Israel’s light shines in Uganda


KAMPALA, Uganda (JTA) – Bleak and dusty, the Namuwongo slum stretches along the main rail line that runs through this capital city.

Shantytown dwellers who use the tracks as a pedestrian thoroughfare are killed or maimed regularly by passing trains.

Yards away, among the wooden shacks, stand the bamboo walls of a kindergarten for some of the slum’s neediest children.

Started last year by an oncologiy intern from Tel Aviv who was volunteering in Uganda with the Israel-based humanitarian aid organization Brit Olam, the Little Light Children’s Centre is filled with AIDS orphans, children who are disabled and disfigured, and regular kids from the slums.

”We decided to invest in young children with no place to go, nourish them and prepare them for school,” says the physician, Shiri Tenenboim, who has since returned to Israel. She helps manage the school’s administration and fund-raising efforts from Tel Aviv.

Children come to Little Light from as far away as neighboring Congo, where a savage war turned them and their families into refugees. One girl’s face is scarred permanently by burns from a falling candle that set her bed alight as she slept. Fewer than 10 percent of Ugandans have electricity at home.

Five days a week, about 60 children aged 3 to 7 eat a nutritious breakfast and learn from teachers who are trained with funds raised in Israel. The money comes from donations made by Israeli companies and funds raised by the sale in Israel of bead necklaces made in Uganda.

Along with a steady stream of Israeli volunteers, the kindergarten is run by Qasasa Ayeha, a resident of the slum, a devout Muslim and a diehard fan of Israel’s Maccabi Haifa soccer club.

Not yet a formally qualified teacher, Qasasa is in the midst of two years of training – paid for with Israeli donations. She says the experience has changed her view of Israelis.

”I had never met Israelis before,” she says. ”I knew them as inflexible and sophisticated weapons makers. After seeing the film about the storming of Entebbe, I thought they had supernatural powers!”

For their part, the Israeli volunteers say that what impresses them about Qasasa is her ”innate wisdom” and versatility. Qasasa even improvised a religion-neutral grace before meals that works for both the kindergarten’s Christian and Muslim children. In Uganda, prayer is a fixture in most schools and in the workplace.

On a weekend outing to the Entebbe botanical garden some 20 miles from Kampala, Qasasa stands at the ready with her first-aid kit, nursing scrapes and mosquito bites almost before they happen. For some of the children, it is their first ride in a car. One toddler becomes motion sick, vomiting on her Sunday best.

Later, playing soccer with the children, Qasasa’s flowing black abaya doesn’t stop her from diving to the ground to make a save.

”The kids really change when they come to the school,” she says. ”Some used to buy alcohol. Now it’s sweets. I give them basic knowledge, and they take it higher.”

Until Little Light was established, many of the children who attend the kindergarten spent their days picking through the mountains of trash that litter the slum. Searching for scrap metal, bottles and other valuables, they’d sell their findings for a few cents to feed themselves and their families.

”They had nails like talons to scavenge,” Qasasa says.

In the school’s early days, heavy rains would turn its dirt floor into a muddy quagmire. Then an Israeli construction firm in Kampala poured a concrete floor here free of charge.

Mercy Annet, whose 3-year-old son Kinene Ramson attends the preschool, says the school has helped make Kinene healthy and strong.

”They care so much for the kids,” Annet says. ”They give him milk, which we can’t afford.”

Tenenboim says eventually the school will be part of a comprehensive, community-run center that will also host older children and evening parenting classes. It just may take a little time.

“It’s the difficult things that we do quickly; the impossible takes a little longer,” she says, quoting the late Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

”Israel is now a flourishing country, an example to struggling ones like Uganda. I see international aid as the new Zionism,” Tenenboim says. ”We did it ourselves with the help of the international community. Now it’s time to give back.”

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