A Ghanaian Learns in Uganda
(Alex Armah is a leader of the Jewish community in Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana. With Kulanu’s help, he went to Mbale, Uganda, in July to study Judaism for four months with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, and was among the 250 converts there. Here are excerpts from some of his weekly messages to friends and supporters)
Shalom. This is my first report to you. It is wonderful to experience such an occasion with the Abayudaya community in Uganda. On Monday visitors start coming from the U.S.A. Some also came from African countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia, and people from nearby communities in Uganda. The guest house was full of rabbis.
The conversions started on Wednesday; the 250 members who came for the conversion are now Jewish, and each person is happy to be a Jew. The conversions were done before the ordination of our African Rabbi Gershom. I was also converted, to have my Hebrew name.
I was surprised to see officials from the Government of Uganda and from Islamic and Christian religions. On Thursday a long bus of students from many Jewish communities from the U.S.A., Canada, and Israel came to welcome our African Jewish Rabbi. African drummers and the Abayudaya high school choir came with their welcome songs for the rabbis.
What I have learned about the Rabbi Gershom is that he is a lovely man with the spirit of God, who fears God and is a hard worker towards the service of God. In honor of Rabbi Gershom, I hope all the Jews in Africa will come together as one community.
The rabbis did not come only for the ceremonies, but also to share Torah, Mishna, and religious ideas with the whole community.
The community has done something that it is marvelous in the eyes of many people here in Uganda. They have a school that comprises Jews, Muslims, Christians, and other students within the district.
The reason why I am here in Uganda is to study and go back to my community and teach. It has been my dream for many years. Studies begin every day after the morning service at the synagogue with Rabbi Gershom and some members of the community. And then I have time to study on my own. We have started with Hebrew. On Shabbat, after the Shabbat service, we all have our lunch and then come back for studies. I am so happy that we have lunch with the whole community, and that the youth have someone teaching them. The community sometimes divides into two groups, male and female, for study and after that they all come together for discussions
I was going around the compound of the community on Friday and I saw some foundations of buildings. I asked about their use and the answer is that they are for the clinic and doctor’s bungalow. I could see that the rabbi has a future vision for the community. Later, I saw the rabbi and some of the community members standing near his house. He called me over and told me a community member had passed away, so we are going to the burial. This is my first time to witness the burial of a Jew.
I still praise the community leader Rabbi Gershom for his good work. Is not this the community that was harassed and sent to prison by its neighbors in years past? Now these are the people giving the nearby towns water to drink.
Yesterday was a day to remember the destruction of the Second Temple. So we fasted on Tisha B’Av. And most of the Jewish students came from Mbale for the morning service. We all sat on the ground, and only the rabbi sat on a low stool. You could see the faith that people have in this Jewish community.
I was so happy to be called to bless the Torah on Shabbat. Many of the things the Abayudaya community does on Shabbat we also do in Ghana. The big difference is that they know more of the Hebrew so they did all the service in Hebrew. They sing in Luganda and Hebrew. The rabbi translates some prayers into English for those who cannot understand Hebrew or Luganda.
I visited one of J.J.’s coffee farms, behind his house, and it is wonderful work that this man has done. Apart from the coffee, he has also planted banana, which is the food all the people here are used to. He earns money from the sale of the bananas. His father introduced him to farming in his youth. Can you imagine that this busy man also has attached bee-keeping to his farming? I saw something black on top of a tree and he told me it is a bee hive. He has harvested it only once, and got six liters of honey from it. And it is his plan to increase bee-keeping but he needs capital to start.
I met some visitors who came from U.S.A., Canada, and France. The one from France was surprised that there is a Jewish community in Ghana.
Since I came to the community, not a single week goes by that you will not see the leaders of various committees having a meeting in the synagogue or at the library, discussing how to develop the community and how the various projects will help. I am learning from the community leaders and the executive as well. Due to their good work, people are now drinking good water, have good health and have schools as well. When I go back to my community, I am going to work with my leaders to develop our area and move the community forward.
I am learning from the Talmud, the Mishna, and the Torah, as well as Hebrew. Some visitors came to the community and donated sportswear to the high school. They are also helping to construct a football field for the school. The rabbi and the headmaster of the school are now working hard on the field with the contractor.
I am now learning from the Moslems and the Christians in the community how they feel when they are at the Jewish school. I met one of the Christians and he told me that he is happy to be in the school because there is no discrimination there. Now the Jewish people here have created a good relationship with the Christians.
On Thursday, I went to see one of the Torah readers, Isaac, and told him I wanted to read the Torah on Shabbat. He then encouraged me and he let me practice with him for about 30 minutes. Then he left me alone to study. I kept on reading till Friday night, when I told the rabbi that I wanted to read from the Torah on Shabbat. The rabbi also encouraged me. On Shabbat, the rabbi read the first and the second parts and then called me and blessed me, and the community also sang a song to welcome me, because this was my first time reading from the Torah scroll. And I was able to read my portion. I know by the time I leave to go back to my community, many things will have changed. I give thanks to my rabbi for giving me encouragement day in and day out. May the Almighty bless him and give him peace.