December 15, 2018

Journey to Uganda: Hunger, thirst and happiness

It was  a scene that repeated itself every time we arrived at a new village in rural Uganda. First, the villagers, who were expecting us, came running toward us as we unloaded our tired bodies from our large, rickety van after hours of slogging on dirt roads — roads that made you crave the smooth asphalt of Los Angeles freeways.

Bar Riese, an Israeli woman in her late 20s, was usually first out of the van. She would walk briskly toward the villagers, hugging a large green notebook in her left arm. As the villagers got closer, Bar picked up her pace. Within seconds, the villagers surrounded her, jumping in unison, their arms swinging wildly. Bar, unable to restrain herself, would jump and dance along with them, swinging only her right arm because her left was still holding the green notebook.

I would mostly stand back and take in the scene. I was just glad nobody was pulling me in to dance, as they do at weddings and bar mitzvahs. But the sight of Bar jumping and dancing moved me. In the van, she hardly looked like the dancer type — she talked about things such as solar panels, digital monitoring devices, malaria pills, the distance between villages and trip logistics, always jotting little notes in her green notebook.

But when we got to the villages, she morphed into the dancer type.

The villagers made it easy to dance. They often brought drums and chanted their tribal melodies. On a few occasions, they performed a song especially for us in broken English.

Sharing love: Innovation: Africa (IA) founder Sivan Ya’ari and other IA team members dance with villagers at the Burundya orphanage. Photos by Jon Cassel

One of the songs we heard in an orphanage was about malaria, a disease transmitted by mosquitos that kills about 100,000 Ugandans a year — mostly children.

“Malaria, malaria, go away!” the kids would sing in harmony, as they performed a choreographed dance.

Another song used a phrase we heard over and over again in every village: “We are very happy.”

We are very happy to welcome you, we are very happy to receive you, we are very happy for this arrangement, we are very happy for this or that — I think if someone ever came to these villagers and told them, “You can only use four English words the rest of your life,” they would pick, “We are very happy.”

But how could that be? How could living with severe shortages of basic things such as clean water, food, medicine and electricity lead to “We are very happy”?

That question lingered with me throughout the trip. I wondered how much of their happiness was just the sheer excitement of seeing people from the outside honoring them with a visit, and how much was gratitude for what we were bringing. Or was there something else?

We certainly brought some good things. I was traveling with Innovation: Africa (IA), an Israeli nonprofit that brings Israeli ingenuity to African villages. According to its website, since the group’s founding in 2008, it has provided lighting, clean water, food and proper medical care to more than 675,000 people in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bringing water: The dedication ceremony at the Buwakhanyinya village, at the magic moment when clean water starts to flow.

My trip, which took place over the July Fourth weekend, was no tourist excursion; it was a five-day working trip through hundreds of miles of rural expanse and rough terrain. At each stop, the IA staff — including Israelis, Americans and local Ugandans — went over a list of things it was bringing to the villages, and discussed past and future projects.

But the first thing they brought was love.

Before we got down to the business of solar panels, drip irrigation, light bulbs, food, seeds or whatever else was in that green notebook, we had other business to take care of — such as dancing, hugging, shmoozing, singing, hearing welcome speeches from the village elders and making speeches of our own.

My friend Sivan Ya’ari from Tel Aviv, who founded IA and who convinced me to tag along on the trip, is fearless and spontaneous. She’s so fearless and spontaneous, in fact, that she got it into her head that I was this “philosopher from Los Angeles” — so, of course, she would introduce me as such and ask me to speak everywhere we went.

Dancing was out of the question, but speaking I couldn’t decline. As I looked at the beautiful faces of the children for inspiration, and at the noble women dressed in regal, multicolored robes, I would channel my inner tikkun olam voice and let my heart do the speaking.

With a translator by my side, I’d say things like, “We come here not as Americans, Israelis or Jews, but as children of the same God. We are here as your brothers and sisters.” When the villagers erupted in joy at that message of divine equality, I felt as if Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Jewish World Watch was speaking through me. A little more of this, I thought, and I might become a liberal activist.

The truth is, I meant every word. Either Judaism teaches that we’re all created in the image of God or it doesn’t. Either we’re all God’s children or we’re not. Granted, it may be hard to think of a criminal in those benevolent terms, but even that criminal started off as an innocent child looking for happiness and clean water.

In my few days in Uganda, I saw lots and lots of innocent children looking for happiness and clean water. Or a mattress, or a light bulb, or a book, or a bowl of rice.

They were not expecting handmade Chanukah cards when we arrived at the village of Katira, one of the more festive villages we visited. We brought the cards on behalf of the IKAR community in Los Angeles, which since 2011 has adopted Katira and raised money to bring solar-powered electricity to the village.

IKAR moment: At the Katira village, David Suissa presents Chanukah greetings on behalf of the IKAR community in Los Angeles. IKAR has adopted Katira and raised money to bring solar-powered electricity to the village’s school.

As I read aloud a few of the greetings from the children of IKAR, I spoke about the confluence of “light” that came together at that very moment. We were bringing the physical light of electricity and the spiritual light of friendship, all connected through the light of Chanukah. We were also bringing blank cards for the children of Katira to send their own messages of friendship to the children of IKAR.

The theme of light came up again when we arrived at a tiny synagogue in the village of Putti on Friday night. The Jews of Putti are part of the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda, who trace their origins to military leader Semei Kakungulu’s conversion to Judaism in 1919. The Putti synagogue, which from the outside looks like an ordinary brick hut, follows the Orthodox tradition, with a mechitzah separating men and women.

