The Abayudaya of Uganda have been Jewish since a colonial-era chieftain decided to follow the five books of Moses. A century later, a descendant of those African Jews became a rabbi and ran for parliament. Part 1 of 2.
Semei Kakungulu, that first Ugandan Jew, was the sort of vital but marginal man who flourishes in times of rapid change. Born in 1869 to obscure parentage, Kakungulu was converted to Christianity by early Protestant missionaries, and the combination of his Christian attachments and his powerful connections to the Bugandan court made him precisely the kind of warrior the British sought. Kakungulu served the English, from what we can tell, with the idea that his fealty would be rewarded with a kingdom of his own in the lands he was sent to conquer east of the Nile. For at least a brief period during which he had made conquests beyond the colonial frontier, he did rule a tiny kingdom near Mbale. But political and tribal rivals never stopped challenging Kakungulu, and as the English colony’s reach extended east he was soon reduced to being just another African chief in the colonial system. In the first decades of the 1900s, Kakungulu and others returned to religion—the basis of their original European encounter—as a political tool to realign their engagement with outsiders.
Bugandans had been shown by competing Protestant and Catholic missionaries that the Bible was to be interpreted and shaped to fit different organizational structures, and Islamic traders brought additional Abrahamic relativism. Furthermore, missionaries had emphasized in their conversion practice that Jesus was a Jew. This led many of the eventual Abayudaya, including Kakungulu, to join a growing group of followers of a Bugandan named Malaki Musajakawa, who, initially a Protestant, developed a mixture of Christianity and Judaism that partially resembled Christian Science, especially in its faith in God’s healing power. The version of the religion Kakungulu adhered to seemed to be strongly influenced by Moses. “The cause of the religion,” one surviving leader of the Malakites told historian Michael Twaddle, author of Kakungulu and the Creation of Uganda, in 1965, “was that we saw the Europeans who brought us the Bible were not doing what it said, though they told us to do what it said.”
Western medicine was a particular sticking point. In 1914 Kakungulu refused a British-ordered inoculation while crossing the Nile westward from Bukedi to Buganda. “The medicine has no power,” he told the Indian doctor. “Only God has that.”
Now fully disengaged from the British—who decided it better to leave him alone—Kakungulu settled north of Mbale and apparently began to read the Bible with ever greater attention, finding further sources of disenchantment. The Malakites, for example, kept the Sabbath on Sunday, not Saturday, and in the ledgers of Malakite religious councils there is evidence of other quasi-Talmudic squabbles over the dating of holidays, where and when to break bread, whether to hold hands palm-up in prayer or clasped together, and if the devout should be circumcised. Kakungulu’s secession from the Malakites happened over a period of several years leading up to 1920—punctuated by a circumcision ceremony in 1919 for several of Kakungulu’s young children as well as some adult coreligionists. But the schism was based as much on Kakungulu’s political need to gather his people as on his spiritual proclivities. Like any good leader, Kakungulu then wrote and published a 90-page book of rules and prayers for his followers. Regardless of the complex causes, though, it’s safe to say that by sometime after 1920, Kakungulu was some form of Jewish.
Ask the oldest Abayudaya today, like 83-year-old Solomon Magoma in Namanyonyi, to explain the founder’s religion, as I did, and you’ll get the conflicting influences cross-bred into a simplified mutt of a story transmuted by time. How did Kakungulu know he was Jewish? “He just read the Bible,” Magoma says.
“He just read and knew and understood?” I ask.
“He watched many religions,” Magoma says through his grandson Moshe Sebagabo, who wears a bright purple crocheted kippa and is on break from his law studies. “O-Kakungulu was a Malakite, but then he just chose. Out of the many religions, he chose to be Jewish. He just decided. He said, ‘I will not follow any other religion except the religion that was given the Ten Commandments.’ ”
Kakungulu’s Judaism was no revelation. There was no burning bush or thunderbolt or deep-voiced injunction. Kakungulu’s religious affiliations and alignments were choices, which in retrospect seem highly pragmatic. In fact, Kakungulu may not have known he was Jewish at all. And he may not have cared. The history of religious encounters is littered with misunderstandings. Christians, for example, chose a minor Bugandan deity—Katonda, who created the world of the living but fell into oblivion—to be the name of the Christian missionary God, the sustainer of all things, in the Lugandan Biblical translation. Kakungulu was spiritually restless and indomitable, and his devotion was, like that of many seekers and leaders, an ever-evolving phenomenon. Had he not died in 1928, likely of pneumonia unattended to by doctors—Solomon Magoma said that Kakungulu had been “bewitched”—it’s entirely possible that Kakungulu could have moved on from Judaism to religions unimagined. But the path to Gershom Sizomu was set. “He had become disillusioned with politics, as he told us himself,” one of Kakungulu’s followers told historian Twaddle, long after Kakungulu was buried near Nabugoye. “He told us to see first the kingdom of God and to forget about the things of earth and its rulers.”
