Encounter With An Unexpected Community

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Winston Churchill referred to Uganda as “the pearl of Africa” and it’s not hard to see why. It is an intensely beautiful and vibrant country with some of the most dramatic scenery in the region: rainforests bejewelled with specks of sunlight, teeming with monkeys and exotic birds, the never-ending expanse of Lake Victoria unfolding from the curls of the Ssese Islands and dense forests inhabited by some of the world’s last remaining gorilla families. Most striking however, is the determination and resilience of a people who have truly suffered at the hands of oppressive leadership. One such community are the Ugandan Jews, who have endured their fair share of persecution over the years, their religious devotion tested to the limit under the rule of Idi Amin, when their Synagogues were burnt down, prayer books torn up and they were forbidden to practice Judaism.

The word ‘Abayudaya’ literally means ‘Jews’, but this particular community do not believe themselves to be direct descendants of Israel. In 1913, the Bugandan warrior Semei Kakungulu joined the Malachites (a group which combined Judaism with Christianity), having become disenchanted with the British when they limited his domain to a small plot of land near the town of Mbale, at the base of Mount Elgon. He gradually became more and more engaged with Judaism and in 1919 had himself and his sons circumcised and declared his community Jewish. After his death the community dispersed into two groups - one that believed in Jesus, the other that became devout Jews. The Abayudaya practiced the laws of Judaism in isolation, passing the traditions from generation to generation and maintaining their beliefs through a series of anti-Semitic regimes including that of Idi Amin. Today they live harmoniously side by side with their non-Jewish, Bagisu neighbours, mainly working in subsistence farming. The only distinction is among the men with their colourful, crochet skull caps, known universally as kippot.

We were amazed to discover a vibrant and thriving community full of hustle and bustle as the Sabbath preparations commenced. Women prepared mounds of rice, posho and matoko for the evening meal, swept their houses from top to bottom and scrubbed laundry in bright, plastic buckets full of soapy water, ensuring all their work was complete before sundown. By the time the sun had disappeared behind the horizon, the women were resplendent in boldly patterned traditional African dresses, matching headscarves and shiny gold earrings and the men in perfectly pressed trousers and pristine prayer shawls. The Synagogue service commenced, and the evening continued with storytelling, singing and playing with the children. Despite limited resources, the community has worked hard to keep this relatively inaccessible religion alive, dedicating huge amounts of time to study and prayer. It was clear that the Sabbath is an integral and sacred part of their week and a time spent with family and friends as a profoundly close-knit unit. 

For those interested to meet the Abayudaya as part of a wider visit to Uganda please contact us at info@anotherafrica.com


Marisa Lassman