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.
It is unbearable to see once again—in spite of the lessons of so many African countries—African politicians fashioning the very instruments by which they and their countries are in the end destroyed.
—V.S. Naipaul, in a letter written from Kampala in 1966
It is election time in Uganda, and the boxy plastic television set in my room in the provincial city of Mbale, four hours east of Kampala, is humming with ads, nearly all of them for Yoweri Museveni, the president for the past 24 years. Museveni is up for another five-year term in office, and his ads mimic the slow-mo camerawork of a Ken Burns documentary—pans and zooms of images of the besuited leader flipping the switch at power plants and pumping wells and unlocking medicine cabinets, all backed by Louis Armstrong’s version of “What a Wonderful World.” His signature flourish is a light khaki boonie hat with a drawstring and a wide brim, which gives his shiny oval head the aspect of a haloed icon. He’s been telling his supporters at campaign rallies across the country to “vote the old man with the hat.” The country and its capital have been plastered with yellow posters of his beatific smile and watchful, unblinking eyes.
What a wonderful world indeed! More than half of Uganda’s 34 million people have known no other leader. The other half knew Idi Amin. A local newspaper declares, straight-faced, that “Spirits predict 87 percent victory” for Museveni’s National Resistance Movement. His TV ad closes on the slogan “Why change?”
The mototaxi boda boys sitting under a frangipani tree on a median in Mbale had just finished something resembling a conference on the pitcher’s mound about the location of the people I had come to see: a small community of Ugandan Jews who live in the hills outside Mbale and who call themselves the Abayudaya. Some of the boys pointed me one way, some in the opposite direction. Then I placed my palm on my head to make the universal sign for Jew. “Oh!” said a boda in a striped Oxford shirt that—like most of Uganda’s clothes—used to belong to an American. “People of the very small hats!” Off we went on his Chinese-made motorcycle down the last of the town’s tarmac, past the municipal town council, and onto red dusty roads rising through coffee and plantain patches, in search of the Abayudaya and their leader, a man who in what can be seen as a late fulfillment of one early version of the Zionist dream, is the first native African-born rabbi to run for parliament in Uganda.
I’d heard about the rabbi because he had used Facebook a few months earlier to make an international appeal for campaign funds to support his candidacy. According to accounts I read, the Abayudaya are, variously, an exotic spiritual flowering, “one of the world’s least-known Jewish communities,” or proof of God’s mystery and the reach of his hand. Led by the diminutive, charismatic, and spiritually endowed Rabbi Gershom Sizomu Wambedde, they are irresistible to the U.S.-based organizations that in the name of Jewish diversity and brotherly feeling support “emerging,” “historic,” or “lost” communities of Jews around the world. A magnet for Jewish charity, Sizomu has celebrated Hanukkah at the White House with President George W. Bush and now has his sights set on becoming the spiritual leader of the Jews of Africa and a power broker in his own country.
In his trading-card-sized campaign flyers (and posters and silk-screened T-shirts, on which misaligned color printing makes his image seem like it should be viewed in 3D), the rabbi looks as if he were posing for a junior-college basketball team’s yearbook-photo—eyes at the lens, flat nose spread over a youthful-looking dusting of mustache hairs. His white shirt is a neck-size too large under a dark suitcoat and tie, but his blue crocheted kippa, with decorative white trim, nestles perfectly over the shaven round expanse of his crown. He seeks election to parliament from the Bungokho North constituency on the list of the opposition FDC party, which is led by presidential candidate Dr. Kissa Besigye, whose sign is the two-fingered V of victory and whose slogan is “One People! One Uganda!” According to his flyer, Sizomu is “For: Community Development and Provision of Accessible Social Services,” meaning food, health, wells, mosquito nets, and maybe transport to a market, a chance to go to school, a little dignity, a small platform on which to build a tiny castle of happiness.
