Facebook Post Leads to Changes for Village in Uganda

Women and children stand in front of the Namanyonyi Synagogue.

Moses Sebagabo, a lawyer from eastern Uganda, didn’t expect much out of a post he made in 2016 in a “Jewish Spirit” Facebook group, in which he asked the international Jewish community for help with his village’s spring, its only source of water.

But he made the post anyway.

The people of Namanyonyi, a village of about 5,000 people, including 36 Jewish families like Sebagabo’s, used a contaminated spring for water. It had led to outbreaks of waterborne diseases, like typhoid and cholera. Families spent the little money they had on treating those diseases.

Today, Namanyonyi is a different village.

Its problems with waterborne disease have declined, thanks to a well built through the financial support of Sandy Choukroun and others in her social circles, including congregants of her synagogue, Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.

Moses Sebagabo with a shofar

“It was a miracle,” Sebagabo said. “I didn’t expect anything to come right away from the post, I just wanted to bring it to the attention of many, many Jewish friends, but I wasn’t expecting anything to come from the post.”

The post in the Facebook group led to a lot more than just the well. Namanyonyi now has a water pump, which means the village is no longer affected by famine. Recently, there also have been efforts to bring water into homes. This helps with a host of social issues, Sebagabo said, as children would wake up as early as 3 a.m. to get water, leading to teen pregnancy, rape and school dropouts.

With her help, the Namanyonyi Synagogue will have a ner tamid, an “eternal light” that it lacked, in time for Rosh Hashanah.

When Choukroun saw Sebagabo’s Facebook post, she wrote, “What do you need?”

“This unknown person wrote back, ‘$670,’” Choukroun said. “It’s not nothing, but it’s not thousands and thousands. But we didn’t know who this person was, and it was far away.”

She sent out some emails and learned that she and Sebagabo had just a few degrees of separation. Her former rabbi knew the president of Kulanu, Inc., a New York City-based organization that helps isolated and emerging Jewish communities, and that president knew Sebagabo, a leader in the Abayudaya community in Namanyonyi.

The Abayudaya are a group of people in eastern Uganda who converted to Judaism in the early 20th century after their leader did. Next year, the community will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Sandy Choukroun

A few years before Choukroun saw the Facebook post, her mother died, and Choukroun wanted to do something meaningful with the modest inheritance she had left.

“I decided that the thing to do was to get a well for this village, to there in eastern Africa, a well so they would at least have clean water,” she said.

Choukroun got in touch with the Ugandan Water Project, a nonprofit that provides clean water, sanitation and hygiene resources to Ugandan communities. After multiple conversations, she moved forward with helping Namanyonyi. She and her husband decided to raise the $9,000 needed to build a well.

At the beginning of 2017, the water project completed the well.

Not long after, though, famine struck Namanyonyi. Some died of starvation.

Choukroun decided to raise money to build a pump to get water from the river for irrigation.

Since then, she has helped Namanyonyi out with various other projects.

She has gotten them special foods for holidays, raised money for Sebagabo’s wife’s medical bills and even helped out the village’s Christian and Muslim residents.

It also led to a friendship between Sebagabo and Choukroun.

“I have never met Sandy,” Sebagabo said. “I’ve never seen her, but she’s very connected to me because of [the] Jewish part of it and because she has contributed to our community. That kept us close.”

Sebagabo even named two of his daughters after Choukroun and another daughter after her mother.

“That has also made a connection between me and Sandy,” he said. “If I ask Sandy for help with my family, she’s helping her mom and she’s helping her[self] also.”

Sebagabo said that Choukroun’s support for the non-Jews in Namanyonyi has even improved interfaith relations.

“[The relation] was there, but because of Sandy’s help to them, it has increased very, very much,” Sebagabo said. “They ask me, ‘How is our friend?’ meaning, ‘How is Sandy?’”

This year, a group of women from Namanyonyi decided during their annual meeting that they wanted a ner tamid for the synagogue. They requested help from Choukroun, who raised $600 for the item. The villagers found a local artisan, who built a solar-powered one in the shape of a menorah.

“I’m just one person, and I’ve pretty much done what I can in terms of fundraising,” Choukroun said. “I have a limited number of donors. We’re not millionaires. We don’t have endless funds.”

With sponsorship from the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, Sebagabo is planning a trip to the United States, where he will tour several cities, including Philadelphia. On the tour, he will meet synagogues, tell the history and culture of the Abayudaya, and explain his community’s needs.

The trip is planned for October, but because of some complications for Sebagabo in obtaining a visa, it may be postponed.

Sebagabo wants Namanyonyi to become more self-reliant. Specifically, he is hoping for microfinancing, so the village is not entirely reliant on subsistence farming and Choukroun’s fundraising. He wants to raise money for education and a community center.

Sebagabo said he wants to become a rabbi. Namanyonyi Synagogue doesn’t currently have a rabbi. He has led the community since 1999 and wants to learn if he is leading correctly. The entire Abayudaya community currently only has one rabbi.

“I hope in the future we do not need to be relying on Sandy for food, for High Holidays or for chagim,” he said. 

szighelboim@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729


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