Semei Kakungulu, Jewish Warrior?

Book Comment:

Michael Twaddle’s Kakungulu and the Creation of Uganda

(Ohio University Press, 1993)

I first heard of Semei Kakungulu when reading the Kulanu newsletter of Winter 1994-95, which described him as a local warrior and governor who studied and meditated on the Old Testament, adopted the observance of all Moses’ commandments, including circumcision, and suggested this observance (for) all his (formerly Christian) followers. As a student of Jewish history, I knew that such a person was rare — although not unknown — and I was much intrigued.

This summer I visited the Abayudaya — the descendants of the followers of Semei Kakungulu who adopted Moses’ laws as a way of life. I met and spoke to Africans who are passionate about their commitment to Judaism, and I also met two descendants of Kakungulu. My interest in this local warrior and governor soared.

After learning that a book had been written about Kakungulu, I purchased a copy at a book store in Kampala, Uganda. Later, I saw the same book being offered for sale at the airport bookstore in Entebbe. Before I read the first page, I knew that Kakungulu was an important and famous, as well as a unique, person.

I have no background in Ugandan political or religious history. Therefore, this article cannot be a critique or even a review of Michael Twaddle’s book. Nor is this a summary of that book because the author was primarily interested in Kakungulu’s contribution to the creation of Uganda. This article reflects my interest — the historic, social and religious forces as developed by Twaddle which induced Kakungulu to lead a Jewish life and to create a community of followers to carry on after his death.

Kakungulu (1869-1928) was a warrior and statesman of the powerful Baganda tribe. During the 1880’s he was converted to Christianity by a Protestant missionary who taught him how to read the Bible in Swahili. Because he commanded many warriors, because of his connections to the Bugandan court and because he was a Protestant, the British gave Kakungulu their support. He responded by conquering and bringing under the British sphere of influence two areas outside of the Bugandan Empire, Bukedi and Busoga. These areas were between the Nile River’s source in Lake Victoria and Mt. Elgon on the Kenyan border.

Kakungulu believed that the British would allow him to become the king of Bukedi and Busoga, but the British preferred to rule these areas through civil servants in their pay and under their control. The British limited Kakungulu to a 20-square-mile area in and around what has now become Mbale, Uganda. The people who inhabited this area were of the Bagesu tribe — rivals to Baganda. Nevertheless, Kakungulu, with the help of his Baganda followers — although much reduced in numbers — was able to maintain control so long as he received British support.

Beginning about 1900, a slow but continuous mutual disenchantment arose between Kakungulu and the British. In 1913, Kakungulu became a Malakite Christian. This was a movement described by the British as a cult which was a mixture of Judaism, Christianity and Christian Science. Many who joined the religion of Malaki where Kakungulu was in control were Baganda.

While a Malakite, Kakungulu came to the conclusion that the Christian missionaries were not reading the Bible correctly. He pointed out that the Europeans disregarded the real Sabbath, which was Saturday, not Sunday. As proof, he cited that Jesus was buried on Friday before the Sabbath, and his mother and his disciples did not visit the tome on the following day because it was the Sabbath, but waited until Sunday.

Under pressure from the British, who wished to limit his holdings, Kakungulu, in 1917, moved his principal residence a short distance further from Mbale into the western foothills of Mt. Elgon to a place called Gangama. It was there that he started a separatist sect initially known as Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda (the Community of Jews who trust in the Lord). Recruitment into this Bayudaya community came almost exclusively from what remained of Kakungulu’s Baganda following.

The Bible, as a result of the teachings of the missionaries, was held in high regard among the Christians of Uganda. The missionaries had stressed the truth of the Bible by declaring that it came not from the Europeans but from an alien race, the Jews. The purpose of the missionaries was to impress upon the Africans that the Europeans too had found truth from a foreign race. But because of this emphasis, the customs and manners of the Jews became of great interest to Kakungulu’s followers. In Michael Twaddle’s opinion, Kakungulu’s conversion to Malakite Christianity was caused by his disappointment with his treatment by the British authorities, but his subsequent formation of the Abayudaya community was principally the result of his closer reading of the Bible.

In 1922, at Gangama, Kakungulu published a 90-page book of rules and prayers as a guide to his Jewish community. The book set forth Jewish laws and practices as Kakungulu found them in the Old Testament, although it contained many verses and sections from the New Testament as well. Despite this interest in Jewish practices, there does not appear to have been any direct contact between Kakungulu and Jews before 1925.

Beginning about 1925, several European Jews who were employed as mechanics and engineers by the British chanced upon the Christian-Jewish community near Mbale. Jews such as these, during what appear to have been chance encounters, told Kakungulu about Orthodox Judaism. As a result, many remaining Christian customs were dropped — including baptism. From these encounters, the community learned to keep the Sabbath, to recite Hebrew prayers and blessings, to slaughter animals for meat in a Kosher manner, and some Hebrew.

Kakungulu died on November 24, 1928. Michael Twaddle concluded that at his death, the Bayudaya remained a mixture of both Christianity and Judaism, with faith in Christ remaining prominent in Kakungulu’s beliefs.

Kakungulu is buried a short distance from the main Abayudaya synagogue behind the unpretentious home in which he lived during the last years of his life. The grave, which I visited, has a stone which reads:

A Victorious General and
Sava Chief in Buganda
Administrator of Eastern Province 1899-1905
President of Busoga 1906-1913
Died 24th 11 1928

In a tantalizing footnote, Twaddle states that, after Kakungulu’s death, the Abayudaya community divided into those wishing to retain a toehold within Christianity and those wanting to break those ties completely. If so, then during our June 1995 visit, we met only the latter.

Leadership of the Abayudaya community has passed to a group of young married men whose goal is to end its isolation from world Jewry. One of these leaders told me that Twaddle’s book, based on interviews held in the 1960’s, is outdated. Whenever and however they learn of Jewish prayers and practices, these young men have adopted those prayers and practices into the Abayudaya ritual.

Their knowledge of Hebrew is self-taught and growing. Although the young men know far more about Jewish practice and prayers than their elders, they show great respect and deference to the men who led them after Kakungulu’s death. On a visit to the Abayudaya village of Hamanyony, we met Samson Mugomge (the Samusoni Mugombe who was interviewed by Twaddle) now over 80 years old and in ill health. He was introduced to us as our spiritual leader and a man who studied with Kakungulu.

(Irwin Berg, a New York attorney, participated in Kulanu’s mission to Uganda in June, 1995)