The Abayudaya—perhaps as many as 5,000 at their peak and as few as 50 at their nadir under Idi Amin—trace the origins of their religious affiliation to an extraordinary African chieftain, elephant hunter, warrior king, and colonial agent named Semei Kakungulu, who in 1917, or 1919, or 1920, depending on the source, perhaps following a visit from a trader from Jerusalem, or after encounters with Jewish rail engineers, or in reaction to political slights and rivalries, or because of his refusal to be inoculated, or sometime after he was circumcised, which may have been in 1880 or any time after that (although one of his wives testified that he was not circumcised)—decided to reject all the forms of biblical religion that had been introduced to him by turn-of-the-century English Protestant and French Catholic missionaries for his own textual interpretation of the first five books of Moses, which made him (and his followers and later their descendants) something very close to Jews.
Kakungulu garnered followers and begat children, who raised Jewish-identified children, who eventually met white Jews who helped the Abayudaya become more universally accepted as Jewish. Emissaries brought religious, financial, and material support from abroad and paid for Gershom Sizomu Wambedde, the grandson of one of the chief’s first followers, to travel to America to train to be a rabbi, meet the president of the United States, and run for parliament in Africa.
Over the week in February that I watch Sizomu’s campaign, he spends most of his time swapping cell phones and speaking to his supporters, solicitors, and workers across the district of 120,000 people. Gershom is shuttled over dusty roads to rallies in villages and on school patios and then back to his headquarters in the yard outside his 4-room home in Nabugoye, a village perched atop Kakungulu’s hills. His candidacy is shaping up to be a significant challenge to the one-term incumbent, a Muslim named Yahaya Gudoi Wojje who lives in the opposite corner of the district. The Jews number no more than 1,500, but Sizomu expects votes from Muslims and Christians who want a taste of the relative prosperity that Sizomu has brought to the Abayudaya. To hear the Abayudaya tell it, Wojje has a reputation for general inaction and a taste for the luxuries of the capital. Accusations and counter-accusations of religious smears, intimidation, and Jewish land grabs have been flying throughout the bruising campaign.
Sizomu’s rallies are simple, fast encounters between Sizomu’s team and gathered villagers. A local leader, usually an imam, pastor, or school teacher, delivers a respectful welcome address, even if the locality isn’t necessarily pro-Gershom. Women, in long layers of wrapped, colorful, patterned cloth, sit to one side, and men stand together in a group. If Sizomu is popular there, the women may dance and ululate in front of him as he arrives. After the local leader speaks, the microphone, connected to a battery-powered amplifier, is passed to campaign managers and other witnesses who whip up the crowd through call and response. At one rally, a young imam tells 150 people in an unshaded schoolyard not to vote along tribal or religious lines. “The Americans didn’t,” he says. “They voted for Obama, and he is from Kenya.” The sun begins to burn orange, low in the sky. The imam concludes, “What Gershom did for his community, he’ll do for us.”
The gist of Sizomu’s stump speech is this: I’ve made a school. (Two, actually: Hadassah primary school and the Semei Kakungulu High School, where the motto is “Persist to Succeed.”) I’ve been the contact to help an American group build us a health clinic. (It’s the Tobin Health Clinic—“Services Offered,” reads the illuminated sign—where a pair of properly trained doctors and a staff of nurses work in a clean building on the outskirts of Mbale.) I’ve helped get wells drilled in Nabugoye, Namanyonyi, Nasenyi, Namatumba, and Nangolo villages. If I’ve done all this without being elected, then imagine what I can do once I’m given access to the 10 million shillings, or about $4,500, for development allotted to each constituency, the 200-million-shilling government project loans, the 20-million-shilling monthly salary and benefits that, if not horded for personal use, can be used to provide for school uniforms, medicine, and mosquito nets. The incumbent has brought no electricity, no roads, and has left the people of Bungokho North to live like orphans. Sizomu’s schools, wells, and clinic are there. If elected, there could be an ambulance to transport the sick to the health clinic. And the solar-panel construction industry might be lured here to provide jobs. He rounds out his speech with a reminder to “Gershom Tick!” No X, he says, but a clean check mark or thumbprint, next to the picture of “owaka kofira”—the man with the small hat.
