Kulanu: Mbale’s Jews

The Abayudaya estimated to be 500, like other rural Ugandans share a lot with their neighbours

In the green, rolling hills of eastern Uganda, near Mbale town in the shadow of Mount Elgon, the Abayudaya, Ugandan Jews live.

Like many others, they support themselves through subsistence farming. The Abayudaya estimated to be around 500, like other rural Ugandans, share much with their neighbours. The surrounding fields bursting with mango trees, sugarcane, banana trees and cassava, the frequent communal festivals to celebrate birth, marriage and death.

A significant difference between the Abayudaya and their countrymen is that when they raise their heads to the heavens in prayer, their God is not Jesus, Allah or any tribal spirit, but the God of Israel.

The Abayudaya set themselves apart through devout Judaism and their adherence to the belief that some day they will become an accepted part of the international Jewish community.

Renowned Muganda military leader Semei Kakungulu went to Mbale to expand British Influence in the early 1900s. In 1913, Kakungulu fell out with his masters, the British, when he joined the Malachites a belief the British took to be a cult because it combined Christianity, Judaism and Christian Science. They began to rewrite the Christian Bible as a Malachite bible.

Most of Kakungulu’s followers settled in areas around Nabugoye Hill where he planned to build a grand synagogue that looked down the hill toward Mbale.

Unfortunately Kakungulu died before he realised his dream. The Christian Missionaries took control until early 1980s when a group of young Abayudaya teamed up under a movement called “the Kibbutz Movement.” They reclaimed the land and built the Moses synagogue which brought the Abayudaya community’s focus back to the high ground.

Today most of the community members live around the Moses synagogue or the nearby synagogue in the village of Namanyoyi. Others live several miles from Mbale, in Pallisa, where there have two synagogues. Their fifth and most remote synagogue is in the village of Namatumba, approximately 70 kilometres from Mbale.

In 1919 Kakungulu had become a strong Jewish follower than the Protestant that he was, to the extent that he circumcised his sons and himself and declared his community Jewish. He fled to the foot of Mt. Elgon at a place called Gangama where he started a separatist sect known as Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda (the Community of Jews who trust in the Lord).

After Kakungulu’s death, his followers were divided into two groups – one that retained a belief in Jesus and another, the Abayudaya, that became devout Jews.

The Abayudaya isolated themselves from the Christians for fear of revenge. The Abayudaya maintained their community through a succession of anti-Semitic regimes such as that of Idi Amin, whose soldiers outlawed the Jewish rituals and destroyed their synagogues.

In the 1960s and 1970s the initial members of the Abayudaya community began to grow elderly and implored the rising generation to extend themselves to Jews outside Uganda. The community reached out to Israel in the 1960s and 1970s and even had the first secretary of the Israeli embassy in Uganda, visit them.

Most members of the Abayudaya society are devout observers of Jewish customs and rituals. Their Judaism begins from birth, where males are circumcised on the eighth day. The children grow up with a distinct awareness that they are Jews. At the Moses Synagogue, Nabugoye Hill Rabbi Geshrom Sizomu leads Friday night and Saturday morning services in Hebrew and English. Rabbi Misheal delivers a sermon on the week’s parsha every Friday night in Luganda.

Some families walk miles and miles to Nabugoye Hill to pray on Saturday mornings. Children scamper along in front of their parents and elderly men trudge up the hill leaning on hand-carved walking sticks. Shabbat and holiday services are often the only time that community members will see each other for the week. So they become both social and religious occasions.

While those on Nabugoye Hill have chosen to add Hebrew to their traditional Luganda prayers (with many of the Luganda melodies written by Kakungulu himself). Congregations at the nearby Synagogue in the village of Namanyoyi have chosen to hold their services exclusively in Luganda.

There are two synagogues in Pallisa, The farmers in Pallisa bring their families to the synagogue, which are active with religious observance throughout Shabbat. The community’s fifth and most remote Synagogue is in the village of Namatumba, 70 kilometres from Mbale.

Being Jewish is a consistent and conscious part of life as an Abayudaya. The opening of Semei Kakungulu High School has invited more non-Jews. Abayudaya children in the past were often victimised.

Members of the community have been known to accuse the Jews of being “Christ Killers.” The Abayudaya were pressed to forego their religion during Idi Amin’s harsh rule in the 1970s. During those difficult times many of the approximately 3,000 Abayudaya did convert, but a hardy 500 remained true to their faith.

Most Abayudaya are set apart from other people. They practise Kosher according to Talmudic Law. Abayudaya slaughter their own animals according to Jewish custom and will not eat pig products. Jews do not participate in local Bagisu circumcision rituals, nor do they follow the popular Christian and Muslim holidays like their neighbours. The Abayudaya keep a respectful distance from non-Jews in matters of religion, but they mingle with their neighbours at home, in the market, and in all other areas of public life.

Abayudaya men, women and children dress as their neighbours do. Women dress in self-made, often uni-coloured dresses. On Shabbat the women wear their most colourful clothes.

An American, Matt Meyer, visited the place in 1992. The Abayudaya have benefited from his subsequent visits, and support. Organisations like Kilanu that have helped the Abayudaya support the rebirth of the primary school on Nabugoye Hill.

Many young children greet all white visitors to the area with the words, “Shabbat Shalom,” for they imagine that they must be coming to see the Abayudaya.

With the help of outside donors some Abayudaya youth have begun attending University. Most children hope to become lawyers, doctors and teachers. A hopeful future for the Abayudaya. Still, life is very difficult in Uganda. There is music on Nabugoye Hill, but the community only owns two deteriorating guitars. The Abayudaya’s high school only has a few books, and no science lab, and not enough classrooms to house the students.

But the people still have their faith that life will change.

This article first appeared on page 1 of the September 1, 2001 issue of The New Vision, Uganda’s largest daily newspaper. It is reprinted here with permission of The New Vision