Havurah team aids Ugandans
By Polina Olsen
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When Ugandans respectfully called them elderly, the Havurah Shalom group laughed. The 10 members from Portland’s Reconstructionist congregation felt anything but old as they mixed and hauled bricks, plastered walls and dug a latrine in the Ugandan village.
We’re in good shape and we worked hard alongside people who were 30 or younger,” said Havurah Shalom Rabbi Joseph Wolf.
Under the auspices of the American Jewish World Service (www.ajws.org), the group spent two weeks in January helping the Uganda Orphans Rural Development Project build an early childhood education center. AJWS provides grants to grassroots organizations in the developing world. Their travel and work projects incorporate Jewish values and study.
“We made friends, old and young, but, most important, we began to understand the poverty that accompanies subsistence living,” said Nathan Cogan, a Portland State University professor emeritus who was part of the group.
“I know each one of us was shaken to the core,” said Wolf.
Studying the AJWS curriculum after work each day helped everyone relate the experience to life back home. Each person thought about how their lives would change–from working with Portlanders without resources, to recycling bath water, to composting.
The group plans to stay connected with their new friends in Uganda and has plans for projects like sending mosquito nets and clothes.
The Havurah Shalom group was based in Ramogi (pop. 1,800), about six miles from the Kenyan border. It lacks facilities like electricity and running water. Water pumps are half-a-mile apart and subsistence farms grow cassava, millet and barley without irrigation.
One- or two-room brick and mortar dwellings house large numbers of people, many of them HIV/AIDS orphans living with relatives. The few local stores seem more like cubbyholes. Their shelves are half-empty. People ride bicycles down the rutted dirt road to reach town, five or six miles away.
“We got to know and adore four generations of a resilient, friendly, clan-oriented Christian community,” said Cogan.
Since dialects vary greatly, the lingua franca of Uganda is English, which made communication easier.
According to Cogan, the Africans in this area are Catholic and Anglican, although Pentecostals make inroads especially among the young.
“We had a wonderful Shabbat Friday night and Saturday,” said Wolf. “A number of people came and sang and danced with us.”
Although children wore the same torn shirt all week, each had special bright clothes for occasions and Sunday.
All agreed the community provided their best for the guests, although conditions were Spartan by most American standards.
“There were three or four tiny low buildings; each had two rooms with two beds,” said Wolf.
Each room had an accompanying bathroom and buckets of water were delivered every day. The gated compound included a dining room—“we treated it as a buffet table”—and separate outdoor food preparation area. The group ate plantains, rice, beans and potatoes, and sometimes squash and peanut sauce.
Poverty also meant 60 children to a classroom, Wolf said, referring to the school his group helped build. They laid floors, plastered walls and helped build a kitchen from scratch. They smashed bricks from an old latrine and carried them over to build a new one.
“Materials are valuable—there’s no waste,” said Wolf. He said wooden beams for the triangulated roof were carried in by cows since “there are no machines.”
A side trip to the local Jewish community was unlike any other experience in Uganda. According to Cogan, the Abayudaya started in the 1920s when a Ugandan general convinced his tribe to convert. Today, the 700-strong group’s center is the town of Mbale.
“All members of Havurah Shalom spent an astounding Shabbat in shul with the Abayudaya,” recalled Cogan.
“When they were singing the psalms they had these African tunes and wonderful harmony,” said Wolf. “Then they finished that song and started regular prayer—you could have been in America.”
When it was time for the Havurah Shalom group to leave, the ceremony went on for six hours. Children played beautiful music on simple African harps as people sang in choruses and danced. Elders, politicians, even the local bishop made speeches.
“The people we worked with were warm, gracious, beautiful and joyous,” said Wolf. “The kids ran out to greet us 30 or 40 at a time, whenever we were walking down the road.”