I have been privileged to volunteer as the www.kulanu.org Coordinator for Uganda, working quietly, hand in hand with Abayudaya community leaders, Kulanu treasurer Harriet Bograd, board members, and supporters from all over the US, on over 20 development and education projects. These projects are generated by the needs expressed by the community and serve the Abayudaya Jewish Community and their Muslim and Christian neighbors. I am blessed to have a family and a career that supports my participation in this work. To be honest, I prefer to do the work rather than talk about it but I have received so many requests lately I thought it was time to post some information here.

Not surprisingly, I first got involved with the Abayudaya Jewish Community through their music. One morning, I heard Rachel Namudosi Keki’s beautiful voice singing the shema Hebrew prayer to a Ugandan melody on an NPR report about the Abayudaya Jewish Community and a humanitarian visit to Uganda by a delegation from small not-for profit organization called, “Kulanu.” I ordered a tape of the radio report, learned the songs and started spreading the word about the community in my concert tours.

I finally met Abayudaya composers- musicians JJ Keki and Gershom Sizomu through Kulanu in 2001. They sang with me on my recording of JJ’s melody for L’cha Dodi for my “Kabbalah Music” CD. The friendships built from there, but the real work began soon after 9/11, and has strengthened through this terrible, frustrating time here in the US under the Bush administration. I first traveled with Kulanu in 2002 to visit my friends JJ and Gershom and the community in Uganda, and from then on I was hooked.

The Abayudaya have been living as Jews since 1919, holding onto their Jewish identity at great cost. Uganda is a country with no social services and until recently all education and assistance has been rendered mostly through Christian and Muslim religious affiliation. By choosing to be Jewish in 1919 the Abayudaya cut themselves off from support and have suffered through poverty, persecution during the reign of Idi Amin, and civil war. It has been a struggle just to survive. Kulanu became the first organization to assist the Abayudaya at their request in 1995, after receiving initial information about the community from Matt Meyer, a college student traveling in Africa. Kulanu, “all of us”, is a unique, grassroots, international network of direct action volunteers, a US NGO created by two former Peace Corps doctors, Dr. Jack Zeller and Dr. Aron Primack, and a civil rights lawyer, Karen Primack. With the help of treasurer, Harriet Bograd, who is a pioneer in not-for-profit accountability law and an amazing, high energy, jack- of- all-trades, they built a quick-witted, responsive, independent organization helping under served Jewish communities and others around the world. Thanks to Jack, Aron, Karen, Harriet, and the Abayudaya, I was welcomed to learn how to be of use.

My father was a refugee and holocaust survivor, and he had help from the large major Jewish organizations, and so I am alive today. Where were these big professional organizations in Uganda? Kulanu, grassroots and volunteer, was the only organization at the time to step up and help. Again, as the daughter of a survivor, and a person who lost her mother at 15, I know life is very short. I am very blessed- by family, by work I love, by good health. I have everything I need- like many people, I ask myself: what am I doing with it? Some of what I have been doing is working with the Abayudaya, and going back to Uganda every year since 2002, doing onsite follow-up on the many sustainable development projects we help administer by internet and cell phone all year long, and leading folks on the Jewish Life in Uganda Mitzvah Tour and Wildlife Safari (as a volunteer). I believe we do volunteer work mostly for ourselves. It is the best antidote to the despair I feel watching the evening news. We can either sit and weep and be paralyzed, or try and do a little something. I don’t even listen to the news anymore because it is too upsetting. I can’t handle it. I just focus on trying to do something constructive with my friends in Uganda.

On my first visit to Africa in February 2002 with Kulanu, we stopped in Ethiopia and met Andy Goldman of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) who turned out to be an enormous inspiration. Andy ran a community day center for those left behind in the Ethiopian Jewish migration to Israel. The remaining relatives lived in terrible conditions in the slums of Addis Ababa. Andy worked with community leaders and devised solutions to educating, feeding and employing 2000 people a day on a very, very small budget. By being creative and listening to the needs of the community together they were accomplishing a great deal, with no waste, and slowly building sustainable management skills within the community. Though I heard the center has recently been closed due to the dangerous political climate in Ethiopia I will always be grateful to Andy for his example.

