My Trip to Nabagoya , Jewish Uganda

This is a re-post of the article written in March 2014 by Lorna Hopf.

Jewish Uganda is something we know nothing about and is very interesting and given that PM Netanyahu has very recently been there and  thought it an ideal time to re-post it..

Please check the link at the bottom of the article and help where you can.

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In January this year, I had the opportunity to travel to East Africa via Thailand, Kenya and then on to Uganda.

I arrived in Entebbe and spent the day looking round. There are monkeys all over the place, but unlike Asian monkeys, they are harmless and don’t attack tourists or try to steal their food. Baboons, however, are a different matter and are very dangerous!

Idi Amin HQ.

Besides visiting the botanic gardens and Entebbe wildlife sanctuary, I saw the former headquarters of Idi Amin Dada.

On coming to power in 1970, he declared Islam the official State religion, despite 86% of Ugandans being Christians.

Judaism was outlawed, all the synagogues were closed and many of the community imprisoned. The remaining Jewish community of less than 300 used to hide out in caves around Mt Elgon to secretly practice Judaism, probably very similar to how the Conversos did in Spain and Portugal.

After Amin was overthrown in 1979, thanks to intervention from neighboring Tanzania, Lt. Gen. Museveni came to power and declared freedom of worship in Uganda. The remnant of the community re-emerged to rebuild their fledgling community.

After staying overnight in Kampala, the capital, I travelled on to Nabogoye Hill, which is home to the Abuyudaya Jewish community. Situated not far from Mbale, the fourth largest town in Uganda, lies this central hub of Jewish life in Uganda.

In the shadows of Mount Elgon, Nabugoye Hill and the surrounding area (the Caulfield of Uganda!) has a Synagogue compound, a yeshiva, a primary and high school. The surrounding area is predominantly Islamic, but the groups seem to coexist without too much tension.

Gift shop.

I stayed at the guest house, which was fairly basic, and there was often no power or running water for much of the day.  We slept under mosquito nets as, being a very humid climate, mosquitoes are prevalent.  The night ones can carry malaria and dengue fever, while the day ones, although much bigger, are mostly not disease carrying.  There was a gift shop in the guest house, selling a few items of Judaica and other local crafts, plus bananas!

The leader of the community is Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who in 2008, was ordained as the first black sub-Saharan rabbi by the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. During his first year of seminary he said “My dream is to make Africa Jewish, and it is a very big dream.”  Incidentally, the Rabbi was a graduate of the Islamic University of Mbale.

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu.

Uganda’s Jews are known as the Abayudaya, which in the Luganda language means “People of Judah”, and are strictly Torah observant. Unlike other African Jewish communities, they have no ancestral ties to ancient diaspora communities, but are the descendants of those who followed Semei Kakungulu and converted about 90 years ago.

While I was there, the Abuyudaya song and dance festival took place, and children were busy practicing their moves. Like children everywhere, they loved posing for pictures and being able to see themselves instantly on camera. In Uganda, electronics are still very much a luxury item. Toys are virtually unknown and the children improvise, playing with tyres and anything else they can find.

The Abuyudaya is a very young community and people have lots of children. Nabagoya  has a synagogue, as well as a yeshivah, which is the first sub-Saharan yeshivah outside South Africa and has students from not only Uganda and neighbouring Kenya, but from as far afield as Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana.

Synagogue.
Interior of synagogue.
On the way to synagogue.

Whilst I was there, they celebrated their first Tu B’Shevat in East Africa, buying 10 palm trees and planting them all around Nabagoya Hill.  The Abuyudaya have also published a multilingual Haggadah in English, Hebrew, Luganda, Lugwere and Swahili, for use during Passover.

Tu B’Shevat.
Tree planting.

Bananas trees are everywhere and mango trees are also commonly seen.

Bananas are a staple part of the diet, and people live mostly on rice and matoki (fried green bananas). Meat, chicken and fish are only eaten occasionally and are a luxury item.  Meat is slaughtered according to kashrut.

The Abuyudaya, while centred in Nabagoya Hill, also has communities in Namatumba,  Niomi, Nasingi and as far away as Apach, which is 7 hours drive north, also Putti, which is the only Jewish community in Uganda recognized by the Orthodox Rabbinate and even has its own eruv.

