Ugandan Jews Look to Jewish World for Help with Famine Relief

The Chief Rabbi of Uganda discusses how famine in East Africa is impacting the Abayudaya Jews and their neighbors.

As news of growing famine in East Africa is making headlines, we checked in with Rabbi Sizomu to find out about the impact on the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda. He is the leader of the Abayudaya and the first Chief Rabbi of Uganda. He is also an elected member of the Ugandan Parliament.

Rabbi Sizomu we understand that there is widespread famine across East Africa and Uganda is no exception.

Yes, absolutely. All of East Africa is experiencing a severe drought. As a member Parliament, I am aware of reports and requests from my colleagues in all parts of the country. Lack of water and food are affecting millions of people, especially the most vulnerable. Children and the elderly are at increased risk of illness and even starvation. Stephen O’Brien, Emergency Relief Coordinator of the United Nations, called the famine ‘the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the U.N.’ Even though the Ugandan government voted to declare a state of emergency,  the government is doing nothing for fear of being seen as failing.

How is that impacting the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda?

People are dying as a result of stress and starvation related illnesses, especially the elderly and children. Last Sunday, I attended the funeral of an 80-year-old in Budwale sub county, Mbale district, whose life had deteriorated due hunger and stress. The widow is also helpless and will likely follow soon.

Like many others in Uganda, the Abayudaya are subsistence farmers, meaning they grow what they eat. Therefore if they have no water to grow crops, they have no food. And we have no money to buy food. The cost of whatever food is available is more expensive due to lower supply and increased demand.

Is food always a problem? Or is this particularly bad?

Yes, in some sense having enough food is delicate balance on an annual basis. As the word ‘subsistence’ suggests, farmers are only able to grow enough to feed their families during approximately 9 months of the year when we have enough rain. In the other 3 months of the drier season, many do not have enough to eat. Therefore, the result of a drought is particularly devastating.

As the leader of the community, many are coming to me for help. Those that are particularly vulnerable are in heartbreaking situations. Today, two mothers, each with twins and abandoned by their husbands, approached me for help. Their children are malnourished, can’t go to school and are barely making it. I often feel I have no choice but to personally help them, but obviously, I can’t keep that up long term.

How can people help?

The Abayudaya’s fiscal sponsor and partner, Be’chol Lashon, set up a link to collect tax-deductible donations to help with the immediate famine, as well as long-term food management.

We will purchase maize flour, commonly known as ‘posho,’ to get us through this month. At the end of August, the situation should ease up a bit as some crops hopefully will be ready to be harvested.

In addition to the immediate crisis, we are actively focused on planning and implementing better agricultural practices, including water storage and irrigation, as well as storing and capitalizing on surplus crops during the growing seasons to cover the drier seasons.

What is the mood in the community right now?

It is not easy, not easy at all. People are despondent, and you can see it on their faces. Parents are constantly worried because they have many things to take care of. There’s a constant need for food.

But I am an optimist by nature and am hopeful. When I was a teen, Idi Amin Dada was in power. He outlawed Judaism and we were afraid for our lives. My dream from that time forward was to lead my people and connect us to the rest of the Jews around the world.

My dream came true. We are grateful for the amount of progress we have achieved over the last decade with the help of Be’chol Lashon and the world Jewish community. We have drilled wells for clean water, distributed mosquito nets and built a health center, among other initiatives that benefit the Abayudaya, as well as their Christian and Muslim neighbors.

Once we overcome the immediate crisis, improving our agricultural practices will hopefully help alleviate hunger moving forward with the help of generous donations from our friends.

NOTE: You can help with the famine today, as well as improving long-term food management, for the Abayudaya and their neighbors. Tax-deductible donations can be made here.

“These are not easy times.” Rabbi Gershom Sizomu worries for his community in Uganda. Photo used with permission by Be’chol Lashon

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