All honor to the Abayudaya community for their many accomplishments. Kulanu helps Abayudaya support two schools, feed 400 African children a day, build classrooms, create economic development projects in sustainable eco-tourism, coffee,
micro-finance, crafts, music, and dried fruit, and supports public health education, women’s empowerment and adult literacy. We help administer funds, train US volunteers, sponsor fund raising speaking tours, network with other worldwide resources, and provide sustainable development leadership training. In the last five years, Kulanu and Abaydaya leaders created the first clean water, sanitation and electricity projects ever seen in these 4 Ugandan villages. Working with Kulanu’s US donors on one hand and inspiring, dedicated Abayudaya leaders on the other has been an honor, especially with Chairman and chief engineer Israel Siriri, whose tight fiscal management, design and supervisory skills gained over the course of these projects make all things possible, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who works as a tireless advocate on behalf of his community from rabbinical school in California, master farmer JJ Keki, Headmaster Aaron Kintu Moses, Headmaster Seth Jonadav, Abayudaya Women’s Association Chair Naume Sabano, youth counselor Rebecca Nantabo, Dr Sam Wamani, farmer Jacob Mwosuko, and so many others. Together we’ve shared skills in planning, budgeting and accounting, created an international export business in coffee, created the first tourism business training, the first Abayudaya small business bank, the first clean water catchment tanks, improved sanitation and negotiated a cost sharing deal with the government to bring electricity to the main village. We put in the first well providing the first running water, for the Abayudaya elementary school and area neighbors this year and for me there has been no greater joy. More beautiful new classrooms are amongst the latest projects at the primary school. Abayudaya Kulanu projects are based on the concept of sustainability and community empowerment and the last five years have been a time of historic growth.

The best book I ever read about development work is “Despite Good Intentions” by Thomas W. Dichter, a 20- year veteran in the field. The whole book was story after story about the huge failures of the professional, expert, development “industry”, and the waste of millions and millions of dollars. I was so inspired. The experts are making a huge mess. What I learned is: almost nothing works on the macro scale, but small is beautiful. Each of us can learn to be of use somehow, somewhere and cut through the depressing evening news morass. If you asked me if I ever pictured myself, as a professional musician, spending 15-20 hours a week working with folks in Uganda on such complex business and development projects, negotiating a cost sharing deal with top officials at the Ugandan Ministry of Energy, or creating an international coffee export business, I would say: not likely. But the work is addictive. Abayudaya leaders are fantastic and give me courage to try things I could never do on my own behalf. I have learned a great deal thanks to them. So much can be accomplished in Africa with relatively small amounts of money used well, supported by education and training. Is there more that needs doing? Much more. Is it perfect or easy? No. Are there misunderstandings, frustrations and hassles working across oceans, languages and cultures? Inevitably. But the Abayudaya community is visionary and inspiring in their goals and hard working in getting things done on the ground. We now have a record of accomplishment working together. Kulanu’s network of volunteer experts in every profession serve as a think tank, Kulanu supporters, from foundations to Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids, are wonderful people who appreciate that we can show them immediate, tangible results, getting much more done with much less money because we are volunteers with years of experience in Africa. Twelve years of successful Abayudaya- Kulanu work together has helped attract worldwide notice for the community and finally attention from other helping organizations, just as we always hoped it would. Due to the sustainable capacity building inherent in all Kulanu-Abayudaya projects, I believe the Abayudaya community and their neighbors are on their way towards a better future with skills in hand.

Each project has its own energy, light and spark, and has its own complex story. It’s a story of connection, of Africans and Americans problem solving together and learning from each other. Each project requires teamwork, homework and footwork. Here is some background on Abayudaya- Kulanu development projects.

The Mirembe Kawomera “Delicious Peace” Coffee Project:
Tikkun Olam (“repair of the world”).

