18 December 2007

Uganda's Abayudaya

Nathanael of Europe Endless recently posted a few fascinating excerpts from a long interview on Afropop about the Jews of Uganda. Here are a few excerpts of his excerpts.
Now, in contrast to [other Jewish] communities [in Africa], the Abayudaya, which means “Jewish people of Uganda,” proudly reference their conversion to Judaism in the 1920s, stating that they were drawn to Jewish practice by the truth of the Torah, the five books of Moses. Their founder, Semei Kakungulu, was a powerful Ganda leader, and he considered Christianity and Islam, and then according to community elders, said, “Why should I follow the shoots when I could have the root.”

Presently, the Abayudaya number of approximately 750 people, and live in villages surrounding Mbale in eastern Uganda. Many members scrupulously follow Jewish ritual, observe the laws of the Sabbath, celebrate Jewish holidays, keep kosher, and pray in Hebrew. Since the community’s original self conversion, and through the difficult period of Idi Amin’s rule in the 1970s, the Abayudaya have been distinguished by their commitment to following mainstream Jewish practice, an approach that’s been amplified since their increased contact with Jews from North America and Israel since the mid-1990s.…

I’ll tell one story. I was with the community in 2002, right before their official conversion, and the discussions in the community were really interesting at that point, because here were people who had practiced as Jews, many for four generations. I was sitting in a meeting of the Abayudaya Leadership Council, and one member said, “I have a question. We are talking about conversion here, but I’m Jewish, my father was Jewish, my grandfather was Jewish. Can you tell me exactly what I am converting to?” And the leadership, Gershom Sizomu and J.J. Keki, were very thoughtful here. They said, “We understand. We are not saying that we’re not Jewish. But there are formalities that need to be practiced in order for us to be recognized by world Jewry.” So the community decided not to call this a “conversion.” Internally, they called it a “confirmation” of their Judaism. They were confirming their Jewish identity, but they felt that they had been Jewish since the initial conversion by Semei Kakungulu in the early 1920s....

In many ways, Kakungulu’s self conversion to Judaism was an act of rejection of the British. A rejection of the British. A rejection of colonialism. It was Kakungulu and his followers saying, “No longer will we followed your directions here. We are going to follow our own spiritual path.” The British didn’t know what to make of Kakungulu’s Judaism. The book to read on this is Michael Twaddle’s book, “Kakungulu and the Creation of Uganda—1868 to 1928.” But basically, Kakungulu’s adoption of Judaism was very much him going off on his own path, not only religiously but politically, asserting his separation from the British, who were totally identified with the Anglican Church.

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