In the African country of Uganda, if someone offers you a rolex, they’re not trying to trick you into buying a cheap knockoff of an expensive watch; they’re being hospitable. A rolex in Uganda is a piece of chapati bread filled with eggs, onions, cabbage or kale and tomatoes, plus some minced meat if your host is relatively affluent. You’ll have a chance to sample this intriguing indigenous dish – along with other national staples such as posho, a cornmeal concoction not unlike polenta – if you attend the Ugandan Dinner & Silent Auction this Saturday, June 22 at the New Paltz Reformed Church.
Admission to the event is by voluntary donation; it’s a benefit supporting the work of the AIDS Orphan Education Trust in Uganda (AOET), which the New Paltz Reformed Church has taken on as its primary overseas mission. Founded in Uganda in 1995 by Sam Tushabe, AOET is an independent grassroots response to the suffering that Tushabe witnessed in his own community, seeking to empower communities to care and provide for the many children orphaned or made vulnerable as a result of the HIV/AIDS crisis. At its peak in the 1990s, AIDS reached epidemic levels in Central Africa, with 18.5 percent of the Ugandan people living with HIV. In 2012, over 63,000 Ugandans died from this disease alone. Today, it is estimated that 1.5 million Ugandans have HIV, and 1.2 million Ugandan children have been orphaned by AIDS.
In addition to medical hardship, Uganda has faced years of civil unrest, including the depredations of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, notorious for abducting tens of thousands of children to be trained as rebel soldiers. Due to AIDS epidemics, civil wars and extreme poverty combined, more than 2.6 million children have been orphaned in Uganda, or roughly one in 14. The need for help is great, and unlike poverty in America, there’s no national safety net.
AOET prides itself on being “by Africans, for Africans,” and is not a project of the Reformed Church. And although it is a faith-based initiative, the annual visits to Uganda by members of the New Paltz congregation are by no means “missions” in the sense of preaching Western values at African people, according to Glenn Phillips, who will be co-leading the trip scheduled for this coming October. Volunteers who join this expedition get their instructions from AOET organizers on the ground in Uganda, who run two schools, a medical clinic and a Children’s Village in Bugembe, in addition to sponsoring children attending more than 200 other schools, mainly in the Jinja and Buikwe districts. The most pressing task this year is to bore a hole for a new well for a new three-story building being planned at the secondary school, which is so overcrowded that all the administrative offices have been converted to classrooms. “The funds being raised at this dinner are exclusively for the new building,” Phillips says. “We’re not raising money for us to go over there. All the participants pay for the trip ourselves.”
A retired commercial pilot, Phillips got involved in the program as a sponsor of a primary school student about 16 years ago, recruited by his brother, an early AOET volunteer organizing support in the Saratoga area. “In 2014 he finally got me to go with him,” he says now. “I’ve been there three times. In 2017 I led my own group of mostly people from the New Paltz Reformed Church.” As for Stella, the orphaned Ugandan girl whom Phillips began sponsoring when she was in third grade: He got to attend her graduation from Makerere University in Kampala when last he visited in January. “We talk all the time,” he says. “She calls me Dad and calls my wife Ann Mom.”
On a typical visit, the mission group splits into teams based on their individual expertise, according to Phillips. Some teach vocational classes at the secondary school; older children speak English as a second language in Uganda, a former British colony. Others assist students in writing letters to their stateside sponsors, or do painting or construction work, such as a “piggery wall” that needed rebuilding on his last trip. The group usually includes a nurse and a paramedic, and other volunteers assist them with medical outreach trips to more remote villages. Uganda has only about eight physicians per 100,000 citizens, most smaller towns have no clinics and, says Phillips, “The government gives zero support.” Nonetheless, HIV infection rates have gone down in recent years due to stepped-up manufacture of antiretroviral drugs in Africa, and screenings by the AOET team have been showing encouraging results.
Attendees at the Ugandan Dinner, which begins at 6 p.m. on June 22 in the Reformed Church’s Social Hall, will learn much more about the work that AOET is doing and the children who benefit from the organization’s efforts. Opportunities will be offered to sign on as a sponsor; $38 per month covers school fees, a uniform, one meal a day and medical care for one student. You can even find out about how to join a trip to Bugembe; medical professionals are especially needed. The Silent Auction portion of the event, coinciding with the dessert course, will raise additional support via bids on an enticing variety of donated goods and services.
For more information about AOET’s programs, visit www.aoetusa.org. To RSVP for the Ugandan Dinner event, call the church office at (845) 255-6340. The Reformed Church of New Paltz is located at 92 Huguenot Street.