Helping hands in Uganda

To 23-year-old Elan Emanuel, healing the world shouldn’t come with an American prescription pad.

Too often, it does, says the Oakland resident and recent college grad. He just wrapped up a month in Uganda that strayed from the path of many other student trips and community service projects in developing countries.

Instead of imposing Western values on a non-Western country or playing the more passive role of a wide-eyed tourist, Emanuel and nine college students from Michigan and the University of Texas had another itinerary: As part of a recently formed organization called Students of the World, they wanted to learn and document how that East African nation has been so successful in its AIDS prevention efforts.

“We’re there on their terms,” said Emanuel, a University of Michigan graduate who is back in the Bay Area. “There’s sort of a common feeling that Americans impose their values on the world. We’re there to listen and help and not just to tell you what to do.”

Now teaching at Oakland’s Midrasha and doing office work at the Jewish Community Federation of the East Bay, Emanuel wants to raise money to convert video footage from the trip into a documentary about Uganda’s AIDS efforts and to send money to a slum they visited outside of Kampala.

“Though we saw a lot of really disturbing and sad things, given their resources, Uganda has done an amazing job,” said Emanuel. “They’re a Third World country that’s done a first-class job.

“They know how to do it,” he added. The problem is that “they don’t have the capacity to do it with the resources they have.”

Helping Uganda succeed in those self-initiated efforts was a driving force behind the trip. Educating Americans was another.

Emanuel thinks the disease’s ravaging effects in Africa are “something that’s not covered in American media at all, except when Bush went there. Americans have no idea what’s happening there. Literally millions are dying every year.”

The students’ trip began a couple of weeks after President Bush’s heralded visit on July 11, but it was in the works months beforehand. “I hate to necessarily quote Bush,” but “with money, AIDS is a preventable disease,” said Emanuel, who grew up in Berkeley.

Even without much money, Uganda stands out as a model for AIDS prevention. Though still devastating, its AIDS rate of 6 percent is “unbelievably low” compared with other African countries where the disease afflicts up to one in three people.

Visiting schools, orphanages, slums and even rural villages, Emanuel saw repeated evidence of an “unbelievably aggressive attack on the disease.”

In schools, students watch dance performances and sing songs about AIDS. On streets, billboards tout prevention messages. A program encourages Ugandans — many of them speak English as a holdover of the country’s past as a British colony — to avoid the disease by remembering their ABCs: abstinence, being faithful and condom use, according to Emanuel.

“It’s really this comprehensive attempt from the bottom up and the top down. Prevention is a lot easier than treatment.”

By Ugandan law, students receive AIDS education in school starting at the age of 9, Emanuel said. Ironically, the disease’s prevalence is undermining those efforts because the country’s $150-a-year school fees are increasingly unaffordable for hundreds of thousands of AIDS orphans.

“There’re just kids everywhere,” said Emanuel. “Some are in school, some are adopted by the community.” Others, he said, dwell in urban slums where sewage regularly flows down streets.

During their trip, the American students met with government officials, public health workers, physicians and orphaned children.

They left with some searing images.

In one hospital, Emanuel toured a ward crammed with bed after bed of dying patients. After visiting one school, a small boy of about 6 approached him and said in broken English, “My mother dead, my father dead. Sir, please help me.”

“I didn’t know how I was going to help him,” Emanuel said. “I told him I’d try and help him the best I can.”

Along with a friend and traveling companion, Emanuel is now starting Project Namuwongo to raise money for one of the slums they visited.

With the troubling images came some memorable moments. Along with meeting Jimmy Kolker, a Jew who serves as the country’s American ambassador, Emanuel and some fellow participants celebrated Shabbat with a Jewish community near the city of Mbale.

“I went there a little skeptical at first,” Emanuel admitted of the Jewish community called Abayudaya that was started in 1919 by a warrior who broke away from British missionaries who had converted him to Christianity.

But after attending a Shabbat with some 200 black Ugandan Jews, Emanuel concluded that “they’re very genuine.” He was amazed by the sight of youngsters with yarmulkes who “all knew the prayers.

“I think that they have a genuine desire to maintain their Jewish community,” said Emanuel, who as a kid attended Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel and Kehilla Community Synagogue along with Oakland’s Aquarian Minyan. On his visit to Abayudaya, he brought along gifts of prayer books, songbooks and a yad.

In return, he received a Rosh Hashanah card from them. “They were unbelievably grateful,” said Emanuel, who hopes to stay in touch with them through his Midrasha class.

For more information, Elan Emanuel can be reached at

[email protected]

The Duke University-based

SOW can be reached at