Archive for March, 2008

A Gift of Life

            After such a long hiatus, it’s difficult to know where to begin recounting our adventures and experiences.

            Let me begin by telling you about the future instead of the past. I received the Princeton Project 55 fellowship, a public interest fellowship for recent Princeton graduates, and will be working as the Assistant to the Director of Youth Programs at CASES, the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, in NYC. You can learn more about the organization on their website at www.cases.org.

            Now back to the past. I realize that I didn’t exactly finish describing my family’s trip, and, unfortunately, I am not sure that I ever will, but I will write about a few more experiences as time goes on…

            On Friday morning, after the schetitah, kosher slaughtering, of the goat, my father, brother, and Adam stayed on Nabugoye Hill to watch the rest of the preparations (and to fix one of the computers at the internet café. In minutes, Ronen solved a problem that many people had tried to fix over the past few weeks. Needless to say, we were quite proud.). My grandparents, mom, Liat, and I returned to town to meet Grace, the first child for whom my grandfather’s Rotary fund raised to travel to America for open heart surgery almost thirty years ago. Through a program called A Gift of Life, Rotary clubs in Westchester raise money to bring children to New York for surgeries that can’t be done in their countries. Grace traveled to the United States at around six years old. Before the surgery, she had been a very lethargic child, but immediately after the surgery, like most children who receive this treatment, Grace became an active and energetic six-year-old. Grace is now a healthy woman who works full time in community development. She currently serves as a field officer for Teso Foundation for Sustainable Development, an organization that works to empower people living in the slums in Kumi, a district near Mbale. She brought along an album with pictures from the hospital in the States, her family, and snapshots from momentous occasions over the years. Meeting Grace was a real privilege. My grandfather had the opportunity to see first-hand what the Gift of Life program offers children. Even though Grace had visited the United States a number of years ago to testify about the incredible miracle of heart surgery, this encounter was different. My grandparents had already spent five days in Uganda and better understood where Grace was coming from and what she had been up against as a child. They also had the privilege of learning how she is giving back to her community and the impact that she is having with the life that the surgery gave back to her! Although the clubs can’t bring in every child that needs the surgery, and this thought can be paralyzing, Grace was a reminder of the importance of doing what one can, even if it just for one person.

            Being here and seeing the need can often be overwhelming and paralyzing. Just today, when Adam and I were taking a Shabbat walk, we passed by a huge garbage pile (There is no garbage pick-up in Mbale; most people burn their own garbage. But in some places around town, the garbage accumulates into huge piles that emit nasty stenches). Anyway, we saw an older couple sorting through the garbage for food. The wife was actually sorting through what looked like a pile of beans mixed with garbage. We were on our way home to a nice, warm meal of chapatti and beans. Walking by was not easy. We wanted to return with a hot meal for them, but what would happen tomorrow? And what about the filthy street children with ripped clothing that we had passed on our walk, who were most likely also really hungry? It’s easy to be paralyzed not only by the need and but also by the failing infrastructure. It’s easy to want to give up. What difference will one heart surgery make anyway? Or even a health center when people are drinking water with cholera and typhoid? But meeting Grace, listening to her story, and learning about her life reminded us that amid the chaos some order can be made. Also, as we strive to make macro-level changes, Grace’s story reminds us not to lose sight of the individuals for whom we are trying to make those changes. Even as we work toward a more “sustainable” solution, like educating local doctors and building medical facilities that can accommodate complicated surgeries, we should not make all children with curable problems wait until the doctors are trained and the facilities built, even if we can’t yet heal everyone.

            On a separate note, it’s now the rainy season, which means that it usually rains at least once a day for about an hour. With the rains come more mosquitoes and with more mosquitoes comes more malaria! It has been raining regularly for just over a week now and it’s incredible that within such a short time, we have noticed the drastic increase in malaria. So many people who we know came down with malaria this week and even the number of patients at the health unit has risen sharply. (For those who visited in December and January and thought things at the health unit were a bit slow, unfortunately, the wards are now filling up and there seems to be a steady stream of out-patients.) We hope and pray that as the rainy season continues, which is a blessing for farmers who are ready to plant their fields, the incidences of malaria can be controlled and the infections treated quickly and successfully.

