ABAYUDAYA: The Jews of Uganda

NABUGOYE VILLAGE, Mbale District, Uganda — I sat in Moses Synagogue during Kabbalat Shabbat service, the only visitor and the only white face (perhaps for miles), inside pale white-washed walls lined with bookshelves bowed under stacks of old prayer books.

Moses Synagogue. Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Moses Synagogue. Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

My lips curved upwards too as the soft, harmonious voices of the buoyant congregation welcomed the lighting of the Sabbath stars and set my feet and fingers into involuntary movements, for the psalms and drum resonated with a distinctly African rhythm. I considered just how special this last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) was. I felt lucky to be there.

Moses Synagogue. Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Moses Synagogue. Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Four hours later, I lay in Ohel Mosquito (Tent of Mosquito), my bed in the Abayudaya guest house, reviewing and organizing both photographs and mental images from an extraordinary day. The pale blue netting hung around me like the embrace of the community itself.

Guest House. Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Guest House. Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Outside, in the near distance, an incessant thumping drone from a bass-heavy all-night wedding party mimicked my heartbeat and interrupted my slumber. I couldn’t help but wonder when the party would end (it did — two days later).

I wasn’t the only one taking stock. With Rosh Hashanah just days away, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu asked his congregation what they had learned this year.

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Nabugoye Synagogue, Mbale, Uganda

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Moses Synagogue, Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

“I learned that there are more blessings than curses,” one voice offered

“And I have learned that only I am holding myself back from doing whatever it is I want to do,” said another.

Rabbi Sizomu underscored his sermon by emphasizing that with the impending new year, one must “begin” something, no matter how small, to make a dream come true.

“Chazzan Keki began his coffee farm with 500 trees,” he told the congregation. “And how many does he have today? He cannot count.”

“About 100,000,” the Chazzan noted to a few giggles and gasps. I was impressed.

Earlier in the day, I met Chazzan Yoav Yonadav J.J. Keki at his home. I went there to visit the grave of his father which abuts the house.

Cemetery of Yonadav Keki at home of Yoav Yonadav (J.J.) Keki, half-brother of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Nangolo Village, Namanyoni Sub-county, Mbale, Uganda

Cemetery of Yonadav Keki at home of Yoav Yonadav (J.J.) Keki, half-brother of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Nangolo Village, Namanyoni Sub-county, Mbale, Uganda

In front of his house lay two mats covered with coffee beans basking in the morning sun. I didn’t learn J.J. was the Chazzan till he started singing at the evening service. Nor did I know the half-brother of Rabbi Sizomu is also a partner in the Peace Kawomera Growers Coop Society which brings farmers of various faiths together and provides them an opportunity to sell their goods. All day, he just kept surprising me. Chazzan Keki also makes for a fine translator between English and Luganda (the main local language of Uganda), interpreting for his brother who held the service in English for my benefit (he does that when the village has visitors). What’s more, J.J. is a crocheter extraordinaire, knitting kippot for both the community and to sell to visitors. He’s an interesting and very friendly guy who never stops smiling!

Getting to the Abayudaya from Entebbe (where I stayed upon arrival in the country and again before departure) takes five hours on the main thoroughfare cutting north-south across the eastern side of the country, including through the heart of the drab, traffic-clogged capital of Kampala. The two-lane freeway is in respectable condition for it is heavily traveled by trucks ferrying goods, including petrol, from Mombasa port in Kenya up to Sudan. There are a number of ramshackle towns en route from where dusty red dirt lanes branch off to dirt poor villages. The main road winds its way through varied lush topography including velvety emerald tea farms, an indigenous forest, and across the Nile River. Yep, the Nile. I had forgotten that its source is in Uganda so I was chuffed when my driver informed me we were crossing over it. The tiring journey is well worth the effort, for the warmth in the community’s welcome and their easy spirit is a pot of gold at the end of that bumpy tether.

Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Abayudaya is Luganda for People of Judah or Jewish People. With a population of some 2,000 souls, they reside in nearly a dozen villages in eastern Uganda near the provincial city of Mbale. Though neither genetically nor historically related to other ethnic Jewish peoples, they are a deeply devout people recognized by both the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism. Only the members of Putti Village consider themselves Orthodox, but they have yet to be officially recognized as such.

Semei Kakungulu was the founding father of the Abayudaya. Converted to Christianity by British missionaries in the 1880s, he eventually found spiritual truth in the Old Testament, and later he accepted the tenets of the Five Books of Moses.

Tomb of Samei Lwakirenzi Kagungulu, Abayudaya founder. Kagungulu Hill, near Nabuguye Village, Uganda

Tomb of Samei Lwakirenzi Kagungulu, Abayudaya founder. Kagungulu Hill, near Nabuguye Village, Uganda

When his hopes of becoming king of the Bukedi and Bugisu territories were dashed by the British, he took further comfort in his newly found faith and eventually circumcised himself and his sons, and declared his community Jewish. In 1919, he settled in Gangama where he started a new sect called Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda (the Community of Jews who trust in the Lord).

