Searching for purpose and greater understanding

Tuesday February 19, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Ken Schneck didn't know what to expect the first time he visited the Mbiriizi Primary School in Mbiriizi, Uganda, in 2010.

Schneck went, almost on a lark, after a woman he was interviewing on a different topic told him about the work she was doing at the school and invited him to Uganda.

He had never been to a country in the developing world. He had uncertainty and questions about his place there and used his journal to help probe those conflicts.

Even on his second trip two years later Schneck continued asking those questions, and again filled his journal with observations.

And even though his search continues, Schneck wants to throw it all out to the public to help them, and himself, continue to grow and work toward greater understanding.

On Wednesday Schneck will present, "Tulibaluganda -- A snarky, gay jew's journey in rural Uganda."

The show, scheduled for Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. at New England Youth Theatre, will include readings from the journals he kept as well as photos from the two trips.

Suggested donation is $10 with all of the proceeds going to Sylvia's Children, a nonprofit that supports the Mbiriizi Primary School, and to the Emory Vaccine Center and the UCLA AIDS Institute.

The performance is part travelogue, part performance piece and part social commentary on the effect AIDS has had on rural Africa.

"As I was writing I found myself feeling a lot of different emotions and a lot of it came down to wondering how I can make a difference in the world," Schneck said. "It's funny, but it's heartbreaking too."

Schneck, a member of the Brattleboro Selectboard and dean of students at Marlboro College, first heard about the school in 2010 while interviewing Sylvia Allen on his nationally-syndicated radio show, "This Show is So Gay."

Allen's letter to President Obama on pending anti-gay legislation in Uganda got national attention and Schneck was talking to Allen about that topic when she mentioned the work she did at the Mbiriizi Primary School.

Sylvia's Children is a small, independent non-profit organization that was started in 2003 after Allen, a New Jersey woman, traveled to Uganda and visited the school.

Sylvia's Children is a "family-run charity," that was set up to provide "a safety net for Mbiriizi," according to the organization's website.

There are 1,006 children in the primary school in Mbiriizi and 250 are orphans due to the ravages of HIV/AIDS.

While talking about the work she was doing Schneck said he would love to visit some time, and she said she would love to have him.

He had a ticket in a matter of days and he made his first visit to the school in June 2010.

He spent 12 days there in 2010 working to help establish an inventory of the orphans at the school, and then returned in November 2012, when he volunteered at the school for eight days.

Schneck wrote the first part of his performance after he visited the school in 2010, and gave a few talks around Brattleboro. He added a second act when he returned from his visit last year, and the expanded show now includes the photos.

Before leaving Schneck said he had reservations about imposing American ideals on a rural African school. And when he arrived the culture shock was also disorienting. The journals reflect development and growth, while also helping Schneck realize that many of the big mysteries are never fully resolved.

"With every question I answered, there were two more that I came upon," he said. "I hope the show hits upon universal themes and gives people an entry point in to these themes."

Schneck said that visiting the region twice gave him an enhanced perspective, both as an American visiting and as someone who wants to improve the situation for the children who are battling the effects of AIDS.

In Schneck's early journal entries he is uncomfortable, overwhelmed and unsure of his own role and the expectations of his fellow visitors, as well as those of the people working at the school.

As that trip progressed, and throughout his next visit two years later, Schneck says he gets more comfortable while continuing to wonder where he fits in.

He said it was heartbreaking to talk with the children who so want to leave their country, while at the same time inspiring to witness the teaching and growing that goes on at the rural school that has so few resources.

The audience can expect humor, and horror, empathy and wonder, frustration and accomplishment.

"The whole time I was there I needed to process what I was seeing and feeling, and what was happening," he said. "I want the show to be entertaining, but I also hope it is a trigger for people to take action in some part of their life."

For more information on Wednesday's performance call 802-258-9238.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or You can follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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