The diversity of religious associations in Uganda is so great to an extent that the existence of some religions is just news to a lot of people. An instance of such religions is the Abayudaya, the native Baganda Jews, also consisting of Bagwere and Basoga.
Abayudaya is a Luganda term to mean “People of Judah” and according to the Bible, this was a name for the Children of Israel. The Abayudaya are a devout sect of Judaism followers observing Shabbat and as well have a version of Kashrut. They are a community most of whom are found in Eastern Uganda, on Nabugoye Hill near Mbale town and owe their existence to Semei Kakungulu, a former collaborator of the British colonial regime.
In 1913, Semei Kakungulu, who had been disappointed by the British for not granting him the honors of kingship after his conquests over Bukedi and Bugisu, got so distant thus starting up a sect of the Bamalaki, which combined elements of Judaism and Christianity and refused to use Western medicine, a move which made him fall out with the colonial masters.
In 1919, Kakungulu insisted on the practice of circumcision; which the rest of the Bamalaki were opposed to. Going ahead with his move, he circumcised his sons and led a separatist faction which got merged into full Judaism. He is said to have settled at Gangama, at the foot of Mt. Elgon and called his group “Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda” (The Community of Jews who trust in the Lord).
The year 1920 saw the Abayudaya start to advance in knowledge and get more followers with the arrival of a foreign Jew referred to as “Yosef”. Yosef is believed to have taught the Abayudaya about the Jewish doctrines, seasons and festivals, as well as introduced to them the Jewish calendar.
By 1970, the numbers of the Abayudaya had greatly increased to an approximation of 3,000 followers. Sadly though, it wasn’t long before Idi Amin came into power and what followed this was the persecution of all Jewish communities through forbidding all their rituals and the destruction of synagogues. Because of this their numbers greatly dropped as many were forced to convert to other religions, and a remnant of about 300 members continued worshipping in secret. Basing on the Jewish teachings, this group named itself “”She’erit Yisrael”” translated as “the remnant of Israel” to mean the survivors.
The contemporary situation however, tells a different story of the Abayudaya as they have gained a more pronounced sense of identity and their number currently stands at around 2,000. With the freedom of worship that the government guarantees, more synagogues and tabernacles have been constructed. This development is attributed not only to the community of worshippers, but also the foreign aid from fellow Jewish believers.
At present, the synagogue Rabbis (teachers) employ four main languages for instruction and these are: Luganda, Lusoga, Lugwere and Hebrew. The majority are Bagwere while their Basoga counterparts come from Namutumba.
Apart from Nabugoye hill and Namutumba, other synagogues are found in the village of Namanyoyi (Mbale), Nasenyi and Putti (Pallisa District) making them a total of five in Eastern Uganda. In Kampala, the Jewish Orthodox Synagogue has also been established.
Following the Old Testament teachings, Abayudaya attend their Shabbat services on Friday and Saturday evenings, remove their shoe when entering the synagogues and ritually slaughter their animals. They also like music and look at it as a significant facet in their existence; their songs combine both native languages and Hebrew.
Uganda’s Judaism holds a record of having the first native-born black rabbi in Sub-Saharan Africa –Gershom Sizomu. As the years advance, Uganda’s Jewish community has received a remarkable sense of acceptance and approval even from those who once mocked it.
By Enid Karen Nabumati