UNVEILED: Abayudaya, The 100 year-old African Jewish community in Uganda

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Abayudaya Mbale

Abayudaya is a small Jewish community in Uganda of about 3,000 people located near the town of Mbale in Eastern Uganda, who go about their daily activities while committed to traditional Judaism.

Spread among six villages surrounding Mbale, Abayudaya community which was founded by Semei Kakungulu, embraced Judaism after reading a Bible, and celebrated 100 years of its founding last year. 

According to report, Kakungulu, who was a guerilla leader, chief, border warlord, British ally in military campaigns and an elephant hunter was converted into Christianity in the 1880’s by a Protestant missionary who also taught him how to read the Bible in Swahili.

He gradually began rejecting all the forms of biblical religion that had been introduced to him and started focusing more on the Hebrew Bible and Judaism.

 By 1919, Kakungulu, who was then one of the toughest soldiers the British ever hired to fight their colonization wars in Uganda, became a self-proclaimed Jew, an Omuyudaya.

He had decided to concentrate more on his faith after falling out with the British, especially when they did not grant him his ambition of becoming the first King of Busoga Kingdom (one of five constitutional monarchies in present-day Uganda).

Kakungulu began having followers and producing children. These children also raised Jewish-identified children, who ultimately met white Jews. These white Jews then helped the Abayudaya (which translates as “People of Judah”) become more universally accepted as Jewish, according to a report.

But things turned sour for the Abayudaya after the death of Kakungulu in 1928. Apart from leadership struggles and disagreements over theology, the Abayudaya began facing persecution in the 1970’s under the regime of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Several hundred thousand people were believed to have been killed during the eight-year regime of Amin, who has since been renowned for the wrong reasons.

Famously anti-Semitic, Amin, right after coming to power, outlawed Judaism from Uganda and destroyed all the synagogues in the country, including the first Namutumba synagogue that was built in 1919, a report by Jewish Museum London said.

Under his nightmarish regime, the Abayudaya had to hold services in caves and bushes until Amin was overthrown and freedom of religion was restored in the country, the report added.

In 1979, the same year he was toppled, a new Namutumba synagogue was built for Abayudaya worship services. From then, the Abayudaya started gaining financial and religious support from emissaries, who even paid for Gershom Sizomu Wambedde, now the Chief Rabbi of the Abayudaya, to travel to America to train to be a rabbi.

While in America, Wambedde, who was also a Ugandan member of parliament, met the president of the United States before coming back to lead his people and then contest to enter his country’s lawmaking house.

Today, the Abayudaya, who are spread among six villages in the area surrounding Mbale, go about their daily activities while committed to traditional Judaism.

Still not well known in Uganda, they observe the Jewish day of rest (the Sabbath), ritual slaughter, read Torah on Mondays and Thursdays, and study text regularly. The community has also established two schools — the Hadassah Primary School and the Semei Kakungulu High School — to enable the youth to learn Hebrew and Judaism.

Recently, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the largest Jewish non-profit organization in the world, unconditionally recognized the Abayudaya as Jewish. Still, the Interior Ministry of Israel is yet to recognize the Abayudaya as Jews largely because they did not convert under Orthodox rabbis.

Most of the Abayudaya were officially converted between 2002 and 2008 under the auspices of US Conservative rabbis, according to a 2018 report, and began making gradual progress in their connections with Israel in 2018 when they sent their first group of young people to Israel for a Birthright trip. Following that development, an Israel High Court agreed to hear a petition from an Abayudaya man who was denied Israeli citizenship, the following year.

Although they may not be recognized as Jewish by Israel’s chief rabbinate, they should automatically be eligible for citizenship, according to the Law of Return.

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Africh Royale

Africh Royale

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