There were several inspiring Kulanu-Abayudaya microfinance success stories of women supporting their families with the help of a small business loan to plant and sell their produce. Although this program has been successful, it is still woefully underfinanced. Many are turned away for lack of funds.

The report on the Abayudaya-Kulanu Deaf Education Project was heartening. Last year, six Abayudaya school children began receiving the first appropriate education in their lives at a Ugandan school specifically working with deaf children. Thanks to Rabbi Gershom, Dr. Wamani. Dr. Liz Feldman, Hedy Cohen and other Kulanu supporters. It is a pleasure to see how much better the children are doing now that they are connected to Ugandan Deaf culture, learning to read and write for the first time, and to speak in International Sign Language.


The Abayudaya Schools

Most readers already know that Kulanu is helping the Abayudaya build and support two rural village schools, feeding and educating over 700 economically disadvantaged Jewish, Muslim and Christian children studying together in peace. The needs of the two schools (primary and high school) remain overwhelming. Headmasters Aaron Kintu Moses and Seth Jonadav and their staffs are doing a great job with limited resources. On-going support is needed to keep the schools running in these difficult economic times. Right now, the high school is forced to send students home each October to accommodate national testing. High school boys from remote villages have no dorm to live in and many of them must rent rooms in town, where they live unsupervised. A great many of these students are orphans struggling to attend the Abayudaya High School specifically so they can take Hebrew and other Jewish subjects.

image: Old Synagogue at Namutumba (Photo by Laura Wetzler)
Old Synagogue at Namatumba (Photos by Laura Wetzler)


The schools continue to need additional classrooms, dorms, a library and for the high school, science laboratories. A place for the kids to eat protected from the torrential rains would also be a plus. Both schools also desperately need storage facilities so food for the children can be bought in bulk. This would save money and ensure a healthier diet for the children, as protein rich legumes and whole grains could be purchased when prices are most favorable rather than on a daily basis. The problem impacts the ability to feed the children who attend the two schools.

If you, or anyone you know, wants to do a mitzvah by building a classroom or dormitory, subsidizing the salaries of teachers or helping feed hungry students, the costs are but a small fraction of what it costs in the United States. Naming opportunities are also available. Please contact Harriet or me for information.


Youth Conference, Music & Dance Festival

The Abayudaya Jewish Music and Dance Festival coincided with a much expanded Abayudaya Youth Conference, begun three years ago by Abayudaya teens in conjunction with Kulanu. This year, the event was sponsored by United Synagogue Youth under the inspired direction of Abayudaya Head Rabbi and Rosh Yeshivah Gershom Sizomu. Masorti Olami (world conservative movement) representative Judy Gray volunteered from Israel and was a huge help. Abayudaya youth from every village were in attendance for the three-day conference, as was a delegation of three terrific California high school students who had helped raise funds for the event: David Weingarten, Elysse Weissberger and Jason Schreiber. Abayudaya teens organized and lead the conference and Shabbat services.

The music and dancing, organized this year by Athalia Musenze and the Abayudaya board, was spectacular. Participants included new community groups from northern Uganda and Nairobi, Kenya, and featured students and adults of all ages keeping alive their rich cultural traditions. Exciting rural dances from six different tribal groups (Ugandan Bagwere, Bugisu, Buganda, Busoga, Acholi, and Kenyan Kikuyu) were balanced by contemporary Jewish African hip hop from Mbale city.

All the performances pulsed with the drum beat of African-Hebrew tam and lyrics reflecting Jewish values. Fees from Kulanu’s Jewish Life in Uganda Mitzvah Tour make it possible for Abayudaya community members from every village to celebrate together in what has become an annual international event drawing visitors from around the world. Isaac Byaki, Dinnah Samson and Mama Rachel Wanyenya made us all feel welcome by serving fabulous meals at the Abayudaya Guest House (better than the hotel food in town!).

Thanks to everyone for their ongoing support of this extraordinary community! And if anyone is interested in helping as a contributor or as a volunteer, please get in touch.

laura @ laurawetzler . com