The Abayudaya, a small Ugandan Jewish community, survived Idi Amin’s persecution and then reconnected with the wider Jewish world, as they had done a century before. Part 2 of 2.
For the Abayudaya, even in their rural insignificance, Amin’s fascist, erratic brutality meant direct persecution as he tried to root out Zionist influence. Devora, Sizomu’s mother, remembers praying in secret, being discovered and then chased by a government official (“Amin’s bodyguard,” in Devora’s words) to a rice field, where she and her husband were told to convert to Islam or die. The details of the story are muddled by myth, but the feeling of injustice is palpable in the telling. Solomon Magoma puts the dark time more starkly: “Some passed away. Others went away because of Idi Amin Dada.”
In the summer of 1976, Amin allowed Palestinian hijackers to divert Air France flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Entebbe airport, where 105 of 248 passengers were held hostage with the complicity of Uganda’s army. Israel prepared a Sayeret Matkal raid to free the hostages. It was codenamed Operation Thunderbolt and led by Yonatan Netanyahu, the older brother of the current Israeli prime minister, a hero of the Yom Kippur war in the Golan Heights, and the only member of the raid not to come back alive. For the Israelis, despite the heroism and loss of “Yoni,” the operation was a daring success. For Amin, it spelled the beginning of his decline. For the Abayudaya, the message was no less clear: When Jews are in danger, a thunderbolt will fall from the sky to crush their enemies and lift them to safety. The Abayudaya believed that it was no accident that Israel had been tested on Ugandan soil, and they saw the Entebbe raid as a call for them to reorganize and persevere.
This was a part of Kakungulu’s legacy to his followers: Religious conflict, the shifting alliances of schisms, orthodoxy, and rivalry will test their devotion. But the lesson was also one of connectedness and patriarchal power. The story of these East African Jews had summoned the spirits of a series of strong men: Moses, Herzl, Kakungulu, Yoni Netanyahu, and, yes, Sizomu. In fact, Sizomu once said to me, about his political aspirations, “Jewish sources say, ‘Where there’s no man, you strive to be a man.’ ” He was citing Tractate Avot, from the Mishnah—“Hillel used to say: A brutish man cannot fear sin; an ignorant man cannot be pious, nor can the shy man learn, or the impatient man teach. He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise. In a place where there are no men strive to be a man.”
On April 11, 1979, the day Amin fled to Libya as Tanzanian-backed rebels closed in on the capital, in Namanyonyi, a boy was born to the Sebagabo family, and he was called Moshe. He grew up among the Abayudaya and studied law. After his conversion ceremony, he and a fellow Jew, a doctor named Samson Wamani, planned a trip to Kibbutz Ketura in the Negev. Despite Amin, the link to Israel had not been cut. Excited at the prospect, Sebagabo and Wamani drove together to Nairobi to ask for visas from the Israeli consulate. They didn’t want to emigrate but bring back international experience for the benefit of their community. At the consulate, the answer was no. “Can you imagine what would happen,” the consul said to them, “if we said yes to you?”
Once, when Sizomu and I were sitting near the Abayudaya’s guesthouse on the hill, I asked him if he ever thought about Kakungulu, and how he had conquered these lands and chosen Judaism and set them all on a path. I said that it was rare to see a foundational myth so old and so thoroughly alive and ingrained in the culture of a group of people as that of Semei Kakungulu seemed to be for the Abayudaya. Did he feel connected to him, and to his greatness? Sizomu, who has a modest streak despite his ambition, laughed at the suggestion, but then narrowed his gaze and said, “I am the new Kakungulu.” He talked about being a politician, collaborating with international sources, having an appreciation for Uganda as a nation, and taking up a religious life. Then he said, “I am going to be the new Kakungulu.”
The week leading up to the February election is dry and hot, and the layer of dirt and dust is like red baby powder, lifting in tiny clouds with each step and billowing into great plumes behind trucks and jeeps. The roads outside the provincial center of Mbale have risen from the earth, settled, and spilled over vegetation, crops, people, and houses on either side of the gutters such that it seemed Moses himself had parted a red sea of dust. My shirt collar and cuffs are red. The edges of my notebook are red. Today is Friday, Gershom Sizomu’s 42nd birthday. On Nabugoye hill, where voting for parliamentary seats in Uganda’s national elections has come to a contentious close, the heat has boiled into the first tall thunderheads of the season. I had been told it would not rain. I had also been told the Jewish candidate would win.
Now the ballots are ceremoniously dumped out of their clear Ugandan Electoral Commission tubs onto a plastic tarp on the ground. Behind Ugandan Electoral Commission crime-scene tape, which had been stretched across the yard shaded by acacia trees to delineate the polling station, some 150 voters and parishioners are pressing forward to observe the count. The presiding officer for this parish is still looking vibrant in her gray ankle-length skirt suit and pink Oxford shirt, despite having withstood a full day’s pounding sun, and despite wearing a rather undignified neon-and-gray Electoral Commission smock of the kind children don before finger painting. Her skin is so dark it has a white sheen, and her small nose is set against high cheekbones. She is sharply beautiful, and she’s taken a pose of agricultural ritual, bending from the hip over straight legs to gather the ballots into organized piles to be counted while a village watches and complains. The task over the day has been to choose who will lead Uganda. Now the task is to see who has been chosen.
