Songs of ancient Psalms spread with nightfall through the open windows of the Moses Synagogue. The melodious voices — alternating between Hebrew and Luganda — float over rutted dirt roads and past simple concrete storefronts before becoming whispers in the farms beyond this small town. Under the tin roof, a lizard skitters up the wall behind the wooden, Torah-cradling ark cabinet shaped like the Ten Commandments tablet.
It’s Friday evening in Nabugoye, on a remote Ugandan hillside, and members of the Abayudaya community — “The Jews” in the Luganda language — are celebrating Shabbat.
Earlier, while roosters cackled and children played with old bicycle tires, women mixed dough to be kneaded and braided into loaves of challah. A goat, justifiably skittish, was prepared for slaughter to feed this improbable, diaspora-stretching Jewish village after tonight’s service.
It’s been nearly a century since British missionaries’ attempts to convert these people to Christianity landed a bit askew. A tribal leader shrugged off the New Testament in favor of the Bible’s first five books.
In 1919, Semei Kakungulu persuaded his people to live like biblical Jews, circumcising baby boys, keeping kosher, following Shabbat rituals and studying those first five biblical books of the Torah. The Jews of eastern Uganda grew in number to more than 3,000, living as subsistence farmers but breaking on Saturdays to read and study from ancient Hebrew scrolls in the land where the Nile River begins its flow north.
But then in the 1970s, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin outlawed Jewish rituals, destroyed synagogues, tortured and persecuted the Abayudaya, prompting hundreds to convert to Islam and Christianity to survive.
A meeting of two worlds
Samuel Kigondere, an 18-year-old wearing a warm smile and a hand-knit blue kipah skullcap, asked if we’d like to take a walk. So my wife and I left the bread-making and goat-slaughtering hubbub outside the hilltop synagogue and strolled down the tawny clay roads that link these villages outlying Mbale, Uganda’s third-largest city.
All told, there are six synagogues strewn amid these hills, some with dirt floors and one with a thatched roof. We’d come as part of a 10-member delegation from Minnesota’s oldest synagogue, Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, to befriend our fellow Jews scratching out an existence while chanting the same weekly prayers we do 8,000 miles away.
After flying 24 hours and nine time zones, we landed in Entebbe and drove through Kampala — the gritty capital city of this landlocked East African nation crammed with more than 35 million people in an area only slightly larger than Minnesota (pop. 5 million).
We endured a bouncy six-hour drive north on a highway choked with diesel fumes and big trucks. Massive speed bumps forced us to stop at each roadside village, where we marveled at the colorful fabrics, darting motorbikes and people balancing water jugs atop their heads.
All that commotion seems far from the quiet of Nabugoye and other Jewish villages of the Abayudaya. As we hiked down the rutted road with Samuel, children ran up and asked in perfect, school-taught English: “How are you? How are you?”
Samuel told us that he’d like to continue his schooling, but money for books is tight. His father died when he was 12 and he lives 35 miles south in an even more remote village of Namutumba, working in local coffee and banana gardens to earn a few shillings.
“I’m on Facebook,” he said. “But my page has no photo.”
Cameras and smartphones are a luxury beyond his means, so I clicked a snapshot that I later e-mailed him. It’s one of the countless, head-shaking reminders that despite our vast differences, our worlds are far more connected than you’d imagine. To wit, up on the altar at the Nabugoye synagogue, you can find the same laminated copy of Torah blessings we use as cheat sheets when we’re called up to the bema at Mount Zion in St. Paul.
“Good morning, good morning,” said a man, approaching us and shaking our hands in two of his own. Unbeknownst to us, Masa Musa lives in the house where we had stopped to pose for photos. A Muslim imam from the neighboring village, he wished us a good Shabbat, shared kind words of respect for his Jewish neighbors, and lamented the folly of hatred when love and peace are so much easier to embrace.
Indeed, everywhere we went on our two-week journey, I was struck by the easygoing camaraderie among the area’s Jews, Muslims and Christians. At a coffee and vanilla co-op that collectively markets local farmers’ crops, the board of directors’ charter requires representation from the three religions.
