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Archive for April, 2008

It was just after we had buried my mother in the banana plantation in the village….I was in the house along, resting in my grandmama’s bed when Daddy’s friend, Mr Nsozi, tiptoed into my room. And everyone on the hill knows he has AIDS…[H]e told me not to scream and said that if I made any noise, I would not be his friend any more or he would even kill me. I was so, so scared that I felt dizzy. Mr Nsozi held me down with his strong arms and brought his body close to mine while spreading my legs apart…. I was in terrible pain, I screamed so Mr Nsozi closed my mouth in his hand.

This is an excerpt from How Kwezi Got Into Trouble by Foundation Junior Living Youth Series. As it explains on the back cover, this story is one of a series written by some of Uganda’s leading writers of children’s books. “These stories are told in a captivating manner to help the youth enhance their self-esteem and life skills to resist temptations that may expose them to risk[y] behaviour, which may lead them to contracting HIV/AIDS. These stories are drawn from the youth’s backgrounds, using characters they can identify with, and experiences they are familiar with.” This eight-year-old girl is raped by her father’s best friend on the night of her mother’s funeral. The story is about her struggling to confide in her teacher about the incident, getting tested, and then teaching others about AIDS.

I read this startling story in a bookstore two weeks ago when I was looking for books to read with Paul Tiboti’s family. I have started visiting on a weekly basis Paul and his four younger cousins with whom he lives, all of whom have been orphaned by AIDS. When my parents came to Uganda, they brought the family a deck of cards, which they use on a nightly basis. Each week, I try to teach them a new game. After a few weeks, I decided that it would be nice if I could read stories with them during my visits as well. So, Beth Rosen and I went to some “book” stores, more like stationary shops that carry books that correspond to the Ugandan curriculum. We finally reached a store that had some promising options. The one I bought was a story about a boy who receives a radio from his father for his birthday. When he and his friends are dancing outside, a monkey steals the radio. The three boys then lay out a row of mangos to entice the monkey away from the tree. Then one of the boys climbs the tree and saves the radio. First of all, I think this story accurately captures the difference between many American children’s books and ones that relate directly to Ugandan culture. Anyway, in sifting through the books, I also came across How Kwezi Got Into Trouble. When I read the aforementioned passage, my jaw dropped, and I began to really think about and want to try to articulate the differences between Ugandan and American childhood. I couldn’t believe that this story could actually be something that children “can identify with.”

But then I started reflecting on my own experiences. Visiting Paul’s family each week has not been easy although it is always very fun. I come face-to-face with what it means for children to be orphaned, but not just children, entire families! I witness the burden that Paul, a twenty-five year old, has to shoulder being responsible for four children under the age of 13. Paul still has not found a job despite having a diploma in water engineering and the family struggles to make ends meet on about $25 a month that they receive as welfare through BCC. Sometimes Paul brings in a little bit more money from side jobs, but over the past month or so that I have been visiting numerous times, the family has been scrounging for food, and even when they have food, it’s not a lot.

Two weeks ago, Paul had to travel to Kampala to find out about a possible job opportunity. Although the children’s older brother, Seth,, who is currently in teacher training college, came home for a few days, he had to return to school that Monday evening, leaving the four children in the home alone. Tuesday evening, I walked home from BCC with the two third grade girls. When we reached home, the girls began preparing tea on the firewood stove. Before we could light the fire, we needed to chop the wood. Khaana, who is eight-years-old, picked up an ax bigger than she, placed her barefoot on one end of the log, and tried to chop the other end. I asked if I could help, though I knew that I would probably be even less successful than she was. After a few minutes of barely chopping any wood, I put down the ax. A neighbor immediately asked Khaana to bring the wood over to her and chopped it for us. Then, I washed dishes with Rachel, who is around ten, as Khaana sat in the kitchen filled with smoke watching to know when the water boiled in the kettle. Rachel asked if I eat white ants, insects that the children collect at night during the rainy season. After replying no, she showed me a huge pot full of them, which she fried on the fire, after the tea was finished. The two fourth grade boys, both around twelve years old, came home shortly after we had finished preparing tea. We read the story about the radio thief, played a few intense rounds of cards, and then the children walked me to the roadside. I asked them if they needed anything. They told me the only food in the house was posho (maize flour) and asked for some greens. I bought them a cabbage for 30 cents and asked if they needed anything else. They told me they also didn’t have cooking oil, paraffin for the lamp (they don’t have power), and even a matchbox. For less than a dollar, I bought them small quantities of all of these things and left.

