STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
THE ABAYUDAYA: THE JEWS OF UGANDA
Jewish Museum London
In October the Jewish Museum London celebrated Black History Month. In honour of this, one of the Museum’s Learning Officers, Shereen Hunte, led tours around the museum looking at the black Jewish community.
The Ugandan Jews have had a prominent part in these tours as we currently have a temporary exhibition on their community, the Abayudaya. The exhibition consists of photographs taken by one of the museum’s volunteers, Daniel, and professional photographer, Rena Pearl.
This blog looks at the Abayudaya community through history from their roots, to their founding in c.1917-1920 and to the present day, highlighting particularly important episodes in their journey.
Blue writing on a white background
King Mutesa I served as the King of Buganda from 1856-1884.
The king, renowned for his enthusiasm for knowledge and strength proclaimed himself a Christian. King Mutesa’s proclamation of faith provided a catalyst for the spreading of the western religion of Christianity throughout Uganda.
The Abangereza, protestant missionaries from England and the Abafaransa, French-backed Catholic missionaries from Algiers, started arriving in the early 1890s and began on their quest to transform Uganda into a westernised, Christian nation.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, religious groups who opposed the way in which these western missionaries were imposing their customs and hierarchies onto Uganda began emerging.
The Ugandan people had also started reading the bible themselves and started to identify differences between what they read and what they were taught by the establishment.
Out of these dissenting groups, the Abayudaya Community was founded in 1917 by Semei Kakungulu, who was fervently committed to the Old Testament and therefore began relating more and more with the Hebrew Bible and Judaism.
Kakungulu had a difficult upbringing, both his parents were executed and Kakungulu was forced to escape from his home in the Koki Kingdom to Buddu in the Buganda Kingdom.
Kakungulu managed to find favour with the King of Buganda and in 1884 he was appointed a district chief, with his ability as a talented military leader ensuring that he continued to rise.
Black and white photographs
In 1894 Uganda formally became a part of the British Empire, and Kakungulu and his army played a central role in making this happen.
Kakungulu hoped to be recognised by the British government as Kabaka, meaning a King, and therefore be treated the same as the other Ugandan Kings, however this was never to be the case.
In 1913 when Kakungulu had the realisation that his political and societal aspirations were never going to be met, he felt used by the British and retired from his military duties and began focusing on his faith.
From 1919 onwards Kakungulu was a self-proclaimed Jew, an Omuyudaya. In 1922 Kakungulu’s book ‘Ebigambo ebiva mukitabo ekitukuvu’ (words from the Holy Book) was printed, which set out the rules for his community to follow.
John Roscoe, an Anglican missionary who visited Uganda said of Kakungulu’s religion; “They are strictly faithful to their own beliefs and live according to their moral lives. They have formulated for themselves a religion out of this strange medley of ideas and their conduct is in complete accordance with their beliefs.”
Kakungulu died in his town of Mbale on the 24th November 1928. At the time of his death it is estimated that the population of the Abayudaya had reached around 2,000 members.
LIFE AFTER KAKUNGULU
After the death of their leader in 1928, the Abayudaya found themselves in a leadership struggle.
Other issues that emerged included disagreements over theology and some of the members of the community even left to re-join Christianity. One of Kakungulu’s sons Ibulaim Ndaula even left to become a Christian.
Whereas before 1928 the religious and secular leadership had been united under Kakungulu, after his death the community began having separate secular leaders to the religious leaders and the teachers.
A further threat that the Abayudaya faced was that of intermarriage.
There were not enough young men in the community to keep marriages within the Abayudaya and so when women started marrying men from outside the community, numbers then decreased as a result. By 1965 the Abayudaya had around 300 members left.
Blue text painted on a wall
A CHALLENGING TIME
The Abayudaya community continued to grow throughout the 20th century following Kakungulu’s death, however in 1971 things took a turn for the worst.
In 1971, a Coup d’état saw Idi Amin come to power as the third President of Uganda. Amin became known as the ‘Butcher of Uganda’ as a result of his mass killings, accounting for the death of around 300,000 people from the entire population.
The year he came to power, Amin outlawed Judaism from Uganda, and destroyed all the synagogues in the country, including the first Namutumba synagogue which had been built in 1919.
