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.
Foreign religion … was like an applied and contagious illness, curing nothing, giving no final answers, keeping everyone in a state of nerves, fighting wrong battles, narrowing the mind.
—V.S. Naipaul, The Masque of Africa
In October 1992, two American university students on a semester-abroad program in Kenya, seeking to participate in a rite they hoped would be both familiar and exotic, decided to attend High Holiday services at the Nairobi synagogue, which catered since its founding in 1904 to a colonial, now expatriate, community of bureaucrats, diplomats, merchants, traders, engineers, and aid workers. Matthew Meyer, a student from Brown University, found himself seated next to the only black man in the group of about 25, while Julia Chamovitz, from Washington University, observed them from the women’s section. At a break, Chamovitz encouraged Meyer to talk to the lone African, who was otherwise being ignored, and after seeing the news clippings the man had brought, and hearing his story—about representing a group of Jews in rural Uganda eager for contact and support from other Jews—she suggested that she and Meyer make the bus trip from Nairobi to Mbale, in eastern Uganda. The man called himself a rabbi and said his name was Gershom.
Meyer communicated with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, leader of Uganda’s Abayudaya, a small community of native Ugandan Jews, via telegram from the Nairobi post office and organized a rough arrival time. When Meyer and Chamovitz rolled in to Kakungulu’s hills—as the center of Abayudaya life was known—12 hours by bus after leaving Nairobi, they were amazed to see their names painted next to Stars of David and “Shalom!” on the walls of the houses. Though young and full of their sense of adventure, the two students immediately realized that they were about to be shouldered with a responsibility. The Abayudaya wanted to know more about Jewish practice. Only when pressed about their needs did the locals volunteer some lacks. Their synagogue was half complete; they could use funds to finish it—what was the best way to get them? They wanted their kids to be able to go to school. They wanted a Torah scroll. But most importantly, they wanted what could do all these things at once: to be connected to the Jewish world. Being linked Jew to fellow Jew was the path to collecting the dividends of identity—a reaping of what Kakungulu, who chose sometime before 1920 to follow a biblical fundamentalism resembling Judaism, had sown in his obstinacy.
Chamovitz still remembers her trepidation: Would this gracious and hospitable community lose its beauty? Would people come and gawk? Would self-righteous Jews scorn and reject the Abayudaya’s claim to Judaism? Or would connecting the Abayudaya to Jewish brothers overseas give them access to respectful, productive, healthy support they clearly needed? “We could really mess this up,” she told Meyer on the much-longer 26-hour train ride back to Kenya. Looking back, she now says, “It wasn’t our choice. Having been there, it was our concern. Helping the Abayudaya was our obligation.”
A sensitive and gifted storyteller, Meyer took up the mantle most actively. He read the chronicles of the influential former Israeli ambassador in East Africa, Arye Oded, who had done the most to tend to the embers of Judaism there. Meyer returned to the central village of Nabugoye for four months over a summer and a few years later recorded and then made cassette-tape copies of the Abayudaya’s music, which he sent to every Jewish group he could think of, from the Hebrew Union College to university Hillels. He wrote and published articles and enlisted the help of his own synagogue. As he made the case that the Abayudaya were Jewish, poor, and isolated, he was criticized by at least one Conservative rabbi in New York who thought he was reaching out to people who had come to the faith improperly. But elsewhere, with the then-young Internet doing its part, Meyer’s efforts began to bear fruit.
The first to get involved with Meyer’s crusade was a group called Kulanu (“All of us”). In 1995, a delegation of 15 Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews—led by a São Paulo-born Kansas City rabbi and expert on the anusim, those forced to abandon Judaism against their will—visited the Abayudaya. What followed is difficult to try to reconstruct. The simple version is: The Abayudaya found supporters. Wells were dug. Women undertook craft projects. Schools were founded. The Jewish diversity advocate Be’chol Lashon got involved and, among other development projects, helped the Abayudaya build a guesthouse to accommodate the uptick in visitors. A multifaith coffee cooperative was established to get mountain grains to market. In 2002, some 200 Abayudaya attended a “conversion or affirmation” ceremony organized with the help of Kulanu and officiated by four Conservative rabbis from the United States and one from Israel. A Smithsonian recording of the Abayudaya’s music was nominated for a Grammy. Sizomu and his brother went on speaking tours in synagogues and JCCs across America. Every other year, a newspaper story would express surprise and delight at seeing “Shalom!” painted on mud walls in rural Africa. Though significant internecine struggles flared up and receded within the Jewish leadership in Uganda over this time—and disagreements have arisen and been resolved between the various U.S. groups working to support the Abayudaya—the plucky community just seemed to refuse to give up. “People who visit them come away inspired and wanting to help,” says Harriet Bograd, the 67-year-old with a law degree from Yale who now runs Kulanu.
