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Africano Waltham: Delivering Care and Compassion in Tough Times

Living in close quarters can be a problem during a pandemic, but living in a close community like the one Africano Waltham supports has healing powers of its own.

July 8, 2020

Africano Waltham logo
For multi-family and multi-generational households, the risk of someone contracting COVID-19 runs high. This is a fear and worry for many member families at African Cultural Services (ACS), more familiarly known as Africano Waltham. “These are all very hard-working people, mostly employed in the health care and home care sector,” says ACS Founder and CEO Juliet Najjumba, “but sometimes various families have to live under one roof because of the high cost of living.” Conditions have been squeezed further as community members support one another emotionally and financially during this public health and economic crisis, while news of violence and societal unrest adds to their anxiety.

Since March, Africano quickly expanded its services to reach 80 families, working tirelessly to alleviate some of these stressors through a variety of approaches, most of which are new for the organization. Previously, Africano served about 50 children monthly with an on-site afterschool program focused on arts education, cultural events and homework help. The programs are offered at minimal or no cost to families and have provided many children with a safe space to learn and just “chill out” at its center on Main Street while their parents were still at work. For the wider community, Africano has offered cultural workshops, performances and event space. While focusing on urgent needs of the community for food and basic supplies once the pandemic hit, Africano recognized the need for increased emotional support and connection during uncertain and isolated times. Now on a weekly basis, Najjumba and her team deliver groceries to those who cannot make it to the Africano food drive, create educational activity packets and online classroom and “chill in” sessions for children, provide rent assistance and make phone calls to check in personally with household members. Needs vary greatly by family, and the team has had to develop new systems to meet each need, rising to the challenge with a deep level of care and compassion.

Women at Africano Waltham standing among boxes full of produce for a food drive.
Africano Waltham's food drive. Photo courtesy: Africano Walthm
Africano laid its roots in Waltham, a city just west of Boston and bordering the I95 corridor, because of its significant immigrant population, with over a quarter of residents being foreign-born. According to Africano, a notable portion of those individuals are African, with a majority of those being Ugandan; when Africano was founded in 2009, at least 1,500 Ugandan immigrants lived in Waltham. The close-knit community that Najjumba has nurtured for Africano members is centered around trust, cultural understanding and individualized care. She is known by many as Auntie Julie, and her commitment to supporting her community has always been unwavering. This dedication is not lost on the community and Najjumba says that, especially during this pandemic, she is consistently hearing from members how very grateful and even astonished they are about the support she and Africano offer. One morning, when Najjumba was working at Africano’s grocery pick-up site, a member said, “You came in with a lovely boat, and helped us because many of us can’t swim. You’ve made many puzzles possible. Thank you, Auntie Julie.”

She is quick to note that this work would not have been possible without the support her organization has received from other organizations and donations from friends of Africano Waltham. As the state begins to reopen, Africano will continue to function remotely, because it does not have the infrastructure to safely operate programs in person. Many Ugandans who lost their income are trying to get back to work. Najjumba foresees that members’ needs will only grow. Kids are outgrowing their clothes, summer programming will be virtual, and people may still get sick. Though the doors of Africano will not be opening for the foreseeable future, the organization will continue to provide basic needs and emotional support. “Sometimes we don’t have too much to give,” says Najjumba, “but people are so grateful for anything we can bring. Every little thing helps—especially knowing someone cares.” Living in close quarters can be a problem during a pandemic but living in a close community like the one Africano supports has healing powers of its own.

To learn more about Africano Waltham, please visit www.africanowaltham.org to see the many ways to get involved.