Meet the Abuyadaya: A Shabbat with Uganda's Jews

In the heart of Africa, there is a 500-strong Jewish community.

uganda jews 224.88 (photo credit: Josh Scheinert)
uganda jews 224.88
(photo credit: Josh Scheinert)
It began like this: Missionaries converted native African tribes to Christianity, and British colonialists commissioned a leader to oversee a swath of territory. In this instance, that leader, newly converted to Christianity, was a Bagandan warrior named Semei Kakungulu. Most stories like Kakungulu's continued with tales of devoted service to colonial regimes in exchange for personal wealth and power. But Kukungulu's story is not like most. Growing disenchanted with the British determination to limit his area of control, he decided to break with them and did the unthinkable. He converted again, this time to Judaism. Today Uganda's biggest tourist attraction is the endangered mountain gorilla found on its western border. But if you head east, on a five- hour bumpy bus ride from Kampala to a town called Mbale, you will find another reason to visit Uganda: the Abuyadaya. The Abuyadaya are Uganda's Jews, descendants and followers of Kukungulu who today number about 500. I was in Uganda volunteering on the outskirts of Kampala. The director of the orphanage I was at told me he had heard that in Mbale there was a group of people "who worshipped on Saturdays." I had to see it for myself. I must confess, before leaving Canada for Uganda, a friend had told me about the Abuyadaya and I had already arranged my visit with them. But it was going to be a quick visit, just kabbalat Shabbat. The next day my friend and I were going to leave to for white water rafting on the Nile. The bus passengers from Kampala did not understand why my friend and I grew overly nervous when we struck a flat tire on the way to Mbale; we were racing against the sun. Once in Mbale, we were told to take a matatu (local taxi bus) to the Semei Kakungulu High School sign. When we were pushed out of the overcrowded matatu, we still felt we were in Africa. We were hot, dusty and unsure of where to go. "Shalom." The something changed. The boy at the well was wearing a kippa. And the high school sign had a Star of David. Used to Western visitors on Shabbat, he guessed where we were going. He led us to a collection of homes. "Shalom, Shabbat Shalom," echoed from each house as we walked by as kippa-clad boys and girls in Shabbat dresses came to greet us. With the sun setting we took our seats in the synagogue, a simple room filled with donated books, an ark with a donated Torah and the flag of the Abuyadaya. For this particular Shabbat we were lucky - the power was out. This was going to be a real African Shabbat, in the words of Aharon, the religious leader. The room was illuminated by candlelight. Words cannot aptly describe what followed. In fact, it is still a blur for me. The service was half-Hebrew, half-Lugandan. The songs, to the same Conservative tunes I had been brought up on in Canada, were sung with the passion of African soul that grips and almost paralyzes you. Periodically, I would look around, at faces not of Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jews, but of black African Jews, so engrossed in prayer, so connected to something, I was almost in disbelief. It began with "Shalom Aleichem" and ended with "Adon Olam," and the prayers in between still resonate in my ears. When the service ended, there was no discussion between my friend and me. White-water rafting would wait - we were staying for all of Shabbat. The decision did not disappoint. The next morning I was honored with an aliya to the Torah. After services, we sampled Ugandan halla and in the afternoon we had a chance to really get to know the community. The Abuyadaya are incredible people. They face all the same hardships as their neighbors. When there is a drought, they lack food; when the rains are too strong, they struggle, as well. Malaria is a constant threat and continues to take its toll on the community, killing young and old. Yet they are also different. On Saturdays, they refrain from working their land or cooking. Lacking ovens, this means that food is prepared Friday afternoon and left to sit, covered with plastic plates to protect it from insects. Theirs is a constant attempt to discover and rediscover Judaism. From the Torah to the Holocaust to Israel, they are trying to understand today's Jewish identity and how it should translate for them in their agrarian, Ugandan surroundings. And with devoted leaders like Aharon, and youth like 18-year-old Yitzhak, who led the kabbalat Shabbat services, one thing is for certain: Jewish beliefs and tradition will remain a central feature of life for the Abuyadaya. Anyone wishing to visit the Abuyadaya can e-mail Aharon at: and let him know when you intend to come. Plan to spend the whole weekend: Havdala under the African stars is the perfect end to a true Shabbat Shalom.