What is it to be Jewish? This was at least one of the questions that I wanted the Abayudaya to answer, even during the distraction of Sizomu’s all-consuming campaign for parliament. It’s the question that had brought thousands of visitors before me—people like Meyer and Chamovitz—to this hilly part of East Africa, if not to hear an answer in words then at least to confront their own Jewish identity with a different idea of the same thing. The Abayudaya, having clearly been asked this question again and again, have developed certain straightforward answers that I heard from a number of congregants of all generations. Sizomu’s mother, Devora, a 74-year-old who still lives in Nangolo village on the same land where she gave birth to Sizomu, told me that only God can answer the question of what it means to be Jewish, and that keeping Shabbat is the most important part of the practice. Solomon Magoma, 83, ailing, and lying on a straw mat in a mud hut behind his family’s one-room house, told me that “identifying as that thing, Jewish,” was foremost, and that following the Ten Commandments gave him strength. His grandson, Moshe Sebagabo, took me to see the Namanyonyi syn-a-go-gee, and as we toured the cement-floored interior and opened the ark, with its decorated sheet-metal box, he spoke to me of having “too much religious feeling,” of understanding the essence of his faith as “being an example to others.”
How far does this example extend? To non-Jewish neighbors? To countries? To all of God’s creation? To be an example to others supposes that you are somehow related to them. This Kakungulu—the colonial chieftain and founder of the Abayudaya—understood well. Missionary presence and patriarchal tribalism had taught the people of Uganda that religion not only makes a universal claim on you but also connects you to people beyond the village.
What is it to be Jewish in Uganda? In 1903, Theodor Herzl, trying to find support for a Jewish state, proposed British Uganda as at least a temporary place to shelter Jews from pogroms without giving up on his goal to secure a Jewish home in the land of Israel. A vote of 295 to 178 at the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel decided that an “investigatory commission” should examine the proposed territory. To Herzl, the Uganda proposal served the purpose of both legitimizing the idea of a Jewish state somewhere and of aligning Zionism with the British, whose influence dominated the world and whose support was fundamental to the eventual creation of Israel. Others vehemently rejected the proposal, saying Herzl had betrayed the Holy Land ideal. Herzl died in 1904 at age 44, and some observers said that the Uganda controversy killed him.
With only second-hand knowledge of Herzl’s idea, the Abayudaya still reaped the effects of Zionism. One influential colonial governor of Uganda—who in the 1950s dammed the Nile at Owen Falls for hydropower, established a prototype of Uganda’s parliament, and paved the way for its independence—was Sir Andrew Cohen, a Cambridge-educated scion of a distinguished Anglo-Jewish family. Many years later, when Idi Amin Dada came to power by military coup in 1971, he severed ties with Israel and, through a series of Kakungulu-esque maneuvers, aligned Uganda with the Palestinian cause. Amin expelled Israeli military advisers, threw out 80,000 Asians, made friends with Muamar Qaddafi, and “rediscovered” his Islamic heritage in order to entice the Saudis to provide foreign aid. He commissioned a giant mosque to be built on the highest hill in Kampala. (Qaddafi attended the opening ceremony—delayed by war, corruption, and incompetence—30 years later, in 2008.) The Soviet Union kept Amin’s military armed, the East Germans trained the secret police, and Amin kept the country in terror.
Amin liked to take official visitors to see the spot on the Nile where there were, in his words, “the most crocodiles anywhere,” and then try to scare them off. Such a scene appears in General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, the documentary French filmmaker Barbet Schroeder made in 1974 with the consent (and, at one point, brutally enforced editing) of a preening Amin. One war game depicted in the film shows Amin in natty sunglasses and a commando beret directing a simulated attack on the Golan Heights that he claimed to be preparing, following a reading of a “secret Israeli plan,” The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the attack, Sherman tanks ride over red-clay- and tall-grass-laden hills on the outskirts of Kampala, while military jets fly make-believe bombing runs. Amin pushes his troops forward as they meet no resistance (no dummy Israeli army had been set up) and climb to the top. “Victory!” Amin tells the camera. “Victory over Golan Heights,” before letting out a pair of maniacal belly laughs. Amin believed he dreamt the future and worked only to God’s instruction. A filmmaker asks, is it true the Israelis wanted to poison the Nile when they were still in Uganda? “Yes,” Amin says. “The plan of the Israelis against Uganda was worse than Hitler’s against the Jews.”
Continue reading: the Entebbe raid, Ugandan strongmen, and the returns. Or view as a single page.
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.