Eliyahu, a campaign worker in dark aviator glasses, tells me at the first rally I see that at this point Sizomu is now going to “give some water,” with a wry smile. You mean like make it rain? I ask. The rally quickly turns into a friendly pushing match, with two long lines, men to one side and women to the other, pressing chest-to-back with no room for cutting, like kids lining up for candy on Halloween. Sizomu is driven away in a white sedan, while Eliyahu and some others start to distribute 1,000-shilling bills, or about 50 cents, to each of the supporters as they step forward, peeling off the notes from a stack clutched in Eliyahu’s hand. After, in the car to catch up with Sizomu’s next rally a few miles down the road, Eliyahu explains a little sheepishly that the supporters must be compensated for having transported themselves to the rally. “It would be rude not to,” he says.
In a rare moment when I can corner Sizomu in the back seat of his jeep, I tell him I’m surprised not to see religion play a more central role in his campaign. So far, all Judaism has done is provide a quirky tool for recognizing Sizomu on the ballot, by his kippa. I haven’t heard any praying or invocations or “Hashem”; at the rallies in Muslim-dominated villages, Imams have begun with “bismillah” and sometimes moved on to prostration. I’m curious, too, because, as I tell Sizomu, it’s rare for people already endowed with rabbinical authority to seek more of it from politics. Why not help your people and leave it at that? One of his phones buzzes, but for once he lets it ring. He says to me that his campaign has very little to do with Judaism and that, furthermore, he is a politician first. “My profession is I’m a rabbi,” he says, “like any other person who would be a teacher, engineer, or anything, but they can be politicians, too.” Then down the road a little, he elaborates on the obligation he says he feels to all people, not only the Jewish people, in the aphoristic style of the Mishnah: “When mosquitoes bite,” he says, “they bite indiscriminately, and they cause malaria.”
And yet, the struggle for the parliamentary seat pits Sizomu against a Muslim incumbent, in a largely Muslim district in a country that is 85 percent Christian with a fanatical born-again first lady. “We thought that people resented the Jewish people,” Sizomu says to me before a well-attended campaign rally. “We are surprised that people can say yes to a Jew. Standing there in front of them, I think it is a miracle.”
Back at Nabugoye, on another day, Sizomu’s team is training official poll observers to watch the 125 stations that election day. Sizomu stands at a metal table, while his agents sit in the thick shade of a mango tree. “Who will help us if we are bullied?” asks Kiswabula Joseph Sombe, a volunteer polling agent in his once-blue jacket and a white polo buttoned to the top. “You must not hesitate,” Sizomu tells him. “Inform the Electoral Commission representative right away.” The agents applaud. “We must be very vigilant or we will not win,” Sizomu continues, pulling off his glasses. “On election day, we shall be up all night. We shall not sleep. We shall be as wizards.”
Until about 1840, Uganda was an isolated set of kingdoms. Then Arab traders from the east came to exchange guns and what amounted to toys for slaves and ivory, and in 1874, King Mutesa I told H.M. Stanley to bring missionaries. It is easy to forget that the waves of colonialism that washed through the Bugandan, Busoga, and Bukedi kingdoms along the Nile were products of the quest for legitimacy by the newly consolidated and resource-hungry nation-states of Europe. Nationalism required a driving idea—that of the “white man’s burden,” for example—to take the natural inward gaze of romantic peoplehood and turn it outward onto other lands. (An 1894 cartoon in Punch titled “The Black Baby” shows John Bull, representative of the English people, exclaiming, upon discovering on his doorstep a black child in a Moses basket labeled Uganda, “What, another!!—Well, I suppose I must take it in!!!”)
Continue reading: the first Ugandan Jew, Bel Air, and becoming Africa’s rabbi. Or view as a single page.
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.
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