Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Hillel hosts discussion on Ugandan Jewish community



This past week, the Trinity community had the opportunity to meet an individual whose life serves as a fascinating look at the intersections of history, education, and gender. On Tuesday, Nov. 18, Trinity Hillel hosted this engrossing speaker, a young woman named Shoshanna Nambi. Hailing from Uganda, Nambi is a prominent member of the Abayudaya Jewish community and is one of the first young women from that community to receive a college education, a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration. Her life and ancestry connect to a diverse variety of topics within Uganda, and her work today helps to propel Uganda’s Abayudaya community forward into the 21st century and highlights the increasing role and agency of women in this communal movement.

Nambi’s Jewish ancestry can trace its roots back to the first proliferation of Judaism in Uganda, led by Semei Kakungulu in the 1920s. Kakungulu, after his conversion to Judaism in 1919, founded the Abayudaya community in southeast Uganda in 1920. Among his earliest followers was Nambi’s grandfather, Sol, who is one of the community’s oldest members, still alive today at 94. Judaism is a minority religion in Uganda, and the burgeoning Jewish community faced many challenges over its history, notably the oppressive regime of Idi Amin from 1971 to 1979, where most religious affiliation was prohibited, and carried with it a death sentence.

The Abayudaya community survived with only 300 living members, maintaining their faith underground, holding fast to their heritage, hoping to pass it on to the next generation. Since then, the community has thrived, and their numbers have regrown to around 2,000. They are very devout, holding to the many tenants of Conservative Judaism, keeping their version of kashrut diet, and observing Shabbat weekly. There are five different synagogues in the region, and many foreign Rabbis and interested Jewish (and other) foreigners visit them each year. In fact, a number of members of Trinity’s Jewish community had visited the area in years prior, which is actually how Trinity became acquainted with Shoshanna Nambi in the first place.

Despite their numerical proliferation, the community faces many challenges today. Until fairly recently, the vast majority of the community members were subsistence farmers, and the community was fairly poor as a result. The synagogues and religious figures in the community have taken effective steps to remedy this problem, however. Several Jewish schools have opened in the past couple of decades, and this has enabled many young people (and even some of the older generation) to become more educated, and a number of community members have become very well-educated, and brought new opportunities back to their homeland.

Shoshanna Nambi is one such individual.

After graduating with high marks from one of the local Jewish schools, Nambi continued her education, and alongside several of her friends, was one of the first women of the Abayudaya community to graduate from university in Uganda’s capital city. Nambi’s education was no mean feat. Notwithstanding the relative poverty of the region, Ugandan women (like women the world over) have long been expected to stay at home for the most part, tending to more domestic affairs, at the expense of their education and empowerment. Nambi is aiming to change that.

After earning her degree, Nambi returned to the Abayudaya community where she has taken up leadership roles with aplomb. She has helped to coordinate a biannual women’s conference and works extensively to promote health and education in the Abayudaya community, in addition to promoting women’s issues. Underscoring her work on women and gender issues, she cited a number of women in the Abayudaya community who in the last decade or so have risen to prominence in the community, notably one woman who has served as the community treasurer for five years, one woman who is currently working for her Master’s Degree, and a couple of different women who have opened their own small businesses. Nambi points to these successful women as an example of the increasing empowerment of Ugandan women, particularly in the Jewish communities of Uganda.

Nambi’s works promoting women’s interests and public health have gained significant ground in recent years. The women’s conference that she was so active in is becoming a platform for women all across Uganda, and, with help from donations and microcredit loans, women are beginning to own their own businesses and participate more in local politics, giving the women involved greater agency and independence. The Jewish community has been very helpful in propping up this platform as well. Further, Nambi has worked extensively raising awareness and providing information about HIV and AIDS, an issue of great importance to women (and men) of the region. They have been working to educate the public about the prevalence and transmission of the disease, and their efforts have made many communities safer and more aware of the problem, which has led to marked improvement in public health. Coordination with local Muslim and Christian communities has contributed to the efficacy of these programs. Nambi has also participated in the founding of two new Jewish schools, and has helped to bring in volunteers from abroad to help teach. She related a poignant story about an 85-year-old woman from the United States who came over to help teach Hebrew.

Shoshanna Nambi’s talk concluded with a stirring performance of songs traditional to Jewish communities, among them Psalm 150, praising the devotion of God to the people of Israel.

The actual nation of Israel may be far from Nambi’s homeland, but the power and solace of the faith runs strong through her and her community, completely disregarding geographic isolation and political and social troubles. The Jewish faith has clearly had a profound effect on the people of the Abayudaya community, and they have carved a niche for themselves in their land and are making very successful strides to keep their community alive, despite the shifting landscape of the place and times we live in.

Trinity was truly fortunate to have had a look at such a unique and vibrant foreign community and to have seen a presentation delivered so eloquently by a such an engaging, successful, and articulate young woman.

Leave a reply