Right from the start, I realized that teaching in Kampala, Uganda would be difficult. I walked into a classroom of at least sixty students of various ages; no textbooks, pens, or pencils; and a blackboard so pale that my chalk marks vanished on impact.
Most of the school’s students live in Soweto, the wetlands slum that harbors refugees from the wars of the Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, and northern Uganda. The rest, who have no known relatives, live in Meeting Point’s orphanage. Nearly all the children, even the very young, have witnessed the death of a parent, brother, sister, aunt, or uncle—some more than once or twice.
Welcome to Meeting Point Kampala, a non-government organization devoted to helping individuals and families impacted by AIDS. “I believe that every person has the right to live and die in dignity,” MPK founder and director Noelina “Mama” Namukisa explains to us on the first day after our arrival.
My husband Lew and I are volunteering for three months under the auspices of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS)—Lew as a business consultant, I as a language teacher. Our sponsor AJWS exemplifies the Jewish values that are such an important part of our home and temple life—particularly the impulse to “repair the world.” Although Mama is a Roman Catholic, her beliefs about the dignity of each and every person resonate with my understanding of tikkun olam. I feel at home in her presence and anxious to begin.
At first, I teem with questions. Why can’t David, the 13-year-old who is still stuck in the nursery, write his name? “He’s actually doing quite well,” Mama assures me. “When he came to us as an infant, he was so sick from AIDS we thought he wouldn’t make it through the night.” And what’s the matter with Evelyn, a smart, sturdy-looking 7-year-old who sleeps in class every day? Her medical record, I find out, looks like a who’s who of diseases—AIDS from birth, followed by regular bouts of TB, malaria, and the ever-present “flu.” After a while, I learn not to probe the impossible, just to accept.
Unbelievably, though, the children seem truly happy, even joyous. They laugh easily and translate for each other when I speak English too quickly. Arguments and tears are rare on the playground, where older girls loop their arms around younger ones and the boys cheer on their friends at kickball, even when they’re on opposite teams. What accounts for this “strange” behavior? Maybe it’s because so many of these children have only each other, Lew and I speculate. Or maybe Mama has instilled in them a sense of respect for themselves and their friends.
On the inevitable days when electricity failures obstruct Lew’s work on the computer, he invites two or three children into his makeshift office to read. Undoubtedly, Evelyn comes in, snuggling up in the big, black, lean-back chair usually reserved for me. She reads…and reads…and reads. “Isn’t it time to go?” Lew suggests after an hour and a half. “Not now,” she protests. “Can’t I just copy some of the books so I can read them at home [the orphanage]?”
My goal for the orphans and other vulnerable children is to share with the teachers some of the successful methods I’ve used as a reading specialist in the public schools. The teachers’ goal, though, is to take as many breaks as they can, simply walking out of the room at regular intervals and leaving the students behind to teach themselves. They are exhausted by the 7:00am – 4:00pm schedule. Whenever two of the four teachers see me coming, they take a break and don’t return for one, two, sometimes three hours.
At first I try to teach all sixty kids at the same time, but after a few hours I too am exhausted. So I compromise. With the teachers’ permission, I divide the class into compatible thirds and teach each group in the storage room. Everyone likes the new arrangement—the teachers because they have fewer students, and the students because they get more attention. And thankfully, Jane, the reading teacher, comes to most of my classes—we’re becoming fast friends.
“What sect of Christianity do you belong to?” a few coworkers ask over lunch. “Oh,” they say when we mention we are Jewish, and then: “I read about you in the Bible.” After several false starts, I learn to focus on our common heritage, rather than our differences. “It all comes from the very first book of the Bible, where it says that God made us in His own image,” I point out. “In God’s eyes, every person is deserving of respect. That’s why Judaism, as well as Christianity and Islam, is a religion of caring—caring for those around you—especially the poor, the orphan, and the widow.” Everyone understands this explanation.
On our last week in Kampala, the students, especially Evelyn, put their arms around me on the playground, sad to see us depart. Jane asks me to find an American “pen-pal” for her son. Mama begs us to return. Lew and I plan to do so, hopefully within the next two years, but life has a way of interfering with long-range plans and we’re not really sure. I’m filled with regret. Yet I take solace in the hope that I’ve left as much understanding, both educational and personal, as I’ve gained; and I take comfort in the teaching from Pirke Avot: “You may not be able to finish God’s work, but you are obliged to continue.”
Lew and Judy Priven are members of Adat Shalom in Potomac, Maryland.