I spent the night thinking that these children would prepare themselves dinner, put themselves to bed, wake themselves up, and prepare themselves for school. I just remember how more often than not, my mother was my alarm clock and I rarely had to prepare dinner for myself, and never on a firewood stove, if I would have even been allowed near such a thing at eight years old. But these children have no choice. They have no parent to rely on, just an older cousin who does an immense amount for them but has his limits as well!

The next day, I asked Rachel’s teacher to send her to the clinic because she had a cough. When I returned to clinic instead of Rachel, I found Khaana sitting on the bench shivering with a fever of 103.8 degrees. I sat with her as the nurses did intake and then took her to the lab for blood work. Her malaria test came back positive. The nurses started her on treatment and prepared a bed for her to rest on for the rest of the day. I checked on her as often as possible, gave her some paper for coloring, and made sure she had lunch. (She was very, very excited when I told her she could keep the pen with which she was coloring.) The nurses washed her down when her fever got too high and checked on her repeatedly. But for the most part she was alone. Paul returned that evening, thank God!

These experiences have begun to slowly expose me to what it means to be an orphan, to have no parents. This young girl, like her siblings, is so lucky to have an older cousin like Paul who cares for them as best as he can despite the inadequate resources. These children are also so lucky to be sponsored through BCC and have the organization’s emotional and financial support.

According to Helen Epstein in her new (highly recommended) book The Invisible Cure about the African Aids epidemic, “By 2006, some twelve million African children had lost at least one parent to AIDS. A small fraction received help from dedicated, community based organization….[T]he vast majority were cared for by relatives, often desperately needy themselves” (p.213-214). And to make matters worse, Epstein cites studies that indicate that orphans are 3-4 times more likely than other children to contract HIV in their teens, possibly because of emotional and material deprivation (p.214).

As I am writing this blog post and listening to the local radio, I heard an advertisement by the Ministry of Health in which a mother asks a health official what happens if she tests positive for HIV/AIDS. The health official explains that if she tests positive and then takes the proper precautions, she can avoid transmitting the illness to her child.

The young girl in the story from the beginning of this post contracts HIV when she is raped on the evening of her mother’s funeral. After some time, she gathers the strength to become a youth leader at her school and in her community in fighting the spread of AIDS. I pray for a time when children’s books won’t need to contain stories of rape and HIV/AIDS and when children won’t have to be orphaned because of this and other devastating diseases.

An update on Paul’s family: one of the children’s sponsors bought the family a cow, which will eventually give them more cows and milk!!! Also, some generous friends of the family have allowed Paul and his cousins to dig and plant on their land. The crop in July will hopefully be able to help sustain the family for many months.

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I want to thank everyone who has made a donation toward the library. So far we have raised more than $5,000! Slowly but surely, we are getting closer to making this dream a reality. I want to remind those who have yet to donate, that American Friends of BCC is still accepting donations!!

You can donate through paypal (there is a button on the right side of the blog) or you can write a check to American Friends of BCC and mail it to:
223 Albemarle Rd.
White Plains, NY 10605

Please let me know if you have any questions or other fund raising suggestions.

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Pesach in Ethiopia?!?

No, it’s not an April fool’s joke. Adam and I are actually spending Pesach in Ethiopia…

We will be sure to keep you posted about all of our adventures there.

