Mbale, Uganda

Abayudaya: Bantu Jews

In five villages around Mbale, three hours east of Uganda's capital city, Kampala, tucked in the foothills of the stunning Mt. Elgon, members of an 80 year-old Bantu Jewish community sing Hebrew prayers at the Moses Synagogue on Nabugoye Hill. In 1919, Samei Kakingulu, one of Uganda's most renowned elephant hunters and a Chief in the Buganda tribe of the Bantu, decided to embrace Judaism after studying the Old Testament. He rejected Jesus, circumcised himself and his sons, and wrote a guide to Judaism that he distributed to many followers. 

With his encouragement, over three thousand of his followers converted and formed a community of Abayudaya which means "descendants of Judah" in the local Luganda language. Kakingulu founded the town of Mbale and deputized teachers, called Abawereza, to teach Jewish law, based on his own understanding of the Old Testament and bits of information learned from the few Jews he met during his lifetime. 

Since Kakingulu's time, the Abayudaya have worn head coverings, refused to work on Shabbat, and have only eaten meat that has been slaughtered in accordance with the Jewish tradition. During prayer services some men wear a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl), and some have made mezuzot (Hebrew parchment scroll fixed to the doorpost, usually in a metal or wooden case) to place on the doorposts of their homes. Today the Abayudaya follow the same holidays as Western Jews, praying sometimes in Hebrew and other times in Luganda. From Nabugoye Hill, community members sing Hebrew psalms and Luganda Old Testament translations, employing African melodies and rhythms that pour over the Abayudaya living on the hillsides. 

Life as a Jew in Uganda has never been easy. The Abayudya's neighbors used to chastise them, accusing them, the Jews, of "killing Christ," an inaccurate charge that has historically been leveled against the Jewish people. Dictator Idi Amin did not favor Israel and during his time the Abayudaya hid their practices, worshipping in private to avoid persecution. Like most other Ugandans, the Abayudaya still live in poverty, without running water or electricity, but recent contact with American organizations has provided them with Jewish education and materials. Though the community's numbers have shrunk to five hundred, its faith has not dwindled. The Jewish spirit of Kakungulu remains strong in the eastern mountains of Uganda. 

In February of 2002 a delegation of Conservative Rabbis from the United States performed a Rabbinic "conversion" ceremony for over three hundred members of the community. The Abayudaya, who had been calling themselves Jews for nearly eighty years, were enthusiastic about what they called their "confirmation." 

Jay Sand visited the Abayudaya in December 1999 and again in November 2002, and presents them in vivid text and photographs in Scattered Among the Nations.


An Abayudaya woman wears a traditional, brightly-colored Ugandan dress.

An Abayudaya woman wears a traditional, brightly-colored Ugandan dress.

Samson Magombe is the ninety year-old former spiritual leader of the Abayudaya community. After community founder, Semei Kakungulu, died in the late 1920s, young Magombe became "Rabbi" of the community, leading prayer services at the Namanyonyi synagogue and teaching generations of Abayudaya children about Judaism. In 1976, Idi Amin became dictator of Uganda and forbade practice of Judaism, frightening members of the Abayudaya community into either conversion or hiding. Two thousand five-hundred of the three thousand Abayudaya converted to Christianity and Islam, and the remaining five hundred continued to practice in private, lighting candles in their homes rather than in synagogue, reciting the Shema in a whisper. After Amin was overthrown in 1979 the Abayudaya emerged from hiding to practice once again in public.

Samson Magombe is the ninety year-old former spiritual leader of the Abayudaya community. After community founder, Semei Kakungulu, died in the late 1920s, young Magombe became "Rabbi" of the community, leading prayer services at the Namanyonyi synagogue and teaching generations of Abayudaya children about Judaism. In 1976, Idi Amin became dictator of Uganda and forbade practice of Judaism, frightening members of the Abayudaya community into either conversion or hiding. Two thousand five-hundred of the three thousand Abayudaya converted to Christianity and Islam, and the remaining five hundred continued to practice in private, lighting candles in their homes rather than in synagogue, reciting the Shema in a whisper. After Amin was overthrown in 1979 the Abayudaya emerged from hiding to practice once again in public.

Athaliah Deborah and her husband Musenze Pinehas in front of a typical Eastern Ugandan home. The sugar cane behind them is from a nearby field.

Athaliah Deborah and her husband Musenze Pinehas in front of a typical Eastern Ugandan home. The sugar cane behind them is from a nearby field.

The Abayudaya have long knitted their own kippot, which men such as Enosh Keki Mainah wear during religious observances and on other special occasions to show their pride in being part of the community.

The Abayudaya have long knitted their own kippot, which men such as Enosh Keki Mainah wear during religious observances and on other special occasions to show their pride in being part of the community.

Kezikia Bumba, eighty year old President of the Abayudaya Men's Club, was one of the first converts to Judaism in the hills surrounding Mbale, Uganda, in the 1920s. Bumba learned about Judaism from the community's founder, Semei Kakungulu, and passed his knowledge to younger Abayudaya as a religious instructor and prayer leader. Today Kezikia Bumba still practices the Judaism Kakungulu taught him, blending Hebrew prayer with songs and chants in Luganda, the local language. Bumba works as a welder, and in his spare time welds menorahs for his Abayudaya neighbors.

Kezikia Bumba, eighty year old President of the Abayudaya Men's Club, was one of the first converts to Judaism in the hills surrounding Mbale, Uganda, in the 1920s. Bumba learned about Judaism from the community's founder, Semei Kakungulu, and passed his knowledge to younger Abayudaya as a religious instructor and prayer leader. Today Kezikia Bumba still practices the Judaism Kakungulu taught him, blending Hebrew prayer with songs and chants in Luganda, the local language. Bumba works as a welder, and in his spare time welds menorahs for his Abayudaya neighbors.