In Uganda, the Jewish faith endures

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2013 - 3:34 PM

On a remote hillside in East Africa, a nearly century-old community thrives.

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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.)

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