The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020 created serious difficulties for Uganda’s Jews — as well as for the country’s first native-born Jewish doctor, who the 2,500 community members have come to rely on for assistance.
Dr. Samson Wamani, 41, was working in the emergency room of a Kampala hospital at the start of the global outbreak. He soon found himself at personal risk when he was appointed director of the hospital’s makeshift COVID-19 treatment unit.
“The hospital didn’t have any [personal protection equipment] and all we were given were three disposable masks a week which we had to wash ourselves in order to keep on reusing them,” recalls Wamani.
An ensuing lockdown also meant that Wamani was cut off from his family and the rest of the Jewish community, who reside in villages surrounding Mbale, a city of roughly 100,000 located 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Kampala. Prior to the lockdown, Wamani had regularly commuted from Kampala — where he’d moved after taking his job at the hospital — back to the Mbale area to provide healthcare counseling.
“It was very hard to communicate to the community at a time when they sorely needed advice on safety measures,” says Wamani.
“On top of everything else my plans for establishing a Jewish health center in Mbale had to be shelved,” he adds.
While the Jews mostly live in rural regions outside Mbale with little healthcare infrastructure, Wamani explains, “The isolation of the community is actually connected to our attempt to preserve our Jewishness.”
Many health facilities in Uganda were set up by Christian missionaries, Wamani says, and Uganda’s Jews chose to distance themselves from the rest of the population to avoid the temptation of leaving the fold. By and large, though, Wamani says, the Jews have lived in harmony with their Christian and Muslim neighbors.
Uganda’s Jews, who are known as the Abayudaya (“the People of Judah” in the Luganda language), date back to the early 1900s when a group of Ugandans — including Wamani’s grandfather — began practicing circumcision and other Jewish rituals and declared themselves Jewish.
During the reign of notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the 1970s, Judaism was outlawed and members of the community had to practice their religion secretly.
After the fall of Amin in 1979, numerous Jewish denominations from North America and Israel began to reach out to the Abayudaya to help them undergo official rabbinical conversion to Judaism. Today, the community has 12 different synagogues aligned with almost as many streams of Judaism — including Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal.
Wamani was 15 in 1995 when he underwent a Conservative conversion. “I call it a re-conversion,” says Wamani with a smile. “A Jew is a Jew, and anyway we were already practicing kashrut, keeping Shabbat and following the laws of family purity.”
The arrival in Uganda of foreign Jewish organizations also changed Wamani’s life in another way. Wamani was a bright high school student, but his widowed mother was struggling to pay his tuition from her meager income derived from brewing and selling homemade beer — a business common among indigent Ugandan women with few other options to sustain themselves.
When the New York-based Kulanu Jewish outreach organization offered to fund Wamani’s university education, he suddenly had an opportunity to continue his studies and choose a career.
“I was influenced by what I saw happen to my brother’s wife. She began bleeding profusely while giving birth, and by the time my brother got her on his bike to an infirmary more than 10 kilometers (six miles) away, she died. I realized that if there had been a doctor nearby she might have lived,” he recalls, inadvertently invoking the ancient Jewish text Ethics of the Fathers. “So as an African saying goes, ‘When there is no man, be the man.’”
While studying medicine and surgery at Busitema University about an hour’s drive south of Mbale, Wamani also began to visit different Ugandan synagogues to speak about public health issues. That advocacy experience led him in 2013 to become the executive director of RAIN Uganda, an NGO offering advice on HIV education, cervical cancer screening, family planning methods and other community health issues.
Earlier this year, Wamani decided to forego his prestigious job at the Kampala hospital and return to live among the Jewish community in his hometown of Nasenyi. Working at a nearby government clinic, he is now able to provide the childbirth assistance that was lacking at the time of his sister-in-law’s death.
“I deal with many maternal and neonatal issues and there are some weeks where I do as many as 10 cesarean sections,” says Wamani, who estimates that during the past six months he has delivered about 150 babies.
As the ratio of doctors to the population in Uganda is 1:25,000 (compared to about 1:300 in Israel), Wamani would be highly busy under any circumstances, but the global health crisis has only added to his workload.
“We lost the lives of many members of the Jewish community during the early days of the pandemic and it’s unfortunate that very few people have been able to be vaccinated, as most people here are willing to do so,” says Wamani.
Although official World Health Organization figures indicate about 125,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Uganda, Wamani points out that the actual figure is most likely significantly higher than that.
“Most Ugandans have little contact with health facilities, so a large number of COVID cases, like those of other conditions, are not reported,” he says.
During his tenure in Kampala, Wamani managed to get immunized against COVID-19, but according to the World Health Organization less than one percent of Uganda’s population of 45 million have been fully vaccinated.
“Schools remain closed throughout Uganda, but life is slowly getting back to normal,” says Wamani, noting that mask-wearing and other safety measures are being widely practiced.
Normalcy has also returned to the Jewish community. “On Passover we made our own matzah and we had a seder in Nasenyi attended by about 200 people,” says Wamani.
For now, a lack of financial resources continues to delay Wamani’s dream of creating a Jewish medical center in Mbale, but he remains optimistic about the future.
“There are today three members of the Jewish community studying medicine,” he says. “I’m hoping that by the time they graduate we will be able to make that happen.”
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