When my son, Zac, got invited to play in a local soccer match, only to split his lip open on a head-ball collision, a Muslim nurse named Hakim and another nurse named Barbara wearing cross earrings quickly and expertly stitched him up at a local Mbale malaria and typhoid clinic funded by Jewish donors. (The bill for the procedure totaled 20,000 Ugandan shillings — or about $8 — and included a dose of Cipro to ward off infection.)
Gifts from St. Paul
We’d brought three suitcases full of toothbrushes and toothpaste, 18 soccer balls and hundreds of mosquito nets to attempt to curb the area’s widespread malaria infestation.
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu was thankful for the gifts we brought, but acknowledged with a shrug that it would not be enough to help everyone in his sprawling and growing community.
At 40, Sizomu is more than a spiritual leader. He’s like the mayor, health commissioner, ambassador, ambulance driver and teacher of this Jewish enclave, which has bounced back in the 34 years since Amin to number about 1,500. Sizomu recently ran for local elected office and lost, but vows to run again and push for political change to help his people — a potentially risky endeavor in an African country that has had only one president, Yoweri Museveni, since the Ronald Reagan era of 1986.
On this Shabbat morning, Sizomu’s wife, Tziporah, joined three other women called to the Torah as b’not mitzvah — a highly ceremonial Jewish rite of passage usually reserved for 13-year-olds in the States.
J.J., the rabbi’s older brother whom we met running the coffee co-op, thumped his thumb on the altar to set the rhythm for the ancient songs. Guitars and drums, played joyfully during weekday services, are left at home on Shabbat.
Men in tallit prayer shawls sat on one side of the synagogue in plastic chairs or hard-backed metal ones. Women, dressed in colorful dresses and bountiful hats, occupied the chairs across a thin aisle and led much of the four-hour service.
Outside the windows, goats walked by on the cool morning as raindrops plunked the tin roof. Daughters, husbands, mothers and siblings came up to bless each of the four women celebrating their bat mitzvah. Thanking the women for their inspiring scholarship, family members extended hands to the heads of the honored women as Sizomu recited a blessing.
One of the family members told her sister that every pair of eyes gazing at her on this sacred Shabbat morning are blessings. One of the bat mitzvah women, Athalia, offered her own interpretation of the weekly Torah portion she just chanted, imploring the packed synagogue that blessings must be grabbed, not passively attained.
A few days later, we joined two dozen local teenagers in nearby Namanyonyi, priming, scraping and painting their local synagogue. Using branches duct-taped together and topped with paint rollers, we collectively turned the drab concrete-colored house of worship into a creamy-walled temple. Bright blue paint covered the rusty metal doors.
During a lunch and oxygen break from the paint fumes, Athalia invited us to her home. Stray turkey feathers outside reminded us that the food here is fresh and nourishes the people who grow it. “Buy local” is more than a trend.
We sat in her clean, clay-floor home as Athalia served us heaping bowls full of rice, turkey and matooke, a popular mashed-up, potato-like banana dish.
A few days later, we visited another brick synagogue an hour south in Namutumba, the home village of Samuel Kigondere, with whom we walked on Friday. They have no glass in the windows of their unfinished temple, so with no way to safeguard against winds and rain, they have no Torah scroll.
Samuel’s smile radiated as he introduced us to his mother and little sister and welcomed us to his small, square house of clay walls with a corrugated tin roof. We joined the people from his village, sitting in a circle of chairs below a sprawling mango tree.
With their far-off location 35 miles from Mbale and the more entrenched and stable synagogue of Rabbi Sizomu in Nabugoye, the leaders of Namutumba fear a rise in illiteracy without help from American Jews.
Sam’s grandfather, a rabbi named Moses, recalled in a soft voice the days of Idi Amin. They came here, fleeing to this remote farmland, to practice their Judaism in secret, with barely enough members for the necessary 10-person minyan. Persecution prompted mass conversions away from the Old Testament’s teachings.
Yet three decades later, here they remain, resilient people practicing a resilient faith. Together, we chant a nearly 2,000-year-old Jewish prayer, the Shehecheyanu, recited for new and unusual experiences.