By Joan Schweighardt
Bloomers Blazing is a new regular feature at BLOOM, presenting interviews with (and stories about) people who found their life’s passion after the age of 40.
Lynn Siebert Auerbach is the founder of Connect Africa, a grass roots organization that helps villagers in Uganda who are struggling to support children orphaned by AIDS. Their mission is to strengthen families by providing educational sponsorship for the children as well as business loans to their guardians. Connect Africa works in communities that are often overlooked by large charitable organizations.
Lynn grew up in working-class Brooklyn in the 50s, the daughter of a single mom and the granddaughter of Polish Austrian immigrants, all of whom lived in the same apartment. She attended PS 91. With no one paying too much attention either at school or at home, she failed to learn to read properly, but she did become street wise.
When Lynn was ten, her mother remarried and the family moved to Patchogue, a “one-horse town” back then, on Long Island. But when she started fifth grade, her teacher discovered she didn’t know how to read and wanted to hold her back a year. Lynn’s mother came to her rescue only two times in her life, and this was one of them. Mostly because of the embarrassment it would have caused her, she hired a tutor for Lynn, and Lynn was ultimately allowed to progress to sixth grade, having learned to read during summer break.
The second time Lynn’s mother came to her rescue was years later when she was trying to get into a college. Lynn was a poor student who was not able to get into a four-year school. Her mom went to the high school guidance counselor, and together they came up with a plan for Lynn to attend a two-year college in Boston. Sandy, Lynn’s boyfriend, was going to Cornell. Lynn spent two years in Boston and two more at Ohio State, where she earned a teaching degree in special ed. She did her graduate studies in psychology in New York, and she would eventually do her post-grad work in psychology too.
Joan Schweighardt: How did you know you were destined to go to Africa?
Lynn Siebert Auerbach: When people hear about my life in Uganda they always ask, Did you read books on Africa when you were a kid? No, I couldn’t read. I didn’t know anything about Africa. And even as I got older, Africa wasn’t in my line of sight.
But then, two weeks before Sandy and I married, I saw the movie Born Free on TV. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Sunday. It wasn’t about the animals in the movie; it was more about the open spaces. I love open spaces. I felt I could breathe, think, feel alive in that kind of space. But it was more than that too. When I saw that movie something happened that I cannot explain. I began crying hysterically. I called Sandy, who has always been a very mellow person. I couldn’t calm myself down. All I could say to him was that I wanted to go Africa.
From the moment I saw that movie I couldn’t stop thinking about Africa. I still didn’t know anything about the continent. I didn’t know how to investigate it, beyond reading about Jane Goodall. And I didn’t even really need to investigate it, because the feeling, the certainty, that Africa was my destiny had taken up residency inside me, at the cellular level. I knew at some point I would go.
JS: How long was it until you actually moved there?
LA: The calling lived inside me for the next thirty-four years. In the meantime, I continued along the educational path I was already on; I had my careers; Sandy (who is a neurologist at Boston University) and I raised two children.
JS:: Do you regret waiting so long?
LA: I regret nothing. If I had gone then, when I was 21, I probably wouldn’t have come back. Nor would I have wound up doing the work I am doing today. In some ways I remained the same kid who didn’t know how to get things done. I needed life experience, and the knowledge and strength it brings.
Also, to do what I do, to start an organization like Connect Africa, you need a native counterpart. None of this would have worked without Kalule Charles, my co-director. As he reminds me, as a 21-year-old I never would have made it in a place like Uganda. Back then the street kid in me thought she knew all the answers. The 54-year-old who finally went to Africa knew she didn’t have any answers. By the time I got there, I was ready.
JS: You say that you didn’t actually chart a course for Africa. You were busy living your life, and since you knew Africa was your destiny, you more or less waited for the gateway to appear on its own. But you must have made some decisions along the way that led you closer to that gateway.