Except for tour operators, the very wealthy, or UN convoys going north into South Sudan, cars are a rare sight in Uganda.  There is little public transport, and people use bicycles, motorbikes or get about on foot.

The Jewish compound houses the Semi Kakangulu High School, named after the man who founded the Abuyaudaya community in 1919: after having a dispute with the British and questioning certain theological teachings, he declared his followers the community of the Jews.  Soon after, in 1920, a European Jew named Yosef arrived and during his six-month stay as a guest of Kakangulu, taught the community all about the Jewish traditons, including kashrut, and the festivals.

There are now roughly 2,000 Abuyudaya, spread out all over Uganda, with the majority in Nabagoya Hill. As a former British colony, English is the official language, but Luganda and Lugwere are commonly spoken, as well as a few other languages, including Swahili. Ugandan high schools follow the British system and have O and A Levels.  Most children, except those in cities like Kampala and Entebbe, live too far away to walk to school, so board, even bringing their own mattresses.

Facilities in the high school are very basic, with virtually no beds or mosquito nets in the dorms, and poorly equipped classrooms.  By contrast, Hadassah Primary School is very well equipped, with dorms full of beds and mosquito nets and spacious classrooms with plenty of chairs.  In Uganda, children can go to any school or university regardless of religion, so Christians and Muslims can go to the Jewish schools. Christianity and Islam are the official state religions, and all schools much teach both.  In the Jewish schools, Judaism and Hebrew are also taught.

Hadassah recently did very well academically, coming in the top 5 of the whole of the Mbale region – much like the Jewish schools in Melbourne and Sydney! Ugandans are very patriotic, often displaying their national flag in their homes.

Ugandans get their water either from pumping it from wells, which are becoming more common, or else walking long distances carrying a ‘plastique’ – as it’s called in the Luganda language – to fill it with water from a borehole.

Unlike other African groups who claim to be descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes, the Abuyudaya chose Judaism.  Apart from their religion, there is nothing to distinguish the Abuyudaya from other groups in that area of Uganda, and like others, they are mostly subsistence farmers, but also produce items of Judaica such as kippot and challah covers, both for their own use and to sell to tourists.

Mikvah.

Though isolated from mainstream Judaism, they practice full Jewish observance,  and members of Abayudaya are forbidden to intermarry.  The Abayudaya pray three times a day, with the men wearing tallit and tefillin every morning.  Married women go to the mikvah.  They light Shabbat candles, make Kiddush and on Fridays, the women and girls spend time preparing for Shabbat, even baking their own challot, which were absolutely delicious.

We visited the community of Namutumba, which has a brick built shul. The first time I went to a service, as well as the congregants, there were chickens inside and looking out of the window,  I saw goats wandering around – a far  cry from Caulfield!

The well-worn siddurs bore inscriptions from various American shuls, but had somehow managed to find themselves in this remote corner of East Uganda.  It is not unusual for people to decorate their houses with different religious symbols, so you can see small grass-thatched huts decorated with Jewish symbols.

 

The Abayudaya have gained acclaim for their original music, which combines distinct African rhythms with Hebrew Psalms and prayers. Their religious-themed album, entitled “Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish people of Uganda,” was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2005.

Unlike many communities this size in other countries, the Abuyudaya community is young and vibrant, with a real search for knowledge. This is definitely a growing community and the people have a passion for Judaism, not always experienced in first world countries. From Namabuta to Apach, small Jewish communities are springing up all over the eastern parts of Uganda, with at least one as far afield as neighbouring Kenya.

It’s great to know that in one small corner of the world, Judaism is thriving.

For more information on the Jewish community of Uganda please checkout this website: http://www.kulanu.org/abayudaya/index.php

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5 comments

  1. It was fascinating to hear this story about the Jews of Uganda from Lorna. It gives me new hope for Uganda, which I had thought was all too quickly succumbing to Islam.

