Hineh Ma Tov - How Good It Is


February 15, 2008

By David Elcott

Sometimes it just all comes together. Shabbat was spent with the Abayudaya, the small community of Ugandan Jews who suffered terrible oppression under Idi Amin and are only now reviving. We celebrated with them and sang their melodies, learned from High Church psalm hymns. They are African, and their village looks almost indistinguishable from any other, except for the synagogue and the Hebrew names.  They are used to "bazungu" – white folk – so few introductions were needed.

As the sun set on Friday evening, the AJWS group welcomed Shabbat in this hillside village, dancing L'cha Dodi with them.  Having practiced well, we began singing the Abayudaya version of Hineh Ma Tov - how good it is for brothers and sisters to be together - as we danced around in the simply plastered synagogue open to the moist air.  Strange and at home at the same time. Some of us noted the complex feelings we had since we expected a Jewish group to be more modern, more like us, the ways Jews "should" be. They are working hard to move forward with a man from the village studying to be a rabbi in California, a medical officer trying to expand his clinic to the region and a few of their kids at the university. 

This morning, Bernard Mujasi, the governor of the district here on the eastern Kenyan border of Uganda, spoke in a refreshingly open and straightforward way: the government is abandoning the peasants, maternal and infant mortality are unbearably high, as are levels of corruption. He was passionate and everyone in the community says that he is sincere and speaks this way even to the president.

From that meeting we went to The Foundation for Development of Needy Communities, a spectacular complex of programs on a beautiful campus, all imagined and created by a visionary young man named Sam Watulatsu. The place just vibrated with energy and excitement. Even though it was Sunday, the whole staff was there – invited by the director – from managers to the guard, giving kavod – pride and honor – to everyone who is part of the enterprise. Sam could barely speak when he described how AJWS supported him in this vision, kept faith when others called him a dreamer, and then brought us to see the great successes. A truck that allows FDNC to reach further into the abandoned communities proudly had AJWS on its side -- in the heart of Africa, the Jewish community stands behind indigenous efforts of healing and growth.

This afternoon, another village, another welcome with song and dance and speeches. Everyone must be introduced, as if saying one's name out loud to us means that each individual is heard, is seen, has a place in the world, is to be remembered.

In the evening, a miracle appeared in the midst of the poverty – a brass band, nurtured by FDNC, made up of local students. The British volunteer band leader spoke of the difficulty of rehearsals for kids who are pulled away to work in the quarry for $1.50 a day, who must drop out of school for lack of school fees, who walk home after rehearsal two or three miles in the dark. And then they played two pieces by reading music, a newly acquired skill. That was followed by what felt like a gospel choir in brass – moving in rhythm, playing by ear. Music of the soul filled the air.

Each of us on this journey knows that if we took any one of the brave people we have met home with us, their lives would be transformed. How can we leave them? As we drove by and kids looked up, what must they think of our privilege? How indeed can we not love them once we have encountered them and, if so, how can we turn away?  Our hands are constantly plied with cards and scraps of paper filled with e-mail addresses, random people and names who want us to know they exist and hope that we will connect with them. Traveling as a tourist in Africa, we would be voyeurs.  Instead, because we are traveling with AJWS, we are partners in the solutions and not just viewers of the suffering. Because we know that AJWS can act on our behalf, there is solace and hope.  Each of us will leave here, but not abandon all those we have met, because we are now irrevocably linked with the careful and passionate work of AJWS.

There are no old people in Uganda. The average age is 18; people are old by 40, and most are dead by their fifties. It is a nation of children.  They need parents. We cannot be their parents, but we can – through AJWS – support the indigenous efforts of a whole nation to move from slavery to freedom and from suffering to celebration.