LA: By the late 70s I was working in psychology, mostly with trauma. Back then we didn’t know what we were doing. Sexual abuse of children was all but unheard of at the time. I had this little girl back in 1973 trying to put a toy block into her vagina. I can see her clearly. Back then we were just trying to keep them safe, by holding them, by practicing behavior modification with them. We didn’t stop to think about what went on in the house. (I encountered my first bona fide sexual abuse victim in 1977, a five-year-old suffering from gonorrhea. I got the case because no one else wanted it.)
Today we would say, Whoa, this is not developmentally okay. Something might be going on. Now we know some of the ones who were categorized as mentally ill were actually sexually abused.
Eventually the silence began to break open about violence in the home, and various programs were founded to help deal with it. One was a program called IMPACT, a self-defense personal-safety business created to empower victims of violence to know that their mistreatment is unacceptable. I took the course and I started sending some of my clients to take it too. In 1993, when the woman who owned IMPACT decided to sell it, I bought it.
I loved owning this business. The staff came along with it, so I had plenty of help. One day I found myself in a workshop for business women and someone stated that it’s a good idea to have a five-year exit plan to sell one’s business. I got in my mini-van and counted on my fingers; five years from then would take me to 2004. I started thinking, Where will my kids be by then? I saw in that moment that the time had come to set the course for the rest of my life.
Five years later I put the business up for sale. My son was graduating from college and my daughter was in her second year of college. My son was excited for me to follow my dream to Africa, he told me to “go for it.” My daughter had some problems with it. We had actually been to Africa as a family. She had participated in a team-building science lab in Kenya. I thought she was prepared for me to leave, but years later she would say to me, “I thought you were going to have an adventure and be done with it.” It was hard for her. My husband, who knew about it from the start, also thought it was a novelty for me, something that would wear off. Everyone is good with it now.
JS: Africa is a big continent. How did you decide, once you’d sold your business, where you were going? How do you begin again in a foreign land all on your own?
LA: After I sold the business in January of 2004, I took a good look at the African continent. There were countries at war; I knew I was not going to any of them. There were countries that had no infrastructure; I wasn’t going there. I had spent some time previously working in South Africa with IMPACT; I wasn’t going there either. I was thinking about Tanzania. I knew I was going alone, as opposed to going with the Peace Corp or other organizations.
As it turned out, I learned that a Ugandan woman living in Boston had an NGO in Uganda working with orphans with AIDS. She was advertising for some help and I answered her call. We met, and it came easily after that. Away I went, in March 2004. The dream became a reality as soon as I got off plane. I thought, This is where I am supposed to be. I was calm, calmer than ever.
The woman I was working with was taking a course in counseling. She invited me to speak to the class about ethics in counseling. At the end of my presentation I wrote my phone number on the chalkboard in case anyone had any questions.
Two men took me up on it, one a Sudanese refugee and the other was Charles. Charles didn’t have a particular question. He just wanted to listen and talk to me. I was 54 by then and he was 25. In Uganda older people are revered. I was an older woman from a foreign country and he was a very conservative young man with a very old soul.
JS:: He was able to understand you well?
LA: Uganda has 53 tribes and therefore 53 languages. Everyone has their own vernacular, but as they come together to be educated in urban areas, everything is taught in English. Charles had gone through high school and was then taking this counseling course. He is more articulate now than he was back then.
JS: Where did you stay?
I stayed in the same village I still live in, but only for three months initially. While I was there I met so many orphans who weren’t going to school. Because their parents, in most cases, had died from AIDS, they were being raised by grandparents. One grandmother I met had 21 grandchildren living with her. In Uganda school is not free and there was no money for schooling. I wanted to find a way to educate these orphaned children and keep them in their homes.
The organization I worked for had a meeting with the elders of the community. I had the woman I worked with ask them what they wanted and they said, “we don’t want to be beggars; we want income.” I wrote to 20 women friends asking each for $100 to start a series of micro-loans. I also wrote to family and received money to educate two of the children I was with a great deal of time during those three months. I enrolled the two children in nursery school before I left Uganda.