The arrival of “Yosef”, the first known foreign Jew, in 1920, contributed greatly to the fledgling community’s knowledge of Jewish rituals and festivals such as Pesach (Passover), Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah (New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Succot (Feast of Tabernacles). Yosef educated the community during his six-month stay, including lessons on kashrut (keeping kosher) and the introduction of a type of Yeshiva (an Orthodox Jewish college). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abayudaya).

Under the rule and thumb of dictator Idi Amin (1971~1979), the Abayudaya were persecuted and forced into retreat and/or outright conversion to Christianity or Islam. He outlawed Judaism and destroyed synagogues though some 300 Abayudaya maintained their faith in secret.

As a follower of Islam, Amin was a sympathizer of the Palestinians. In July 1976, he heartily welcomed members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and German Revolutionary Cells who had hijacked an Air France plane with 248 passengers, some 100 of them being Israelis and Jews. The plane was hijacked after takeoff from Athens, Greece though the Paris-bound flight itself originated in Tel Aviv. With only the Jewish hostages remaining, a week-long standoff at Entebbe airport culminated in a dramatic and successful Israel Defence Force (IDF) commando rescue codenamed Operation Thunderbolt (aka Operation Entebbe). [Watch the movie, Operation Thunderbolt, Israeli production 1977.]

Old Entebbe Airport terminal, site of the 1976 Israeli "Raid on Entebbe". Entebbe, Uganda

Old Entebbe Airport terminal, site of the 1976 Israeli “Raid on Entebbe”. Entebbe, Uganda

With the end of the Amin era, the Abayudaya openly came back to their Jewish faith. In 2002, some 400 members were officially converted by Conservative rabbis. The following year, Gershom Sizomu (with his family) went to the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, California. He was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 2008. Today, he is the only official Abayudaya rabbi though there are a number of highly proficient lay-readers who lead services and provide community leadership in the nine villages where the Abayudaya live.

Today, community life very much centers around Nabugoye Village where Rabbi Sizomu resides. In addition to Moses Synagogue, there is a yeshiva, a mikvah, and the Semei Kakungulu High School.

Semei Kakungulu High School, Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Semei Kakungulu High School, Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

The Hadassah Primary School is walking distance between Nabugoye and Namanyonyi Villages, and the Tobin Medical Clinic is closer to Mbale town.

Hadassah Primary School, Namanyonyi Village, Mbale, Uganda

Hadassah Primary School, Namanyonyi Village, Mbale, Uganda

Nabugoye Village is relatively well off with (intermittent) electricity, (intermittent) wifi, (intermittent) running water which is (intermittently) hot-ish. Outlying villages of the Abayudaya, however, vary widely and many members live in abject poverty. Smiles, however, are free and easy in this part of the world.

The Abayudaya are very welcoming to visitors though I had to receive advanced official permission for photographing from the community’s Executive Council. With exception to Nabugoye village, I arrived unannounced, but that does not diminish the warmth of the welcomes. In fact, the added element of surprise creates a bit of a stir, perhaps even a diversion in their normal routine. Children, in particular, are eager to welcome visitors, especially one with a camera. They love to pose then see themselves on the screen guaranteeing a chorus of heartwarming giddy squeals. Even the smallest of the children say, “You are welcome [to our village].” It’s very sweet and very special.

My four-day visit was exhilarating. By the time it was over, I needed to decompress, take stock of all that had happened, and try to capture it all in words as well as the photographs. Perhaps the epitome of the experience was a visit to Namutumba Village.

Located quite far off the main drag down a bumpy thread of dirt road that seemed to get narrower and narrower as we bumped along, the vehicle stopped when the track came to an end. There, midst the dense surrounding bush and canopy of banana trees, I met Rabbi Eri Kaiduwa’s wife and children. Their house is a traditional round mud hut capped by a thatched roof with a separate hut for a kitchen.

Rabbi Eri Kaiduwa's wife and children. Namutumba Synagogue (aka The Perlman Synagogue), Namutumba District, Uganda

Rabbi Eri Kaiduwa’s wife and children. Namutumba Synagogue (aka The Perlman Synagogue), Namutumba District, Uganda

Their synagogue was something more substantial, built of brick but with a dirt floor and no panes in the spaces for windows. One day, they hope it will be completed. There was no Torah but there was a prayer book in the Aron Hakodesh and plenty more on rickety bookshelves.

Namutumba Synagogue (aka The Perlman Synagogue), Namutumba District, Uganda

Namutumba Synagogue (aka The Perlman Synagogue), Namutumba District, Uganda

Clearly, these people live in abject poverty, but the smiles on their faces were priceless. I was touched by their very warm welcome to a stranger with a camera that costs more than their home.

ABAYUDAYA video on YouTube.

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