Stepping From Shade Into Sunshine
Don Meddy’s stunning photographs capture the hard daily routine as well as the vibrant Jewish communal life of Moshe and Hannah and their family in Naseniye, eastern Uganda, in the lead up to this year’s Passover celebrations. Meddy’s images also illustrate how life on their farm has been dramatically transformed through a project run by World Jewish Relief.
The village of Naseniye is almost a five-hour drive from Uganda’s capital Kampala. Surrounded by mountains and waterfalls, it’s located in a region that tourists visit for the scenic hiking trails. But it is also home to some of the Abayudaya, Uganda’s African-born Jews.
In this predominantly Christian and Muslim country, Uganda’s century-old Jewish community stands at about 2,000 members. That number has grown and shrunk since its beginnings in the early 20th century, when a local chieftain named Semei Kakungulu began to study the tenets of Judaism. Kakungulu was visited by missionaries preaching Christianity, but broke away from those teachings to observe the customs of the five books of Moses. He encouraged his followers to raise Jewish children and circumcise their boys. Today, many of the Abayudaya proudly identity themselves as descendants of Kakungulu. The Abayudaya are spread over the region, with the largest group in Nabugoye where there is a synagogue and a Jewish primary and high school. Here, Hannah and Moshe, who are based in the smaller Naseniye community, tell us about life in this remote but beautiful corner of Africa.
Forty-five year-olds Moshe and Hannah met at school and connected over their love of music. However, both dropped out before completing their studies, as they could not afford to pay their school fees. They have been married for 18 years and have five children, aged between four and 17.
HANNAH: “I was sorry to leave school early; I felt like my life was over”.
MOSHE: “We relied on subsistence farming, which is very challenging. We planted millet and maize It was hard work, and just about fed the family without providing us with any income. Even then, we didn’t always have enough food for the whole family.”
A new farming project
Some community members introduced Moshe and Hannah to World Jewish Relief’s TransFARMing project, which operates in partnership with a local NGO Jewish Response Uganda. The project offers agricultural and business training and mentorship, and helps people to generate an income through farming.
HANNAH: “Before Moshe and I joined the TransFARMing project, our children went to a government school where the education was free, but the standard was poor. Apart from a decent education, our children missed out on good meals, healthcare and clothing. We couldn’t provide for our Shabbat meals. We hoped life would change.”
Green peppers and progress
MOSHE: “At first the new farming programme was hard but I realised that if you change your approach to farming, simple shifts can result in making good money. On the programme, we were taught how to farm using the best techniques, and which crops were most profitable, such as green peppers and watermelons.”
HANNAH: “I felt so happy to be on the project. As a woman and a mother, it was important to me that I learned to farm myself, make my own money, learn how to spend it wisely and how to save it for the future. The project means I get a ‘road’ to myself. I am out and working rather than staying home and depending on my husband. Our daughter Lidiam, who is five, tells me, “I want to grow up to be a powerful lady like my mum”.
MOSHE: “When I first made an income from farming green peppers, I felt as if I had taken a step from the shade into the sunshine. I have changed as a person. My children are happy and my wife is happy. They can eat well. Now my children go to good schools.”
HANNAH: “Now we have enough food for ourselves, we no longer have to beg to our neighbours. We have been able to save up and buy a motorcycle, which we use for business and to transport crops. We can pay for our childrens’ school fees, uniforms and stationery. We can keep the home well stocked and maintained. There is none of the stress of looking for money. There is peace and I share a real love now with my husband Moshe.”
The future looks bright
MOSHE: “My grandparents were Jews. My mother and father were Jews. I don’t know anything apart from Judaism. I also work as the local mohel.
HANNAH: “I’m a leader in the synagogue. The project has changed the lives of many people in our community. We are able to afford to eat well on Shabbat and buy Shabbat candles and we can all come together to celebrate Passover with a big Seder meal. With my income, I can provide kiddush [blessings over the wine and bread] for the community. I am more confident now.”
MOSHE: “Finally, our children can have dreams for the future.”
Interviews by Richard Budden from WJR and Tarphon Kamya, director of Jewish Response Uganda