When Charles and I first connected he would always ask me what I intended to do to help his people. And I would always answer, I don’t know; time will tell. But when I came back in 2005 I knew exactly what I was going to do. While I’d been away, back in Boston, I’d formed a board of directors for the organization I envisioned: Connect Africa. I filled out applications to form a non-profit. Charles and I were together a lot because he helped me with the loan proposals, and soon I had six children in school. Someone said, You’re going to leave and then what happens? But I had no intention of leaving, at least not ever permanently. Charles had lots of ideas. He became Connect Africa’s project coordinator. We were able to pay him a salary of $25 a month (for five hours of work).
JS: What is it like working with Charles?
LA: I am working with a religious African man. Men hold the power in Uganda; they are to be respected because they are men. Though Charles is much more modern than most, some aspects of his culture are ingrained. Sometimes working together is not that easy. But we share the same passion for helping others. Charles had a difficult background. He came through it remarkably well. He loves children and has always wanted them to have what he didn’t have.
Men in Uganda practice polygamy. Women are less important than the children they produce. It’s a paternalistic country. The children are “owned” by the father. The father will often take the child away from his or her mother. He will bring the child to his parents to be raised.
Ironically it was Charles’ maternal grandmother who helped raise him, who paid his school fees—whenever she had the money to do so. There are three terms to a school year in Uganda, and you must pass the last term to be promoted each year. Since there wasn’t money for Charles to go to school the entire year, he would often go just the last term, and always he was promoted. He loved school. But his education was erratic. He never knew until the last moment if there would be money or not. Also, he was constantly moving from one home to another. He might live for a while with his mother, then his father, then his grandmother again. He quickly became street smart.
Religion (he believes in the Bible) kept him on the straight and narrow. He has a caring heart and he is very very bright. He likes routine, discipline. I’m so fortunate to have him with me at Connect Africa. It is not unusual for people to try to take advantage of a foreigner, especially when it comes to money. Charles is trustworthy and dedicated. He’s a good thinker. In recent years we’ve been constructing buildings. He oversees the negotiations; he makes sure our organization is never cheated.
JS: Can you sum up what you’ve created in the 13 years since you started Connect Africa?
LA: We currently have 68 children in 30 different schools. We screen the children and the schools to achieve the best fit for each child. For instance, a really good student might do well in a more competitive educational environment. An average student might do better in a school with smaller classes. The loans we procure pay for the children to attend school on full scholarships. We also pay for school supplies, uniforms, dental and health care, etc. Most of the schools are boarding schools, which works best in Uganda. If the children were home they would be fetching water, washing, cooking, cleaning… Our desire is for them to focus on their education.
In addition to (and separate from) the educational sponsorships for the orphans, we have over 150 adults who have received business micro-loans from us, which translates to over 500 children being helped by their families. (The average woman has five children and the income they derive goes to school fees.)
Also, in 2011 we bought 2.5 acres of land. As you are approaching it, the first thing you see is a playground and a sheltered area for tutoring, Saturday meetings, literacy classes, women weaving native baskets and more. There is also a library with a computer lab, a Uganda-style outdoor kitchen on which Ugandan food is prepared on a wood stove for guests staying in our guest house (which can comfortably accommodate 12 people). We also have a bakery with a firewood oven, which is run by Ugandan women. Our newest addition is a two-story vocational training center with six classrooms and two offices.
JS: Do you live on this property as well?
LA: I don’t. Connect Africa owns a compound with six-apartments in the village of Kyalliwajala, where I started off in 2004. I live in one of the apartments; the other renters are Ugandans. There are white communities around, but I wanted to live among the people I am working with. My apartment has electricity and running water. But I live simply. I don’t have a refrigerator or stove or a TV. Everything I eat is fresh. I cook outdoors on a hibachi-type grill. I could have done without electric, but I do like plumbing. Then again, I know I could live without it if I had to.
JS: Does the guest house have plumbing?