The Abayudaya have always shared resources with their neighbors. All 20 of our Abayudaya-Kulanu projects benefit their Muslim and Christian neighbors, whether in the elementary school and high school that feeds and educates hundreds of Ugandan children each day, or our adult literacy programs, or our agriculture workshops in irrigation and appropriate farm technology for farmers; everyone attends. This is the nature of our work. For me personally it was a short leap from “Jewels of the Diaspora” to “Delicious Peace”, co-creating with farmer JJ Keki the interfaith Mirembe Kawomera “delicious peace” fair trade, kosher, organic coffee project. The “Jewels of the Diaspora: A Concert Celebration of African, African-American and Jewish Song” duo show is an interfaith, multi-cultural, musical blow-out my friend Janiece Thompson and I sing at colleges, community events and schools around the US. It was created, partly, to be an excuse for organizations to work together on something for a change. A church and a synagogue, or a Hillel and an African studies department, co-sponsor a “Jewels “ concert/ workshop, and hopefully find some common ground. We started performing it after the riots in NYC and have been doing it ever since, particularly at colleges. The interfaith, anti-racism, coalition building hidden in this fun, up-beat concert we so love singing together for years was a precursor for my work in Uganda particularly on the coffee project.

If you haven’t heard about it yet, our project supports Muslim, Jewish and Christian coffee farmers in Uganda working together in peace. We hatched it at my dining room table when JJ and Gershom were visiting us in December 2002 for a few snowy weeks here in the Berkshire Mountains during a Kulanu speaking tour. That week together we went sledding, performed in a community music jam at the general store, did some press interviews and talked about sustainable organic agriculture, visiting the conservatories of Smith College Botanic Garden. We were happy to share JJ’s passionate views on the importance of organic growing, for the health of the farmers and their families, the health of the people who buy the crops, and the planet. We talked about what crops he was growing and how struggling Ugandan farmers could eventually become more self-sufficient, how we were uncomfortable with the power imbalance of the charity model, per se; the crops are beautiful and farmers just needed training and access to markets. According to Maimonides, helping someone find work is the highest form of charity. That night at the table we came up with three poverty fighting business ideas, and with much hard work, all have come to fruition: coffee, tourism (I was so excited I wrote up the first sample “Mitzvah Tour” itinerary that night, now in its 5th year, earning $700. per traveler in employment income for the community. We trained guides and Abayudaya have now built a small guesthouse.) and a micro-finance bank project (so people could have access to small business loans, based on the Grameen Bank model made famous by Nobel Prize winner Dr. Younis. Kulanu granted the initial micro-finance seed money and Abayudaya members took bank training in Mbale, all within 2 months.) More details on sustainable, eco-tourism and micro-finance projects later.

JJ was discouraged because coffee prices had crashed, wiping out him and his neighbors. I had been hearing locally about the new international fair trade coffee movement and its price guarantees to farmers regardless of market crashes. This was news to JJ and he was elated. We set to work, with JJ going home to tell his neighbors of the promise of the Fair Trade movement and to organize the Mirembe Kawomera “Delicious Peace” Coffee Cooperative, while I did more research on fair trade and organic certifications, the supply chain and the international specialty coffee market. I studied Transfair USA and the Specialty Coffee Association web sites, and combed the web. I talked to every coffee businessperson I could find. I realized that due to the farmer’s lack of funds and training, we would need a mother cooperative and coffee processor (for husking, grading, packing and shipping) already certified organic and fair trade in Mbale. Although JJ’s Mirembe Kawomera coop farmers were already growing organically by default we needed a partnership because international certification organizations charge farmers a fortune to formally certify crops organic and Fair Trade. I found out who was already selling certified organic coffee in Uganda, and then, who was working in eastern Uganda. (Don’t reinvent the wheel!) More than one place JJ and I visited slammed the door in our face. Luckily I did find NOGAMU, Uganda’s nascent organic association, and Gumutindo cooperatives. Gumutindo was right in Mbale, though JJ had not heard of them before. Access to research on the internet discovers resources around the world and around the corner. We met with Willington Wamayeye, an great man, who created Gumutindo Organic Cooperatives. Willington had these certifications already in place, was selling organic coffee to Europe, and could train us in international standards. I hoped he would want to facilitate his first foray into the US market with support from Kulanu’s and Abayudaya’s extensive nationwide US audience, and welcome our new Mirembe Kawomera Coop to become one of his 6 coops. I promised to try and find a US company to import, roast, distribute and retail the coffee in the US. Thank goodness he got it! He got what we were trying to do and signed on with us. I don’t know how we would have done it without him.