  2. Yehudah and I have returned from 2 1/2 months in East Africa (check out our blog: joanie-yehudah-travellog.blogspot.com) during which time we spent three weeks living with the Abayudaya community in Mbale, Uganda. We were already visiting when Lorna and the Kulanu visitors arrived. We experienced the warmth, dedication and vibrancy of the community, met many children, teens and adults. We taught Compassionate Listening skills at all levels of their community. We became closer with the Headmaster of Hadassah Primary School, Aaron Kintu Moses, who had visited in our home 2 years ago. The school is a mixture of Jewish, Muslim and Christian children. We have been supporting 6 children in need for the past three years through general fundraising in Portland, Oregon USA and this past summer at Kallah, a Jewish Renewal gathering in New Hampshire. Now is the time to seek committed sponsorship for each child. Yehudah and I are now personally sponsoring two children – Ester Namukose, who is starting High School in Mbale this year – and Moses Waluya, who is new to the community and passionate about learning.

    We invite you to join with us in supporting these children. Each one has some deep sadness in their family – whether death by AIDS, disease, accident or simply lack of ability to pay. They are determined children – determined to become educated. They each have admirable aspirations. If they make it through high school they can seek scholarships for college. We heard stories of some schools where if the child does not have the funds they don’t get in the door. Here, some of these kids have no funds currently and yet they are in the door. Aaron is hoping we come up with donors so he doesn’t have to tell them second quarter that they cannot return.

    Think about whether you can afford to be a single donor or whether you would like a partner. A group that meets regularly and has continuity could jointly sponsor a child. You can maintain some correspondence with the child through Aaron’s e-mail address I would give you or through snail mail if you wish or remain anonymous.

    So – please consider this. At Hadassah Primary School it costs $450 per child for the school year, which includes: room, board, tuition, books, uniform, supplies, pocket money. In the United States this donation is completely tax deductible through the Tikkun Olam Committee of P’nai Or of Portland. You may pay in a lump sum, in thirds ($150 per trimester) or in 10 payments ($45 per month). Checks are made out to: P’nai Or of Portland and sent to: Joanie Levine, 5707 NE 15th Ave, Portland OR 97211.

    In Australia perhaps there is a way to funnel the money through your own congregation and benefit through tax relief, if that is of benefit.

    I have a sheet with photos of the children, with names, ages, year in school, future work ideas. I am happy to send that to you via e-mail plus will try to post here.

    Thank you very much for reading this and hope to hear back from you!
    Joanie Levine and Yehudah Winter

    jlevinehummingbird@gmail.com

  3. This is the attachment to my request just posted.
    Joanie Levine jlevinehummingbird@gmail.com

    ABAYUDAYA CHILDREN SEEKING SPONSORS
    The children below attend Hadassah Primary School in Mbale, Uganda.
    Tuition is $450 per year. Sponsorship may be paid annually, per trimester or monthly for 10 months. Contributions are tax-deductible through P’nai Or of Portland, Tikkun Olam Committee – Abayudaya Orphan Fund. Seeking sponsors committed to support children through their high school education.
    Please e-mail: jlevinehummingbird@gmail.com for more info and to sign up!

    Lea Mugide, age 14, P4, hopes to become a nurse. Both her Christian parents died when she was very young. Lea is cared for by her aunt. (9 yrs.)

    Nathan Mukulu, age 14, P6, wants to be an engineer. His sister, Sharon Nabudo, age 11, P4, wants to be a teacher. Their mother died in 2006 and their father was murdered in 2002. When they are in their home village of Namutumba they stay with their grandmother, who is bedridden & in bad financial state.

    Hannah NaIumbwe, age14, P5, wants to be an accountant and work in a bank. She is a good athlete & does well in mathematics. Her father died in 2001, her mother in 2003 – both of HIV/AIDS. While at her
    home village of Namutumba she stays with her grandmother. Deborah Namususwa, age 11, P4, wants to be a nurse.

    Zefania Kyere, age 13, P6, intends to be a lawyer.

    Naume Auma, age 15, P7.
    She and her sister are from northern Uganda.
    Their father is completely blind and cannot support them.

    Ester Nanzala, age 14, P7. Her father had both of his legs amputated after a car accident and cannot work.

    Note: Hadassah is P1-P7; High School is Ordinary: S1-4, then Advanced: S5-6