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I was really excited to find out what Purim at the Abayudaya would be like. I had a feeling that such a fun and entertaining holiday would be a favorite among the Abyudaya and I was correct. At Hebrew/Judaica classes on the Sunday morning before Purim, as I was asking some questions about Purim and reviewing the four mitzvoth of the holiday, I was asked the question- how can we be celebrating a holiday that commemorates Jews slaughtering over 75,000 Persians on the 13th and 14th of Adar? I agreed that it is not easy to read that part of the megilla. It reminded me of the midrash about shirat hayam, the Song of the Sea, when God reprimands the angels for singing praises to God as they watch the Egyptians drown. God rebukes them by saying that we should never rejoice about the suffering of another human being. Through further discussion, we explored the central theme of opposites in the megilla and the customs of the holiday. In the story, instead of Haman riding on the back of the king’s horse wearing the king’s robe, it is Mordechai. And instead of Haman causing the deaths of thousands of Jews, Mordechai and Esther facilitated the deaths of thousands of Persians. It is this reversal of components of the story that makes this holiday so topsy-turvy. We wear costumes to appear as people we are not. Some people drink alcohol to confuse their perception of the truth. And we fast the day before the holiday only to have a large festive meal a day later. It is this nature of the holiday that makes it so fun and so bizarre. The conversation was eye opening for all of us and I really looked forward to celebrate with the community.
To celebrate our being in Africa, and the fact that we are very far from being African, we wore fancy African attire. Maital wore a bright blue Gomezi, which is a silk gown with puffed up shoulders and really large belt that is worn by Ugandan women at introductions (the traditional ceremony before the wedding) and other celebratory events. Some older women wear gomezis on a regular basis. I wore a kanzu, a full-length white shirt down to my toes with a suit jacket covering the top half. This is an outfit worn by men at introductions and other festive events. It was hysterical, and people were really excited to see us wearing their traditional clothing. I ended up reading the Megilla from a scroll that was miraculously in the back of the ark. Who knew? And Maital was my assistant. She corrected my words and motioned at the end of every verse. No one else dressed up really, but it was a fun experience and we have pictures to prove it. The next day, the kids put on a Purim shpiel in Luganda and did a great job.
One difficult thing we had to deal with was deciding what to do for mishloach manot (sending meals to friends) and matanot l’evyonim, presents for the poor. We have been very conscious this year about giving monetary gifts to the people we work with. A lot of people ask us for money, and it has been hard to say no. We feel that giving money to people that ask is not the most helpful thing we can do for that person and it also creates a precedent for our relationship with those we meet and for volunteers in the future. We ended up giving gift packages to our other volunteer friends in Mbale and buying food for a family with whom we already have a close relationship.
We were supposed to go back for Shabbat, but we go stuck in the rain and ran out of time. The hard thing about being dependent on motorcycles is that in the rainy season, it’s often too wet to go anywhere! But instead, we settled for a nice Shabbat at home. We continued celebrating Purim two weeks later when we received delicious humentashen from Maital’s family! Thanks!

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a visit to apac

On Easter Monday morning, a national holiday in Uganda, Adam and I woke up at 4:30 to travel to Apac (pronounced Apach), a district four hours north of Mbale, with two members of the Nabugoye Hill Jewish community, Rabbi Aaron, the headmaster of the elementary school, and Seth, the headmaster of the high school. Basically all we knew was that we were going to meet a group of people who want to be Jewish. We had already met four members of their community on Purim at Nabugoye Hill. They have started coming to Nabugoye Hill for holidays and at other times to learn more about Judaism. In fact, one teenage girl from the community is currently living with Rabbi Aaron and attending Semei Kakungulu high school, the Jewish high school on Nabugoye Hill. But this morning would be the first time that Jews visited their community.

So, just after 5:00 am we set out on what would be a very bumpy journey. After about one hour we left the paved road for dirt roads that got worse as we went. To give you an idea, at one point, the road was closed for construction, so in our small station wagon, we drove off the road on a path for bicycles in grass almost as high as our car. Eventually, we ended up in someone’s compound and when we drove through, the family just stared at us shocked. We followed this path back to the main road and continued driving. On the last leg of the journey, we were on a dirt road with pot holes, actually puddles since they were filled with water, which stretched across the entire road. The driver would stop and we would discuss which route was the best way around (or through) the ditch. But, eventually we made it.

We arrived to a group of people standing together holding pink flowers and singing in their local language. As they continued to sing, we followed them to their synagogue, about a fifteen minute walk from where we stopped the car. Although few in the community speak English, every person shook our hands and welcomed us. We then entered the synagogue, a large square mud building with a high thatched roof. On the opposite wall from where we entered are painted a Jewish star and a menorah, seven branched candelabra, and in the front of the room is a small table with a few chumashim, Bibles, and a few siddurim, prayer books. The community pointed us visitors to the seats in the front of the room. The community filed in after us and sat behind us either on chairs or on mats on the floor. The woman sat on the left and the men on the right. Before the chairman and vice-chairman of the community officially welcomed us, the community sang two other songs for us. Their leader, Shmuel, explained to us that the community wrote their own words for these songs, one of which meant, the Israelites left Egypt, got stuck at the Red Sea, but then the Egyptians drowned.

After the leaders thanked us for coming, they introduced the community to us family-by-family. The husband was called up and his wife and children followed. They told us their names and then posed for a photo. Everyone had Hebrew names; while most were familiar ones, like Shoshana,  Rebecca, Yochanan, and Joshua, some were a bit more unusual although definitely biblical, like Lot, Abel, and Job. After we introduced ourselves, Rabbi Aaron explained that this visit is the beginning of a longer term relationship. While members of the Apac community had traveled to Nabugoye Hill to learn from the Jews there, this time, we had traveled to learn from them. Then he explained that we would learn from each family, one at a time. I still don’t think that I really understood what we would be learning from the families and how the process would be conducted. Only after everyone, except one family, left the synagogue, and we arranged ourselves at the front of the room with Shmuel there to serve as a translator (this community speaks a different language than those around Mbale), did I begin to realize what was happening. We would be interviewing families to try to better understand their connection to and knowledge of Judaism. In June a beit din, a court of three rabbis, will be coming to Uganda that will be able to conduct more conversations and it was our job to help determine if this community (or which families) might be able to convert this time.