I came home from Uganda and designed a campaign telling the story of our Mirembe Kawomera “Delicious Peace” cooperative to US coffee companies, emphasizing the messages of great coffee and interfaith peace. I researched and contacted 50 coffee companies by fax and phone. In the middle of a world going to hell in a hand basket, these brave, hard working farmers have found a way to work together for the betterment of all. They are the only good news, and I hoped, as bombs were dropping overseas, someone would understand the value of our story and help us make this fair trade organic coffee project a reality. I believed we had something special to offer, filled with hope and possibility, and that people would want to hear about and support these Muslim, Jewish and Christian farmers working together in these awful times.

Most coffee companies said we were too small to bother with, or wanted samples we did not have yet. One tried to sue us for using the word “peace” in the title of the project because they said they had a monopoly on the word “peace” associated with “coffee”. OY! I got one “yes” who did not move on it and several maybes. I kept pushing to land something solid. It took many months. Then Paul Katzeff from Thanksgiving Coffee Company called me when he received my fax. I had read about Paul in a New York Times Magazine article and had put him on our list of possible companies. To tell you the truth, when I started this I had no idea how complex the coffee business is and it’s a good thing. I would have been too overwhelmed! I didn’t know if we would have to sell 10 sacks of coffee to 25 different companies, or what. I shared the project with Paul, telling him the about our unique interfaith farmer’s cooperative and Kulanu’s and Abayudaya’s extensive US support network eager to support our coffee project. We talked about the enormous potential for interfaith organizing and getting people of all faiths involved. Paul loved it! He got what we were about and ran with it. He bought the whole crop and made a ten-year commitment! He brought us access to international pre-financing for farmers, a relationship with the biggest coffee exporter in the world, and a kashrut certification, taka! Amazing! We had found the right fit. I don’t know what we would have done without Thanksgiving Coffee Company.

Thanks to everyone involved the good energy sparks of this project are flying! Our little dining room table project has grown into an international model of peaceful interfaith cooperation and sustainable economic development, featured in worldwide press such as CNN and the BBC. Thatched mud huts are slowly turning into sturdy brick farmer homes. The project is a succeeding thanks to years of continuing detail work, working together with Paul and Joan Katzeff, the fantastic Ben Corey-Moran, Holly Moskowitz and all the good folks at the Thanksgiving Coffee Company, (“not just a cup, but a just cup”! YEAH!), JJ Keki and the Mirembe Kawomera Coffee Cooperative, Willington Wamayeye and the Gumutindo mother cooperative, Kulanu.org and her international network of supporters, and diverse people from all over the world who are buying our coffee, excited to support this rare instance of Muslim, Christian and Jewish farmers doing something great together. For the first time farmers are guaranteed a fair price for their coffee regardless of market crashes, thanks to Thanksgiving Coffee’s commitment to fair trade pricing and their additional rebate of $1. per bag back to farmers. Our work continues in collaboration with JJ and the farmers and Ben Corey-Moran of Thanksgiving Coffee on strategic planning, with other NGOs, and with individuals such as Ken Schultz and his IDA Savings Program for farmers administered through Kulanu. I am proud that the Thanksgiving Coffee Company, and people of good will everywhere, are using the Mirembe Kawomera Coffee Project exactly as JJ and I designed it: to be a tool of interfaith peace fighting poverty in Uganda through the dignity of work.

The Mirembe Kawomera Coffee Project is soon to be the subject of a documentary film from JEMGLO pictures and a documentary music CD. I have been invited to lecture about this and other similar grassroots Kulanu Abayudaya projects at the Heller Graduate School for Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University, among many other places. It’s great to share the excitement about these unique projects, designed to help those most in need, each with its own story. I will do more as my music schedule permits. My message to you is: you don’t have to be an expert to learn to be of use. If I can do it, anyone can. All it takes is teamwork, homework, footwork and people of good will. I hope you will get involved too. To learn more, check out these pages! Love, Laura