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Picture of the week
Friday, 7th March, 2008


SCHOOL children walk towards a Secondary School named after the U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Barack Obama in western Kenya Village of Kogelo on March 5.

Villagers in Barack Obama’s ancestral Kenyan home expressed disappointment on Wednesday as his rival, Hillary Clinton won key votes to revive her campaign for the White House

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We just arrived home from visiting Maital and Adam in Uganda. I have to say that this trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, to Uganda, was an amazing trip. I would recommend for everyone to visit Uganda. The people we met were warm, generous, and appreciative of our visit. It was very eye-opening to see such an underdeveloped country. Once you leave the larger towns most people live in mud walled, thatch roofed huts, without electricity or running water. Bathrooms are outhouses behind the house; having a bathroom in the house is an idea foreign to most of the population. All water, even in town, must be boiled before drinking so we only used bottle water. As Maital wrote in her entry we quickly learned that patience is a necessary quality in Africa. Not only can meals take an hour or more to arrive at the table most everything happens slowly or with a logic westerners find hard to comprehend.

The first few days we spent in the town of Mbale visiting with the people Maital works with at the Bushikori Christian Center. We visited the primary school and the clinic that BCC runs. BCC has a small compound outside of town where the school and clinic are located. I was very impressed by the wonderful staff. The teachers and the administration are wonderful people who have dedicated their lives to the care and education of some of the most vulnerable children in the society. BCC provides not only an education for underprivileged children but also is dedicated to working with their families in many supportive ways. Many of these children are orphaned and live in families headed by older siblings or cousins because the parents have succumbed to the Aids epidemic (which Uganda currently has better control of than some other African countries). Since the summer of 2005, when Maital spent the summer working at Bushikori Christian Center (BCC), we have supported a young girl so she can attend school and sent money to support the family of siblings and cousins she lives with headed by a wonderfully, responsible young 25 year old man named Paul. Sponsoring a child’s education only costs $250 a year. Please contact me if you are willing to help BCC by sponsoring a child or help Maital and BCC build a library for the community.

BCC also runs an onsite clinic being administered by a terrific young Kenyan doctor, Levert. The clinic is a bare bones operation that provides vital care not only for the children of BCC but the doctor also provides care for the larger geographic area around Mbale. He provides vaccinations, health instruction, pre-natal and obstetrics services for many people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to these services We spent several pleasant dinners and evenings with Levert.

We spent Shabbat with the Abuyadaya. This is a Ugandan community that began following Judaism about 100 years ago. You can read more about their history by following the links on this blog. They have just set up a new guest house where we stayed. Adam is working hard at helping to organizethe guest house. Our Shabbat with the Abuyadaya was another experience. Our guide, Samson, took us on Friday morning to a local market day where we negotiated on a goat. Yes we purchased a goat at the request of our 17 year son, Ronen, so we could watch the shochet of the Abuyadayah do a kosher slaughtering of the goat, another expert skinned it, another expert cut out the tendon in the back legs (a kosher requirement) and another person cut up the meat for cooking. All this was done outside, involving hanging the goat from a tree, after it was ritually killed. I’ll spare you more of the details but we have pictures of the whole thing.

How can I describe sitting in the village’s synagogue on Friday night and again on Saturday participating in services. Here we were in Africa davoning with a Jewish minyan. We sat at dinner on Friday night and at lunch on Shabbat day with one of the elders of the tribe who told us about the history of the community and many of the current projects; several young girls came by to join us in Zmirot, singing after we ate. The community has their own Jewish primary and high school. It was a heart warming feeling to see this small community struggling to learn what Judaism is, exploring Judaism and committed to teaching their children to be Jews.

