February 18, 2008

By Rabbi Shira Milgrom

Framed against the hills of eastern Uganda, our next AJWS partner project sets up office to welcome us. The grantee is UCOBAC, Uganda Community Based Association for Child Welfare. The office is an open field. Wooden benches and some over-stuffed chairs appear out of nowhere, and we sit down in the shade to hear testimony after testimony. We are witnesses to the power of one.

Alice, the quiet, steady, empowering presence behind this NGO, had already explained to us about the villages along Kenya's border with eastern Uganda. They are the truck stops along the Nairobi/Kampala route, where the sex trade is the primary source of income for many women. Alice explained to us that truck drivers pay more for sex without a condom, and since the poverty in the region is so great, women opt for unprotected sex for the small additional income. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS infection is therefore much higher in this region than in most parts of Uganda. But since the communities are rural and far away from urban or town centers (hence the office in the middle of a field), the suffering that follows in the wake of AIDS (illness, death, orphans, children-headed households) has until now been overlooked.

UCOBAC, however, is successfully addressing these issues. A key ingredient to their achievements is community-based organizing. They identify volunteers, whose regular home-based visits in turn identify the most vulnerable of the community and provide ongoing support. The organization's limited resources are allocated to the most vulnerable of the vulnerable: for example, a mother and four children who sleep on a mat on a dirt floor, covered by the same cloth that the mother wears as clothing during the day. These households are empowered through simple ways to generate income (for example, owning enough chickens to provide eggs for the household and to sell for profit).

Sounds small? It feels enormous. Volunteer after volunteer (an usually high percentage of men in Uganda participate in ongoing service) stands up and speaks to us about what it means to them to be volunteers. Before, they had no sense of belonging in the world. Now they have a story to tell, about where they have been and who they now are. They have grown in the esteem of community members. Many, both volunteers and recipients, are HIV-positive. Their new-found courage to be open about their status makes it possible for others to open up as well, and to receive care and treatment.

And the difference in the life of the recipients? Yes, the hut may house several children, and the "closet" is most likely a rope strung high across the room, over which their few clothes are hung. But the children sleep on beds and mattresses and under mosquito netting; the animals have separate pens and cages; the dirt courtyard is clean and swept into beautiful patterns; and the avocado and jackfruit trees are heavy with fruit. Sounds small? It's the difference between life and death, shame and dignity.

One by one, the villagers expressed profound gratitude for the faithfulness and support of AJWS. But as has so often been the case on this trip, we felt that we received far more than we gave – for in the face of despair, they gave us hope.