At 7:00 P.M on a Saturday in July, 50 people filed out of the Moses Synagogue. They had completed the Havdalah service, the end to Shabbat and the beginning of a new week. In most places, this scene would be unremarkable, but in Mbale, Uganda, on the rocky slopes of Mount Elgon, it is unique. The congregants at Moses Synagogue are some of Uganda’s nearly 1,000 Jews, known collectively as the Abayudaya. despite their tumultuous history in a largely Christian country, the Abayudaya are finally on the road to economic development and social acceptance.
The community was founded in 1919 by Semei Kakungulu, a warrior recruited to help the British colonize Uganda and spread Christianity. Coming across the Old Testament, Kakungulu was instead inspired to practice Judaism, and founded the Abayudaya. Although Kakungulu died in 1958, his community continued to expand. By the 1950s, the village was hosting visitors from Israel and elsewhere, and its population had grown to around 3,500. Until the 1970s the Abayudaya lived in relative peace.
This peace was short-lived. When General Idi Amin dada seized power in 1971, he outlawed Judaism. Some Abayudaya were forced to convert; others practiced in secrecy. When Amin’s reign ended, the Abayudaya consisted of a few scattered groups practicing privately. They had lost all sense of a Jewish community.
In the 1980s, after Amin was overthrown, the Abayudaya underwent a spiritual and community resurgence. A youth movement, the “kibbutz movement,” sought to revitalize Jewish culture and Hebrew language, and within a number of years the community had expanded to nearly 1,000 members.
The Abayudaya revival was matched by renewed foreign interest. “The community has changed and been influenced tremendously since they have had greater contact with American Jewry and Israel,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, executive director of the Hillel Foundation at Tufts University. The contact is evident in the Abayudaya’s music: their songs are a mix of English, Hebrew, and the local language of Luganda – a trio symbolic of the different influences on the community.
Despite a regained sense of its Jewish heritage, the community continues to grapple with poor education and social and economic isolation. A Jewish U.S.-based organization called Kulanu has taken on many of these development issues. Kulanu is a grassroots nonprofit that works in partnership with Israel Siriri, the current Chairman of the Abayudaya, on over 20 sustainable development projects.
“Abayudaya-Kulanu projects consist of teamwork, homework and footwork, and we learn from each other. Kulanu supporters and Abayudaya community members are able to work together in direct partnership, do more for less money, and really get things done. People should know that ‘small is beautiful’ and we can all learn how to be of use,” said Laura Wetzler, Kulanu’s coordinator for Uganda.
Recently, Kulanu helped develop a fair trade coffee cooperative founded by the Abayudaya. In 2003, Abayudaya member J.J. Keki formed Mirembe Kawomera, “delicious Peace” in the local language of Luganda. Keki encouraged his Christian, Muslim, and Jewish neighbors to put their religious differences aside in order to overcome the challenges they face as coffee farmers. The cooperative now has over 750 members and receives prices four times as high as those offered five years ago, thanks to direct sales to the Thanksgiving Coffee Company.
With programs like the coffee co-op, life on the slopes of Mount Elgon is improving. Siriri proudly mentioned their medical clinic, water supply program, and microfinance operation. The community is starting workshops to teach crafts, agriculture, and business to locals. Overcoming lack of education has been essential. “Education is the key to everything,” explained Siriri, who helps run the community’s two rapidly expanding schools, Hadassah Primary School and Semei Kakungulu High School.
despite their unique identity, the Abayudaya face the relentless setbacks of poverty felt throughout Uganda. “With poverty we cannot progress more, but if we fight poverty, then we shall have empowered ourselves and shall be able to sustain ourselves,” said Siriri, who traveled to the United States in fall on an awareness and fundraising trip. Nevertheless, the Abayudaya are confident that their community will strengthen and grow, thanks in part to partnerships like that with Kulanu. By drawing on their membership in the international Jewish community, the Abayudaya will be able to maintain their own distinct identity as African Jews.
Jeff Kaiser is a freshman in Saybrook College.