LA: The guest house does have indoor plumbing. We harvest rain and have many water receptacles on the property. In 2012 we had our first visitors coming to stay at the guest house, Americans who were donors. Ten students and I began fetching water in buckets, and using a pulley, we began to fill the tank. We were filling and filling, but when we thought it must be full and checked, we found it wasn’t even close; there was a leak! The people were coming the next day. The students didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. I kept trying to explain that the visitors were American. They needed to flush. We found the leak and fixed it. We got it done.
The income generated from both the guest house and the apartment building goes to help pay school fees. By the way, the guest house is open to everyone. You don’t have to be a donor or even have an interest in Connect Africa to visit. We get vacationers who want to see the area as part of their travels through Africa. Some people stay with us before and after safari to see the mountain gorillas, which are incredible.
JS: Who studies at the vocational training center?
LA: The vocational institute is open to anyone. We have in our community young people who never got to finish school, some because they had disorders like epilepsy and their parents had to pull them out. Now they may be 19 or 20; they come to us looking for job training.
The classes at the vocational center are small so students can get extra help. We teach them carpentry, plumbing, electricity, tailoring, metal work and catering/baking. Even though they may not have indoor plumbing and electricity themselves—in Uganda you have to buy your own electric pole, which is very expensive, to have electricity—there is a need for plumbers and electricians to work in middle-class neighborhoods. Ugandans construct their own homes. We try to train in accordance with changes going on in the country.
JS: What is a typical day like for you?
LA: In Uganda there is no typical day, though all days are with children or families or with loan recipients or brainstorming about problems and strategizing next steps. Everything happens on African time; almost nothing happens on the clock. People are late because someone was sick or someone died. Burials are very important in Uganda. January and February are very busy months, beginning with getting the children back to school, seeing all the prior students’ reports, meeting new families, meeting new vocational students, finding new schools, etc. At the end of January we take easily 90 children for an overnight to Lake Victoria, where we prepare them for the next school year and create a Connect Africa family in which everyone learns the importance of carrying for everyone else.
JS: Do you get back to Boston often?
LA: I live this crazy bi-continental life. I am in Uganda each year from January to May and again from July to October, about seven months out of the year. The other five I am in Boston where I do fundraising for Connect Africa.
The first few years I would be hysterical crying on the way home on the plane and I’d have to put a blanket over my head. At the airport it was always shocking to see so many white people, to be confronted by such opulence, the clothing, the shoes…the perfect roads; no one really needs all this. I couldn’t help but compare. I’m fine with it now. But I always feel some degree of heartsickness when I’m not in Uganda. It took me 34 years to get there. When I’m away I’m afraid it will all go poof, that I’ll wake up and find it never existed.
JS: Do you think Charles would ever want to visit America?
LA: Charles is the only Ugandan who has no interest in visiting America. He wants to travel in his own country or on the African continent. He is the first to acknowledge the corruption in Uganda, but he is also the one who wants to improve as many Ugandan lives as possible.
JS: How hard is it to generate funds after all these years?
LA: It’s only me and a few people who are doing the fundraising. I would like more worker bees. The American-based board members are great and they come in with lots of good ideas for balancing budgets and fundraising, but you can only come up with new ideas for so long before you burn out. Still, we have accumulated a sizeable number of dedicated donors over the years, and we are always finding new ways to reach people who may be interested in our mission.
JS: Do the people you are helping express their gratitude?
LA: The tribe I live with in Uganda is low key. When you see someone walking down the road you say, Good evening, Good night; they are not overly demonstrative. In the beginning I think they thought I was a spy, because I wanted to be part of their community and not live outside it. But now they are really accepting of me; at this point they are loving to me. They appreciate. I see the change. That is my thank you. I don’t need an actual thank you.
Readers who want to be part of Connect Africa can spread the word by liking Connect-Africa on Facebook and Instagram, or by making a donation, or designate www. connect-africa.org on the Amazon Smile donation program.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, The Accidental Art Thief, and other novels.