People in Kamengo line up for the annual CACHA medical mission. Photo courtesy Jimmy Sebulime

Ottawa resident works to build better lives in his birthplace of Kamengo, Uganda

  • July 28, 2021

Grief has been all too commonplace these days for Ottawa humanitarian Jimmy Sebulime.

The founder of the Agnes Zabali Boys and Girls Club (AZBGC) in Uganda, and leader of medical missions in the nation through his partnership with the Canada Africa Community Health Alliance (CACHA), Sebulime is experiencing first hand the catastrophic impact COVID-19 is having on the developing nation. In the small village of Kamengo, Uganda, where he was born and raised, the current wave of the virus has been especially devastating.

“I’m afraid to wake up and look at my phone and find out who is dead,” said Sebulime, who last visited the nation in March 2020 for a medical mission that was cut short after three days due to the onset of the pandemic. “It’s very sad.”

The AZBGC — named in honour of Sebulime’s mother — is run by a dedicated youth committee on the ground with whom Sebulime stays in close contact. Under normal circumstances, on multiple occasions throughout the year, groups of Canadian medical staff, educators and other volunteers travel to the village to help out in the community, but with the last year of pandemic restrictions those trips have come to a halt. Though there remains a strong medical team on the ground, they have been challenged by the lack of resources.

Uganda implemented one of Africa’s tightest lockdown restrictions at the beginning of the pandemic, but it was gradually lifted as cases slowed. Infections started to spike and new cases, particularly among young people, have surged. The wave of critically ill patients and the death rate is reported to be higher than what was experienced in the first wave of the pandemic. Hospitals are swarming with COVID-19 patients, where access to resources such as lifesaving oxygen are not readily available.

Sebulime started a GoFundMe account which raised $6,000 for the purchase of personal protective equipment and oxygen concentrators for the medical mission. However, the initiative’s latest loss has been especially painful. One of the heartbeats of the organization — Sr. Mary Proscovia Nassejje — died from COVID on July 14.

Assisting with both the medical mission and the boys and girls club, the 49-year-old nun faithfully carried out responsibilities ranging from paying school fees for the kids, providing counselling to young girls and purchasing medication on behalf of the medical team.

Though she had options to work overseas, her passion to help the people in her native Uganda drew her to the AZBGC. “She was very kind and compassionate, very generous and also provided counselling for the young girls that faced abuse, or young girls that got pregnant — she befriended them,” remembered Sebulime. “This was a leader and she’s now gone, so there’s a huge void.”

Earlier this summer Nassejje was granted leave to travel back to her home community to oversee the burial of her father who died of COVID-19. It was during that visit that she too contracted and succumbed to the virus.

“She got sick and when you get COVID in Uganda you just hope for the best,” said Sebulime of the nation where just roughly one per cent of the population is vaccinated. “There’s absolutely nothing the health care system can do for you.”

An alumna of Notre Dame High School in Ottawa, Sebulime was the recipient of the 2020 Distinguished Catholic Alumni Award from the Ottawa Catholic School Board. The award comes with a $5,000 gift which he donated right back to Notre Dame High School. Unbeknownst to him at the time, a group of students at the school had started selling clothing in support of anti-Black racism efforts and the proceeds were donated to the AZBGC. The $3,600 raised has been used by the organization to purchase food for the children at the boys and girls club.

One of Sebulime’s biggest supporters is long-time friend and fellow Notre Dame High School alumna Tony Zappia, a software developer who heads his own start-up. He vowed to match any donation made to the GoFundMe dollar for dollar up to $2,000.

“It was just a really easy project to support because I knew it was going through Jimmy and he was a good friend,” said Zappia. “I didn’t have to worry about whether things were going to have overhead costs or how money was being spent. I knew that anything that was getting donated was getting put exactly to where it was needed and to good use.

“None of our involvement and none of the help that’s being provided to the people in his community in Uganda would happen without the hard work that he’s putting in.”

Born and raised in Uganda, Sebulime immigrated to Canada with his mother and his two brothers at the age of 12 in 1990. Speaking no English and as a visible minority in Ottawa, Sebulime admits it took him a while but he grew to have great pride in his African heritage. His mother, Agnes Zabali, also nutured in him a sense of responsibility to give back to Uganda.

On a trip back to the village he was born, Sebulime noticed there was a community centre under construction. He inquired who was building it and was taken aback to discover it was his mother. He convinced her to use it for medical missions and a boys and girls club.

On a 2012 trip to Uganda, Sebulime and his mother were tragically struck by a garbage truck which killed her and left him in a coma for several days. 

While in Ottawa, the family lived across the street from a boys and girls club and his mom would drop him and his brothers off while she went to work her three jobs. Sebulime was inspired to bring the concept to Uganda and after she died he named the initiative in her honour.

Today the centre includes basketball courts, and a women’s house which acts as a safe place for young women and girls to do arts and crafts, read, pick up feminine hygiene products and receive other supports. Located on five acres of land, the boys and girls club also grows crops to feed people in the community.

It’s still unclear when teams from Canada will be able return to the nation to continue the work. Though the needs are great in the small community, with the support of the people on the ground and the many generous Canadian supporters, Sebulime remains committed to doing what he can to support the community and keep his mother’s legacy alive.

“It’s an ocean out there,” he said. “I’m a very small fish and I’m doing my part.”

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