Eliyahu toot-toot-tooots the car horn as if it were a vuvuzela, waving Sizomu’s two-finger salute out the window to partisans, who cheer back before being engulfed in our dust. In the back seat, on our way to a campaign rally in Namanyonyi sub-district, Sizomu admits to me that he has no idea what it’s like to be a Ugandan MP. Two days a week, maybe, in Kampala, or three? When he presented the idea of running for parliament to his mother, Devora, she asked: “Can you manage?” And now I’m asking him the same. “The biggest challenge,” he says, “will be meeting the people. Because their needs are not going to end.”
Given these pressures, I ask Sizomu if when he was in rabbinical school at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles he had ever considered staying abroad. “My family, yes,” he says. “Me no.” And then he surprises me by saying that he’d just discussed the matter with his wife, Tzipora, because he had received word a few days ago that he had won a green-card lottery for U.S. citizenship.
We have arrived at the campaign stop, and Ugandans are crowding around Sizomu’s door to catch him as he emerges from the car, so the moment for an explanation is lost. At this rally, Sizomu shares the staging area with four late-middle-aged American women—Jane, Judy, Jill, and Ria—who knew the rabbi from L.A. and have come to support his campaign. Judy takes the lead, speaking slowly and clearly so that Sizomu or one of his managers can translate: “I have known Gershom for a long time. I have seen him make schools. I have seen him make a health clinic. He is an honorable man.” Sizomu later acknowledges that just having whites as part of his entourage—and in this he includes me, reporting on him—is a subtle but vital part of his pitch to voters. In a country where the state’s budget is about 30 percent donor funded, the presence of what Kakungulu might have confused as musawa, or doctors, but who today are called mzungu, or foreigners, makes Sizomu a conduit, maybe even a conjurer.
From his “Gershom Sizomu for Parliament” Facebook campaign, as well as a few unnamed major donors, the rabbi has raised $34,000. More than 80 percent of his campaign budget, he tells me, came from his “international friends,” the most important of whom right now is 59-year-old Diane Tobin, Jane’s sister-in-law and the director of Be’chol Lashon (“In every tongue”), a San Francisco-based Jewish diversity and “community-building” group. Tobin, born to a Jewish father, is an Episcopalian-raised convert and the mother of an adopted African-American son, among other children. The adoption led her to study ethnic and racial diversity and what she called “angst about converts.” Her group, though not the first to reach out to the Abayudaya, has actively made Sizomu the focus of its development efforts in that part of Africa. In 2002, without having met him personally, Tobin invited Sizomu to participate in a conference on emerging Jewry in California and, impressed with his “strength and smarts,” decided to sponsor his desire to become a rabbi.
Be’chol Lashon used its contacts to help push through a U.S. visa, and Sizomu, his wife, and their two children—Igaal and Dafnah—left the villages of their birth and moved to Bel Air, where Sizomu began five years of rabbinical study, with a year in Israel in the middle. In Israel, a third child, Navah, was born. Sizomu grew into a perspicacious interpreter of Torah. And on a July day in 2008, Sizomu was installed as the first black sub-Saharan rabbi, in a highly publicized ceremony officiated in Nabugoye by a West Hills, Calif., rabbi. Then, taking advantage of the visit by a number of foreign rabbis, more than 250 Africans from Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria followed through on conversions. Sizomu became Africa’s rabbi.
Back at headquarters another day, Tzipora, overseeing the vats of rice, plantains, beans, and cabbage cooking for all 50 assembled campaign workers and hangers-on, tells me that she would have been happy to stay in Bel Air. When I ask Sizomu if losing the election might tempt him into accepting the green card lottery he said he’d won, he says, “Oh, no, I couldn’t,” a little wistfully. “It was—how do you call it?—spam.”
Tomorrow: The Abayudaya show visitors what it means to be Jewish.
This week in Israel: A bomb in Jerusalem returns terrorism to the capital, rockets in the Negev could prompt Cast Lead 2, a former president goes to jail, social workers demonstrate for higher wages, and more