The big news that night was the two light bulbs that hung from the ceiling of the shul. As the rabbi welcomed us, he made sure to thank our group for helping bring this simple light to their synagogue to help them pray.

When Sivan invited me to speak, it was a no-brainer. I spoke about the light bulbs. “I think we have too much light and too much electricity in the synagogues of Los Angeles,” I said. “There, I see too much. Here, I see just enough. Just enough to read the words of the prayer book, just enough to pray. You are teaching us tonight the value of just enough.”

The community is poor and certainly can use help, but they make do. They have enough prayer books, including my favorite siddur (Koren, from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), and they’re fluent in several Shlomo Carlebach melodies, which they were singing when we entered their shul Friday night.

What the tribe is praying for these days is to make aliyah to Israel. A few years ago, they caught a break when they were adopted by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, who has brought tribal leaders to study Torah in Israel and is helping them undergo official Orthodox conversions that will be accepted by the Chief Rabbinate.

Davening at Friday night services at the Abayudaya Jews’ synagogue in the village of Putti. Innovation: Africa recently inaugurated electricity and light bulbs to replace candles at the synagogue.

The visit to the Jewish community was an odd interlude for me — I saw people of my own tribe who looked just like the village tribes I had just visited. If ever I needed evidence that we were all God’s children …

I experienced another odd interlude on Sunday morning, when Sivan invited me to speak at a church in Mbale, where we were staying. The church was a large, open, modest stone structure with wooden benches that were about a third full. What could a proud Jew say in an African church?

I remembered something an energy expert had told me a few days earlier, when we were both on the roof of a water tower discussing a solar panel just below us. I asked him what made the solar energy work — the heat or the light? It was the light, he said, before giving me a mini-class on the science of solar panels.

I used that nugget in speaking to the churchgoers. It wasn’t heat that would repair the world, I said, it was light. We were Jews who came to Uganda to bring God’s light from the sun so that the children of Uganda can read books at night, drink cleaner water, grow better food, have better-lit schools and lead better lives. Christians are all about love, I said. Bringing this light to Uganda was how Jews were expressing their own love for God’s children.

Despite the loving sentiments that I felt for the villagers throughout the trip, I can’t say I felt the same way about the leaders of the country. There are plenty of natural resources in Uganda, including enormous reservoirs of clean water buried in giant aquifers. There’s also plenty of oil.

Guess which one takes precedence with the strongmen running the country? It’s not even close. It is oil that brings the money to fund palaces; it is oil that empowers the leaders and helps them control the people. Pumping clean water with the same urgency would only empower the people — and then what?

This is the unspoken outrage in seeing courageous Israelis trek to Uganda to help provide basic services to remote villages. It makes one ask these innocent, American-type questions, such as: Why is their government not doing this?

I wondered sometimes what goes through the minds of the wealthy leaders of Uganda when they see Israeli Jews set up offices in their country to help bring water and electricity to their citizens. What are these Israelis doing here? Aren’t they making us look bad? Should we boot them out?

In reality, IA has developed good relations with government officials, so, regardless of whose responsibility it is to provide these services, the group’s efforts are welcomed.

I never got a sense that the villagers themselves expect much from their government. That might be another reason why the people are “very happy” — they have been conditioned by the plague of low expectations.

At one of the villages where we inaugurated a new water tower, I spoke to those expectations. “The water we are bringing you today,” I said, “is not a gift. It is your right. Just as you have the right to have clean air to breathe, you have the right to have clean water to drink. Every child of God has that right.”

Ultimately, if people power in Africa won’t come through democratic and accountable governments, it may come through a democracy that governments will find hard to stop … the democracy of the Internet.

So far, the only piece of technology in African hands is the old-fashioned cellphone. Many say that the revolution will begin when African masses start to hold the Internet in their hands.

Sivan Ya’ari and Sabrine Bilger sit with the rabbi’s son in the Putti synagogue.

In a 2011 report on the future potential of the online world to transform Africa, the Economist noted, “The mobile web is a more potent tool than anything else in African history, because it is interactive, participatory, and to some degree democratic and anonymous.

“On the Internet you can doubt, you can challenge, you can be openly gay, join the opposition or find fellow believers, and most of all you can be entertained and informed in those long hours in traffic jams or evenings in crowded rooms lit by a single bulb.”

Innovation: Africa has the Internet on its radar screen for future services, but for now, the group has its hands full expanding its water and solar energy efforts throughout Africa. As Sivan Ya’ari often notes, however, the ultimate goal of IA is to enable a better education by providing basics such as light and clean water. Connecting the children to the Internet would be just a natural extension.

I have to say, though, it’s hard for me to imagine the kids in the villages carrying their smartphones and nervously checking their digital screens every few seconds for the latest text or tweet or Instagram message. One thing that makes these children beautiful is their serenity, their impossibly long attention spans. They could sit for hours and pay attention to each other, to us, to the land and to all that was going on around them. Aside from the Shabbat table, I can’t get my kids to sit still for longer than 30 seconds.

But technology has a way of finding people. What will happen when the Ugandan kids of tomorrow go on Google, YouTube and Facebook and discover a world their parents never saw? When they learn to expect more from life and fight for their rights as equal children of God?

We won’t know for a while.

In the meantime, what we know is that there are young Israelis and Jews trekking to Africa, working with the locals, dancing with the villagers, driving for hours on terrible roads, filling green notebooks with to-do lists regarding solar panels, water pumps, eggplant seeds, mattresses and digital monitoring devices … and being very happy doing it.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at