For the next three days of our trip we traveled across the country to visit Uganda’s largest national park. It was all and more than we expected, something out of the movie, African Queen. We did a game drive where we saw many varieties of antelope, warthogs, monkeys, water buffalo, elephants, giraffe, jackals and even lions. We took a boat on the Nile River to see the second most powerful water fall in the world, Murchison Falls. We also saw hippos, crocodiles and a lot of other game along the river. This was a beautiful ending to a fantastic trip. We not only have many, many pictures of our time in Uganda but we have a greater appreciation and deeper understanding of what sub-Saharan Africa is and what Maital and Adam are working hard to accomplish there.

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I think this one speaks for itself… Ugandan democracy may have its flaws, but who is Obama to decide what “true” democracy is? He is right that the eyes of the world are on him and this election (especially in this region, because his father was Kenyan). But let’s just remember that Uganda’s democracy is young, forced from the outside, and developing!! Let’s ask the 81 year old man how different Uganda is now than it was under the British or Amin and let’s find out if HE thinks that he lives in a democracy?!?!
Obama: Ugandans looking to me


KAMPALAUGANDA may as well be playing an important role in the Democratic Party presidential nomination contest in the US.
On Tuesday front-runner Senator Barack Obama hinted in a speech that Ugandans are looking up to him for true democracy.Addressing thousands of Americans in Texas, Sen. Obama told a story of an 81 year-old-Ugandan man who has not experienced true democracy in his entire life.

Narrating the little tale Sen. Obama said: “There is a young man on my campaign whose grandfather lives in Uganda.
He is 81 years old and has never experienced true democracy in his lifetime. During the reign of Idi Amin, he was literally hunted and the only reason he escaped was thanks to the kindness of others and a few good-sized trunks. And on the night of the Iowa caucuses, that 81-year-old man (in Uganda) stayed up until five in the morning, huddled by his television, waiting for the results.”

During Iowa’s democratic nomination contest, Sen. Obama triumphed over Hillary Clinton in the first nominating contest of the 2008 US presidential election. That first victory gave momentum to Obama who is seeking to become America’s first black president.

On Tuesday night Sen. Obama lost the two prized states of Texas and Ohio to Mrs Clinton but by margins that were not big enough to reverse his lead.

According to accounts from the American media, Sen. Obama still leads Mrs Clinton in delegates.
“The world is watching what we do here. The world is paying attention to how we conduct ourselves. What will they see? What will we tell them? What will we show them?” Obama wondered.

If Obama’s statement is an accurate reflection of the history of Uganda’s politics, it would mean that the majority of the country’s citizens have not encountered true democracy since 1927 (when the 81 year old was born).

This time includes Uganda’s colonial times under the British rule and the leadership of all its post-colonial presidents including, Apollo Milton Obote, Idi Amin, Yusuf Lule, Paul Muwanga, Tito Okello, and the incumbent Gen. Yoweri Museveni.

While the quality of Uganda’s democracy under colonialism and the Obote-I government is a matter of argument, Idi Amin’s eight-year rule was plain brutal with an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people reported to have perished at the hands of his men.

In a phone interview with Daily Monitor the Minister of Information and National Guidance, Mr Kirunda Kivenjinja, said he couldn’t comment on Sen. Obama’s remarks but referred to him as a speculator.

“I don’t have time for speculators. What does he have to do with Uganda? Mr Kivejinja said. If nominated as his party’s candidate, Sen. Obama promised Americans not to stand for the politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon.

He also expressed gratitude to America for giving an opportunity to his Kenyan father (Mr Barack Hussein Obama), to fulfil his dream as well as his.

“I owe what I am to this country I love, and I will never forget it. Where else could a young man who grew up herding goats in Kenya get the chance to fulfill his dream of a college education? Where else could he marry a white girl from Kansas whose parents survived war and depression to find opportunity out west?

