Joab Jonadav Keki, known as “JJ” to his friends, may be considered a “Renaissance Man” of East Africa. JJ has been chairman of the Abayudaya Congregation some 10 years, spanning a period that saw the little-known community of practicing Jews escalate in fame around the world.
Since a 1992 visit by American students Matt Meyer and Julia Chamovitz — during which plans were laid out to increase the Abayudaya’s contacts with world Jewry — and a 1995 visit by a 15-member Kulanu delegation, the congregation has become a popular offbeat tourist destination for Americans, Canadians, Europeans and Israelis seeking a unique Jewish adventure in eastern Uganda. JJ’s charm, intelligence, and winning interpersonal skills (along with those of many of his colleagues) have impressed all types of visitors. (Kulanu is a tax-exempt organization that assists lost and dispersed Jewish communities.)
JJ has recently overseen a period of restructuring of the community, as a newly-written constitution comes into being — a constitution developed by a wide representation of Abayudaya. JJ has just stepped down from the Abayudaya chairmanship to run for local public office, and the vice chairman of the congregation, Jacob Mwosuko, has become acting chairman pending elections this spring.
JJ is a successful farmer and a businessman. He grows coffee on his 20 fertile acres and is chairman of the local 83-member Farmers’ Society, which runs a coffee collective.
And JJ is a musician. He directs the congregation’s Kohavim Tikvah Choir and is the composer and featured soloist on many of the songs in Kulanu’s recording of Abayudaya music, Shalom Everybody Everywhere! For example, melodies to the popular Abayudaya renditions of “Sh’ma Yisrael” and “L’cha Dodi” are his creations.
JJ is also a mensch with a sense of community. As Kenny Schultz recalls in a college thesis he wrote following his 1994 study-visit to Uganda: “As Joab and I were returning from town one day, we were stopped by a few men who had placed a long, thick branch in the middle of the road. Instinctively, Joab got off his bike, picked up a shovel, and distributed the moist soil into the huge ditches along the eroded dirt path. Joab said to me as he was working, ‘Everyone who passes must contribute. This is how we fix our roads.'” Believing in the importance of integrating with the surrounding community, he has headed a political organization under the National Resistance Movement of President Museveni, chaired a nearby school, and presided over the Nankuse Youth Wildlife Association, which helps protect the environment.
JJ’s courage and determination are illustrated by a story Schultz tells about the leader in Kenya. On May 1, 1984, JJ arrived in Nairobi, nearly penniless, expecting to be warmly greeted by fellow Jews and not have to worry about such things as food and shelter. He came to the synagogue at 7 am for Rosh Chodesh services but found that it was closed and the rabbi was away for the day. JJ wandered around aimlessly for hours and at night decided to go to the police station, since in Uganda the police welcome stranded people. He received verbal harassment from the police, and the chief told him, “If you don’t find your people tomorrow then never come back to Kenya.” The next morning JJ did have a brief exchange with the Nairobi rabbi, who told him to come back the next day if he wanted his questions answered. When JJ explained that he had no place to sleep and the police had warned him to leave Kenya, the rabbi responded, “I am sorry but I have no place for you. Try your best.” JJ spent part of the night in a nearby park, where he was approached by four suspicious-looking men, and he fled to the police station. In the morning the rabbi answered a few of JJ’s questions but had no interest in hearing about the Abayudaya (who have been practicing Judaism since 1919). When JJ asked him if he had any extra books that could teach the Abayudaya Hebrew, the rabbi said No and referred him to a Jewish organization in Britain. JJ left Kenya that night bitterly disappointed, concluding that the experience was a test from God.
An example of JJ’s courageous leadership concerns an attempt by Muslim squatters, in 1988, to seize Abayudaya lands that were being used by their “kibbutz” youth to build bricks for a new synagogue. The squatters bribed local authorities, who issued a decree ordering the Abayudaya youths to leave the area. An irate JJ led a fight in the youths’ defense, shouting, “Oba tuffa tuffa (If we are to die, then let us die)”. JJ led the youths in a demonstration in which he and his two brothers, Aaron and Gershom, were arrested as traitors. They were severely beaten and made to do humiliating, painful acts like punching a cement wall. During JJ’s absence, unknown thugs carrying rifles appeared at a community sukkah and attacked some Abayudaya men. Here’s how Schultz sums up the effects of JJ’s heroism:
“Joab emerged as the leader of the Abayudaya people. And his commitment to the Jewish cause, expressed in his refusal to sacrifice his principles for security, had an enlightening effect on the Muslim and Christian people. Suddenly, Joab was not only a Jew but a feared and respected man.”
JJ has fought for progressive ideas. The local tradition is for the man to pay a dowry to the woman’s father upon marriage. However, Joab refused to do so, saying, “Men pay dowry and this is the worst thing because (in essence) men buy women. So they treat their women as property. I will not pay a dowry nor will I accept one when my daughters get married. I do not want to sell them.”
JJ’s adherence to Judaism is also noteworthy. During Idi Amin’s reign of terror in the 1970s, all religions except Christianity and Islam were banned in Uganda. Many Abayudaya fled to save their own lives, but many stayed and practiced Judaism secretly. During Sukkot in 1973, Joab was seen by a Muslim as he was building a sukkah. In order to save his own life JJ gave the man a goat, but maintained his practice of Judaism. JJ explained his religious beliefs to Schultz: “God is the base of my spirit. And wherever I walk, I believe in God. Whatever I get, if it is good or if it is bad, I know that it is God’s plan. And, your visit, a fellow Jew sitting in our home, it is all a miracle. This (faith) is what keeps the Abayudaya people together — our unending love for God.”
Perhaps JJ’s attributes are best summarized by Lucy Steinitz, who visited him in Uganda three times: “Among the many things I remember about him is his wonderful smile — how his face lights up when he hasn’t seen you for a long time; how he embraces you when you arrive and when you leave again; how he takes you into his home and family and heart and makes you feel like a close relative — not even a distant one. But it goes much deeper than that. JJ is a wonderful listener, a wise thinker, and someone who is always, ALWAYS, committed to learning new things and considering new ideas. I remember walking through his farm-land and seeing how he applied different (experimental) methods of agriculture (environmentally oriented) in his mix of crops, inter-dependency of natural fertilizers, and so on. His sensitivity and progressiveness on many issues always impressed me, too, but without his abandonment of culture and tradition (Jewish or African). Without JJ, the Abayudaya would never have been able to make half the transition they have from the last generation to this one. JJ exudes leadership in every sense of the word — the very kind of leadership that our people — our world — desperately needs more of.”