Shoshannah Nambi, 25, a member of the small Jewish community of Abayudaya in Uganda, was in Philadelphia recently to talk about her experiences as a Jewish woman in a poor African village.
Earlier this month, Shoshannah Nambi made her second journey in two years to the United States from her village in Uganda, where she is one of the few women with a college education living among mostly subsistence farmers.
But make no mistake about it. The small Jewish community of Abayudaya, in which she grew up, is where she wants to be.
“I am one of the first women from the village” to get a college education, said Nambi, who studied business at a university in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and is working to improve women’s health care. “If all the educated people go away, it means there will be no change.”
The 25-year-old stopped in Philadelphia last week during a tour of the Northeast to talk about her experience as a Jewish woman in a poor African village. The trip was organized by Kulanu (Kulanu.org), a nonprofit that supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities worldwide.
Her stops here included the Conservative synagogue Beth Am Israel and Beth David Reform Congregation, both located on the Main Line.
Last year, while attending the Brandeis Collegiate Institute in California, Namb met Beth Am Israel’s chazzan, Harold Messinger, who helped arrange for her to come to Philadelphia.
On this trip, Nambi was fundraising for boarding schools in Mbale, a city near her village, about 100 miles from the Kenyan border. The schools, Abayudaya Elementary and Semei Kakungulu High School, named after the founder of the Jewish community, teach Torah and Hebrew, and provide education to all, including Muslims and Christians.
Nambi’s great-grandfather was the first in her family to observe Judaism. The Abayudaya Jewish community dates back to 1917, when tribal chief Kakungulu, after studying the Old Testament, rejected the interpretation of the Bible preached by missionaries, and declared himself a Jew.
He and other men in the tribe circumcised themselves and started the practice with newborns.
The community, now comprised of some 1,500 people, is recognized by liberal streams but its members aren’t considered Jews by the Orthodox. Nambi said this is largely because the first people in the community did not undergo a conversion with a rabbi.
Growing up, Nambi said, it was difficult to tell people that she was Jewish because the response would often be, “You killed Jesus.” But, she said, “right now there is a lot of harmony” among people of different faiths in the village, due in large part to the boarding schools.
As an employee of Rain Uganda, a nonprofit that works to improve health care in disadvantaged communities, Nambi focuses most of her time on women’s health issues.
Although the standard of living in her community has improved, there are still stigmas around health care for women. They think “it’s shameful” to visit a doctor, and thus they do not take the proper measures to prevent or treat serious diseases, like cancers, she said.
In her village, Nambi was one of the first girls to have a Bat Mitzvah. “It was a very good experience,” she said. “We have many young girls who read Torah and Hebrew and lead services.
During her Shabbat in Philadelphia, Nambi sang melodies that people in her community have composed for prayers, such as “Adon Olam” and “Lecha Dodi,” as well as Jewish songs in Luganda, her native language. Singing, she said, has been one of the main ways she has connected to American Jews.