The Jewish Palate: The Jews of Uganda

Chef Dennis Wasko explores the history of the Jews of Uganda and the English, Arab and Asian influences on the cuisine.

Jews of Uganda 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jews of Uganda 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is a small community in Eastern Uganda near the town of Mbale who practice Judaism. They are known as the Abayudaya, the “People of Judah”.  Though not historically or genetically related to other Jews, this small community has been practicing Judaism in one form or another since the late 1880’s.  They are devout in their practice of the religion and observe the Sabbath and Kashrut.  There are several different villages where the Ugandan Jews live. Most of these are recognized by the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism. However, the villagers of Putti are still seeking an Orthodox conversion.  Currently there are approximately 1,100 Abayudaya.  Before the persecutions under Idi Amin, however, they numbered closer to 3,000.
This Jewish community owes its origins to Semei Kakungulu, a local military leader who was originally converted to Christianity by British missionaries.  Kakungulu believed that if he converted the British would allow him to rule the territories that he conquered for them.  The British did not allow this, so Kakungulu distanced himself from them and began to study the Bible.  He came to the conclusion that the laws and customs in the Five Books of Moses were in fact true. When he told Muslim visitors to Mbale about his findings, they told him that only Jews observed such customs.  He exclaimed “Then we will be Jewish”!  By 1919, he had become clearly Jewish in his practice. He circumcised himself, his sons, and declared that his community was Jewish.  He uprooted his community, moved them to an area at the foot of Mt. Elgon, and started a separatist sect.  These actions infuriated the British who cut all ties with him and the community.
In 1920 a foreign Jew named “Yosef” arrived in the community.  It is unclear who Yosef was, but he seems to be responsible for introducing the community to the Jewish calendar, the proper observance of Jewish Festivals, and the rabbinic laws concerning Kashrut.  Yosef's teachings influenced Kakungulu to establish a school that acted as a type of yeshiva, with the purpose of passing on and teaching the skills and knowledge first taught to the community by Yosef.  Yosef remained with the community for about six months, and then departed never to be heard from again – a mysterious figure of history.
Kakungulu died from tetanus in 1928.  After his death, his followers divided into two groups. One group that reverted to Christianity and the other, the Abayudaya, that became devout Jews. They isolated themselves for protection and survived persecution, the worst of which was under the maniacal Idi Amin, who outlawed Jewish rituals and destroyed synagogues. During the persecutions of Idi Amin, 80–90 percent of the Abayudaya community converted to either Christianity or Islam in the face of brutal religious persecution. A small group of roughly 300 Jews remained.  They were committed to Judaism, worshiping secretly, fearful that they would be discovered by their neighbors and reported to the authorities. They risked death for their Faith. They named themselves "She'erit Yisrael”, the “Remnant of Israel."
After the "Terror of Amin" ended with his fall from power, conditions began to improve for the Abayudaya.  They began a fairly successful effort to establish contact with Jews in Israel and elsewhere in the world. The community underwent a further revival in the 1980s, employing a stylized “Kibbutz Movement."
In February of 2002, approximately 400 members of the community were formally converted to Judaism by five Rabbis of the Masorti Movement. Many more official conversions have occurred since 2002. Currently the She'erit Yisrael community is looking for help in its desire to undergo an Orthodox conversion and make aliyah.
As the community increased its ties and interactions with other Jewish communities, especially in the United States and Israel, its religious practices and customs shifted towards mainstream Judaism. Members immerse themselves in a mikva, observe Kashrut, and attend Shabbat services. Congregations remove their shoes before entering the synagogue. This custom is believed to have been practiced by Jews in biblical times and is still practiced by a few Jewish communities today. The Abayudaya maintain a kosher diet and slaughter animals in accordance with Jewish Law.
The Abayudaya diet is very similar to that of the rest of Eastern Uganda, though it is of course tempered by the Laws of Kashrut. Ugandan cuisine consists of traditional native cooking with English, Arab and Asian (especially Indian) influences. Dishes are usually based on a sauce or stew of peanuts, beans, or meat. The traditional starch accompaniment is called Ugali (made from maize) or Matoke (made from boiled and mashed green banana).  Various leafy greens are grown in Uganda. These may be boiled in the stews, or served as side dishes.
Chicken, fish, beef, goat and mutton are all eaten, although among the rural poor there would have to be a good reason for slaughtering a large animal such as a goat or a cow and meat would not be eaten every day.
The following recipe for Ugandan-style Braised greens with Okra and Peanut Sauce is not an exclusively Jewish dish, but it is traditional throughout Uganda.  Sadly, there still is not a compendium of Abayudaya Jewish Recipes, but I hope to remedy that someday soon.  Serve these Braised greens with rice or Ugali (Corn Meal Mush).
Ugandan-style Braised Greens with Okra and Peanut Sauce
Serves 4 – 6
1 pound kale or collard greens, rinsed, stemmed, and shredded
½ pound okra, rinsed and sliced
½ cup coconut milk
½ cup water
½ cup chunky peanut butter
¼ cup sesame seeds
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
1. Place a large pot over medium heat.  Add the greens, okra, coconut milk, and half of the water.  Stir to combine, cover, and allow to steam for 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, combine the peanut butter with the remaining water, stirring until thoroughly mixed.
2. Add the thinned peanut butter and the sesame seeds to the pot.  Stir to combine.  Season with salt and pepper to taste, cover, reduce heat to low, and allow to braise for 15 minutes.  Stir every 5 minutes to be sure the peanut butter does not scorch.
3.    Serve as a side dish or as a vegetarian main dish accompanied with rice or Ugali (Corn Meal Mush).