Thunder sounds, and then rolls again, louder, like a kettle drum. The crowd inches closer to the pile of ballots. Then the first drops fall. Within a minute the heavens have opened, and all light has gone from the sky. The polling agents scramble to gather up the tarp and race into the nearest shelter, through three sets of doors set under a stepped facade that reads:
✡ ABAYUDAYA CONGREGATION ✡
Inside, the tarp is laid over the bimah, the ballots spread where the Torah would be if this were an ordinary Friday night. A pair of naked wires in a corner behind the ark are connected to a car battery, bringing the eternal flame and a few fluorescent bars to life. The zinc roof clatters under a biblical deluge. The excitement of the rain has cranked the anticipation up another level. The synagogue feels like a crowded school gym during a fire drill, and the presiding officer has grown some beads of sweat on her nose. When the counting resumes, she has to shout to be heard over the rain.
Gershom! Gershom! Wojje! Gershom! One by one the ballots are read and held up for all to see. Gershom! Wojje! Gershom! Gershom! A number of ballots are kafu, or invalid, with two ticks, or a thumbprint and a tick, or marked on the line, and these are held high for a moment longer while the observing agents and the crowd shout their opinions. Gershom! Gershom is winning his home parish. In the crowd, a boy in a skullcap introduces himself as Asher Watege and tells me he’s 17. “I voted,” he says. But your age? “I lied—so I could vote for Gershom.” Gershom! Gershom! Kafu! A fat policewoman in new blue camouflage says to me, “Gershom gave a lot of money to these people. He has to win here.” She was happy to hear that 24-year incumbent Yoweri Museveni had won the presidential count in this contentious district, and she seems a little annoyed at Gershom’s showing. She wants “security,” she says. Not “chaos,” and what she sees looks like chaos to her. Everyone else, though, looks like they’ve just won a soccer match. With the ballots all checked, the presiding officer begins to count out loud in Luganda. The crowd counts with her, one, two, three. The Muslim incumbent Wojje takes 50 votes, to a smattering of polite applause. Then with every hundred Gershom tallies, the crowd gives a cheer. One hundred, two hundred, 353 votes. The rain has stopped. Gershom takes the parish.
Even as the congregation files out, the long night of counting throughout the district and across the country is only beginning. I ask Asher if there’ll be Shabbat services tomorrow. “No, we have lost Shabbat tonight,” he says. “And if Gershom was to win, or even not, the people won’t come tomorrow, because they will be afraid to gather here,” and put too many of Uganda’s Jews in one place. “Supporters of the government could come with guns or weapons,” he says. Inside Sizomu’s house, Sizomu’s daughter Daphne has made challah in a Dutch oven. Tzipora, Jane, Judy, Jill, and Ria have lit Shabbat candles before a meal of matoke plantain mash, rice, pulled turkey, and cabbage at the Sizomu’s dining room table. In the living room, campaign workers take calls from the observing agents in the rest of the district and keep a tally of results on scrap paper that looks like a rummy score card: “Gershom” on the left, “Ogye” on the right, with, by the look of it, Sizomu polling nearly 3 to 1.
Back in Mbale late that night, I watch the vote counts come in on NTV. The air is finally cleared of dust, but the humidity has given the evening a remote hint of chill. Leftover campaign commercials review the ruling NRM’s gains in “poverty reduction,” with shots of white people on a boat looking at crocodiles. “The NRM has plans to consolidate the tourism sector through a holistic approach,” says the lilting voiceover, that of a parent warning a child. “If this changes, the country risks losing all the progress it has made over the years.” On the cathode-ray screen, sandal-wearing bazungu point at hippos, and then something gives between here and the 1954 Owen Falls Power Station damming the Nile and, across Mbale, the lights go out.
On Saturday, Gershom faces a dire situation in the Mbale Town Council house, where an agitated crowd has gathered across the street and riot police have been deployed to keep order. Gershom says that his agents and voters were intimidated. He says three extra ballot boxes stuffed with Wojje ballots were brought in, and reports on national television seem to confirm this. Wojje had told me the day before, when I asked if he would concede a loss, “If they tally and find out that I will be beaten, I will accept it. Yes, because that’s democracy, eeeeh.” President Museveni is clearly going to win another five-year mandate. Sizomu, though, will soon be reduced to filing a long-shot complaint with the Constitutional Court and promising to run again in 2016.
Up in Nangolo village, sitting on the cement foundation ledge behind the home where Sizomu was born, Devora sang an Abayudaya song. Though the rhythms of verse were familiar to me, the tune was like that played on a thumb piano. Devora sang calmly, and with authority, despite a warbly rasp, and when she finished, she said it was “one of the songs that Moses sang.” I asked her which verses she had sung, and she called for her dead husband’s Old Testament. The bye-bul-ee, as she pronounced it, was in Luganda, the colonial missionary language, and it was frayed, yellowed, and dog-eared. The song had come from Eykyamateka, Deuteronomy, Chapter 32, which begins “Listen, you heavens, and I will speak;/ hear, you earth, the words of my mouth.” It is, I realized, where Moses gives his final instructions to his people.
In the last verses of chapter 32, Moses says to “take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day.” The Abayudaya have done just that, as the verse orders, “and thereby command their children.” By Devora’s account, it was Kakungulu himself who composed the melody for this “Moses Song.” “They are not just idle words for you—they are your life,” the chapter closes. “By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”
Gershom Sizomu, the first African-born black rabbi in Uganda, ran for his country’s parliament, trying to win support from outside the tiny, century-old Ugandan Jewish community he leads. A photo diary.