Where else could they have a child who would one day have the chance to run for the highest office in the greatest nation the world has ever known? Where else, but in the United States of America?” Sen. Obama told an ecstatic crowd in Texas.

Nomination to the Democratic Party ticket takes place in August.

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Take a look at the floor plans and architectural drawings for the ideal library resource center.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed thus far. We are getting closer to our goal!!

Library floor plan

Library floor plan2

I want to thank the Engineering Ministries International team that designed and drew these floor plans and architectural drawings. A team of architects, construction managers, and engineers visited BCC in September and worked with BCC staff, administration, and the community to help BCC plan for the future. They have been extremely supportive of the library resource center and other exciting projects taking place at BCC, like the construction of Primary 6 and 7 classrooms as well as toilets for the clinic!

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            It’s hard to find the words to describe the ten days that Adam and I spent with my grandparents, parents, brother, and sister, but here is my best attempt. Very early last Monday morning, Adam and I met Samson, a member of the Abayudaya community who is trained and works as a tour guide. He drove us to the airport to pick everyone up. As we waited for my family to emerge (of course, they were one of the last from their flight), we watched families and friends reunite. Most screamed and cheered with joy, but some broke down in tears. It was interesting to think about the stories of the people exiting the airport. A Ugandan man welcomed home an older European couple, missionaries?!? Have they already been in Uganda for decades? A woman who looked about thirty burst into tears at the sight of her family. Had she been absent during a tragedy? Had a tragedy befallen her while she was away? How long had she been away? Was it business or study? And as we watched families and friends embrace each other, we waited anxiously for our family.

            And then, we saw Liat, my thirteen-year-old sister, running toward us.  Violating airport security regulations, I ran through the exit doors to give her a big hug. Amidst shouting – “Ma’am, ma’am you can’t run in here”- Liat and I walked out of the arrivals gate arm in arm. As each family member exited, we blocked traffic as we hugged and even cried a bit. As we pushed the bags of luggage to the car, everyone took off their layers of long sleeves and sweatshirts and began enjoying the Ugandan heat! We piled into Samson’s car losing one seat and a lot of leg-room to the big pieces of luggage that they brought with them, three of the nine were filled with donations and a few goodies for us!

            Before heading east to Mbale, we had to stop in Kampala to exchange money and grab lunch, which gave everyone the opportunity to sit through Kampala traffic, ie overcrowded, chaotic streets and little, if any, movement. Well, in order to ease everyone into Ugandan life, our first meal was nothing other than pizza and coca-cola! (Don’t worry the next few meals were real local foods.) We then traveled two hours to Jinja, where we took a short break to see the source of the Nile River. We got back in the car and made our way to Mbale, our hometown. We checked into the hotel, where we stayed for the week, and went down for dinner. The hour-an-a-half wait for dinner only for my mother’s order to have been forgotten was my family’s first exposure to African time and African service. Over the course of the ten days, they slowly adjusted to time difference (not only by getting over jet lag, but by realizing that life here moves at a different pace).

            After dinner, Adam, Levert, and I sat in Ema and Aba’s hotel room in piles of treats from Twizzlers and Yodels to Boggle and deoderant. We sorted through the donations and prepared for our trip to BCC the next day. When we arrived at BCC, we received a warm welcome from the Chairman of the Board, Thomas Odoii, and the administrator (former accountant), Linus. We heard the incredible story of the founder of BCC and then went on a tour of the facility. We visited the primary school; the students in every class stood as we entered and enthusiastically welcomed my family: “welcome visitors.” At the end of our tour, a small group of students sang two songs for us and recited a poem as they danced a bit. My family saw the existing library, which consists of two shelves of mostly secondary school textbooks and currently resides in an administrator’s office.