The Abayudaya were forced to perform holiday services in private in bushes and caves for eight years until 1979 when Obote overthrew Amin and the freedom of religion was reinstated in Uganda. The same year a new Namutumba synagogue was constructed for Abayudaya worship services.
Despite the challenges they faced, the community remained tight-knit and committed to their religion. They also began receiving more donations and visitations, including Torah scrolls from an American synagogue.
THE ABAYUDAYA TODAY
The community today numbers around 1,000 members and lives in an area around Mbale, spread out among six villages.
Despite the Abayudaya Jews being committed to Jewish practices and beliefs, and having been recognised by the Jewish Agency, they still have not been recognised by the Interior Ministry of Israel as Jews due to the fact that they did not convert under Orthodox rabbis.
However, the Chief Rabbi of the Abayudaya, Gershom Sizomu, was educated from 2003-2008 in the US at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in LA and upon graduation was ordained as a Conservative Judaism Rabbi.
There is also now local Jewish Schools, which are welcoming to all faiths. The schools are the Hadassah Primary School and the Semei Kakungulu High School.
The Abayudaya today remain a strong community, committed to their faith.
The Abayudaya or The People of Judah practice Judaism and are found in the villagers of Putti in Mbale district, Uganda.
The group owes its origin to Muganda military leader Semei Kakungulu. Originally, Kakungulu was converted to Christianity by British missionaries around 1880. He believed that the British would allow him to be king of the territories, Bukedi and Bugisu, which he had conquered in battle for them. However, when the British limited his territory to a significantly smaller size and refused to recognize him as king as they had promised, Kakungulu began to distance himself from them. In 1913, he became a member of the Bamalaki sect, a sect which followed a belief system that combined elements of Christianity, Judaism and Christian Science, most notably, a refusal to use western medicine (based on a few sentences taken from the Old Testament). This led to conflict with the British when the Bamalaki refused to vaccinate their cattle. However, upon further study of the Bible, Kakungulu came to believe that the customs and laws described in the first 5 books of Moses (Torah) were really true. When, in 1919, Kakungulu insisted on circumcision as prescribed in the Old Testament, the Bamalaki refused and told him that, if he practised circumcision, he would be like the Jews. Kakungulu responded, “Then, I am a Jew!” He circumcised his sons and himself and declared that his community was Jewish.
He fled to the foot of Mt. Elgon and settled in a place called Gangama where he started a separatist sect known as Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda (the Community of Jews who trust in the Lord).” The British were infuriated by this action and they effectively severed all ties with him and his followers.
The arrival of a foreign Jew known as “Yosef” in 1920 whose ancestral roots are believed to have been European, contributed much towards the community’s acquisition of knowledge about the seasons in which Jewish Festivals such as Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot, and others take place. A source in the Abayudaya community confirms that the first Jew to visit the community was Yosef, who stayed with and taught the community for about six months, and would appear to have first brought the Jewish calendar to the Abayudaya community.
Furthermore, the laws concerning Kashrut were first introduced to the community by Yosef. The community continues to practice kashrut today. Yosef’s teachings influenced Semei 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 obtained from Yosef.
After Kakungulu’s death from tetanus in 1928, Samson Mugombe Israeli, one of his disciples, became the spiritual leader of the community. They isolated themselves for self-protection and survived persecution, including that of Idi Amin, who outlawed Jewish rituals and destroyed synagogues. During the persecutions of Idi Amin, some of the Abayudaya community converted to either Christianity or Islam in the face of religious persecution. A core group of roughly 300 members remained, however, committed to Judaism, worshipping secretly, fearful that they would be discovered by their neighbors and reported to the authorities. This group later named itself “She’erit Yisrael” the Remnant of Israel — meaning the surviving (Ugandan) Jews.
In 1962, Arye Oded, an Israeli studying at Makerere University, visited the Abayudaya and met Samson Mugombe. This was the first time the Abayudaya had ever met an Israeli and the first Jew they had met since Yosef. Oded had many long interviews with Mugombe and other leaders and explained to them how Jews in Israel practised Judaism. Oded then wrote a book (“Religion and Politics in Uganda,”) and numerous articles on the community and their customs which introduced them to world Jewry. The community underwent a revival in the 1980s.
“Approximately 400 Abayudaya community members were formally converted by five rabbis of the Conservative branch of Judaism in February 2002
The Abayudaya of Uganda