When we asked the families questions, the father was always the one to respond. We made sure to direct at least one or two questions to every mother as well. Usually the question for the mother was about the home and how she imparted Judaism on her children. By the way, every family had more than two children, with many having five to eight all under the age of 15, and the majority of mothers were breastfeeding. In most cases, when we asked the family about their commitment to learning Hebrew, their children recited the aleph-bet for us. Most of the children pronounced some of the letters wrong but almost all of the children over the age of six knew the letters. (It’s still not entirely clear to us who taught them the alphabet.)

We began the interviews by asking the families when and why they were Jewish. The families have been Jewish for various lengths of time, the longest being since 1996 and the most recent since March 2007 (at least that’s the date that these two men, around 40 years old, were circumcised). Almost every family told us that God made many promises to the Jews, they are his people, and that all nations must accept knowledge from Jews. When we asked them where they learned or read this, two of the fathers immediately cited Psalms 147:19-20: “He issued his commands to Jacob, His statutes and rules to Israel. He did not do so for any other nation; of such rules they know nothing” and Zechariah 8:2-23: “The many people and the multitude of nations shall come to seek the lord of Hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the Lord. Thus said the Lord of Hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every tongue will take hold of every Jew by a corner of his cloak and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” Many people also mentioned wanting to worship only one God. One father explained further that when a Protestant, he worshipped Trinity, but preferred now to worship three gods instead of one. When we asked about Islam, he explained that they observe the Sabbath on Friday instead of Saturday.

The community has very limited knowledge, but what can you really expect when the closest Jewish community is four hours away with a private car (and no one in the community has a private car) and we were the first Jews to visit their village? When asked what holidays they observe, everyone said Shabbat, some said Yom Kippur, fewer said Pesach, and one said Rosh Hashanah and Purim. When we asked about which basic Jewish laws they observe, most answered Shabbat and then when asked further, they usually replied either the 10 commandments or kashrut, Jewish dietary laws. We would usually follow up and asked when and how they observed the Sabbath. All the families knew that the Sabbath began on Friday and lasted until Saturday night (we didn’t probe about the start and end times more specifically). When we asked about Shabbat in more detail, the families always said that they rested. We had to ask more questions to better understand what they meant by rested and usually found out that the families didn’t cook and knew not to start fires. One man articulately explained why they kept Shabbat; they told us that Shabbat connects humans to God. This same man told us that the community has been searching for the true way and now finally they are on their way.

Interestingly, when we asked about family purity, most men explained that they would not sleep with their wives on Friday night. One man explained to us that he did not engage in sex with his wife on days dedicated to God. Only one family spoke about separating during the woman’s menstruation, the time when Jewish couples traditionally separate. This couple mentioned this after we asked more specific questions, so it is not clear if only one family observes this way or if we didn’t phrase our questions in such a way as to elicit this response. Anyway, Adam and I spent a lot of time trying to imagine the origin of this tradition. We wondered whether separating from each other on a day dedicated to God had to do with their Christian past or whether there were other traditional/local reasons why this custom may have developed.

We even learned about another Jewish community about 30 kms from the one in Apac that we were visiting. The two men, Joab and Abraham, who had been circumcised in March traveled to Apac without their families due to the distance. Joab has nine kids and Abraham has two. Anyway, these two men are running a Jewish community of five families that meets under a mango tree and uses one siddur, prayer book, which they received from the Apac community that probably has only a half-dozen of their own. These two men don’t read English, and definitely not Hebrew, so they said that a student in the community helps them read the English from the prayer book.

The trip raised many questions for us: What can we expect a remote African community to know about Judaism? How should they learn more? Should the criteria of conversion be modified at all based on the access one has to knowledge? If someone wants to learn more about Judaism, and more difficult – if an entire community wants to convert- what is our responsibility to teach them? Who determines who can convert? Can you convert some individuals in a community and not others? What about members of a family? How does one actually determine one’s sincerity about Judaism?

We really felt privileged to have the opportunity to see and experience this process first hand.

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