            We then went on a tour of the clinic, where they got to see my office, also the drug store room. And they gave some of the sick children donated stuffed animals. At around midday, we got back into the BCC vehicle to have lunch at my close friend’s, Paul Tiboti. We also received permission to take his four first cousins out of school for the afternoon so that they could share lunch with us. I think I have written about Paul before, but he and I have been close friends since my last trip to Uganda. Paul’s parents, aunts, and uncles have all died (mostly from AIDS) leaving Paul, his brother and sister, and numerous cousins as orphans. Paul’s uncle took him in when his parents died and now he feels responsible to care for his uncle’s children, all six of them. So, at 25, Paul is in many ways a father of eight to none of his own biological children. The youngest of the cousins, Kaana, and my sister, Liat, have been pen pals since the last time I was here and it was exciting for them to have a chance to spend time together in person. My family brought them a few toys, a jump rope, some bouncing balls, and a soccer ball. So after a fifteen-minute walk to the spring where Paul’s family fetches water, everyone played outside while lunch was prepared.

            After lunch, we returned to the hotel to relax for about an hour before we headed out for our next meal. We had dinner at Janet and Apollo Wambedde’s town home. I lived at Janet and Apollo’s home in the village in the summer of 2005 and Adam and I stayed with them this year for three weeks in September/October around succot. Janet and Apollo have four biological children (two of whom are at boarding school) and have basically raised over twenty of Apollo’s orphaned nieces and nephews. So, as you can imagine, we were quite a large crowd for dinner. In addition to the eight of us, the Wambedde’s were over 15, I think. It was really special for my African host family to meet my biological family.

For the first hour, while he hung out with the Wambedde family (Liat, Ronen, and I played Uno with their youngest two children and another young girl who is currently living with them), Saba, my grandfather, stayed at the hotel to attend the Mbale Rotary meeting. As a dedicated Rotarian, Saba tries not to miss the weekly meetings. In the process, he gets to attend meetings in places, like Uganda, and learn what clubs are doing halfway around the world. This Rotary club was actually planning a medical visit to a refugee camp hosting refugees from the crisis in Kenya.

            On Wednesday, the early risers among us, my parents, grandmother, and I, went to BCC for the morning devotions. We then came back to town for breakfast and a bit of shopping. At midday we drove half an hour past BCC farther east to the home of Thomas Odoii, chairman of the Board. He shares a large, sprawling compound with his brother, the former head of a teacher’s training college. After sitting on his porch for a few minutes, he brought us to his brother’s house to meet his brother and sister-in-law. Two of their children are lawyers, one’s a journalist in Kenya, another works for the UN in Geneva, and one son lives in DC and married an American woman. Anyway, some of their children have built very nice homes in the compound. These homes have indoor plumbing, not from centralized water systems and intricate piping, but from large tanks that collect rainwater. The chairman also told us how many locals are shocked by the idea of having an indoor toilet. For locals, pit latrines and other toilet facilities are supposed to be located significant distances from people’s homes! After decades of public health officials sensitizing the community to this, people are moving toilets inside?!? They gave us a tour of the son’s home from Geneva; in short, the house could have been in Scarsdale! It had whirlpool appliances and mattresses with box springs (until then, I had only seen or slept on foam mattresses).

            We returned to the chairman’s for a really delicious lunch under the shade of a huge tree. Since no one had a bottle opener, the chairman turned one soda bottle upside down and hooked the top to the other one to open the bottle. At the end of the meal, Ronen attempted the trick. He managed to open a bottle, but he opened the one that was upside down spraying soda everywhere! We all had a good laugh.

            The chairman shared stories with us from his childhood, like what it was like starting primary school at age fourteen after having grown up looking after cows and digging in the fields all day. He also showed us a picture of his father and his three wives. At the end of the meal, everyone exchanged thank you’s and blessings and then we sang Hineh Ma Tov Umanaim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad, how good and pleasant it is for brothers to sit together. On our way back to town, we stopped at the Wambedde’s village home so that we could show our family where we slept, bathed, and lived.

            That afternoon, Ronen took a ride on the back of Levert’s motorcycle as the rest of the group rested and prepared for dinner at Anne’s house, where Adam and I lived when we first arrived in Uganda… More to come!!

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