14.06.2010 - 14.06.2010 28 °C
Ugandan Jewry of Mbale
14th June, 2010
We meet a young Australian female Lawyer working for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra and over breakfast hear about the International War Crimes 4000 strong conference she has just attended in Kampala. We invite her to join us to visit a local weaving workshop -also owned by 2 Australian women. It was so interesting to see the weavers in action and to talk to the designer. Didn't have a tablecloth to suit our tables so left empty handed. We dropped her off at the hotel and proceeded on the 2 ½ hour journey to Mbale, and to the Abuyudaya, a Bantu Jewish community living in the remote hills outside the city of Mbale.
We laughed with Joseph as David demonstrated his GPS to him. He was astounded at its function and accuracy and commented that the USD$150 to purchase this 'talking clever map' would be equivalent to 2 months salary for him.
We really did not know what to expect from this shlepp, but David was willing to indulge my curiosity and go with the real unknown. My email contact with the headmaster of the Hadassah school and the Rabbi of the community had been erratic and slow in response, and I perceived that this would be reflective of the entire visit we were to make here. Getting there with no directions was also part of the challenge, and here again , I was so relieved that Joseph was with us to ask and to search and to negotiate the very busy main tarred road and the extreme 4x4 country road winding up a dirt mountain to the gates of the community.
Rural Africa has a remarkably consistent look and feel. Whether in South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania or Rwanda or now Uganda, one can see the same mud huts, the same barefoot children, the identical dusty haze, scrawny chickens , churches , MTN network stalls and woman and children carrying water on their backs or heads. We have been lulled into a sense of sameness as we have journeyed through these African lands. That was until today .In the shadow of Mt Elgon, in Eastern Uganda was a shul, a Jewish school and kippot -wearing adults, with biblical and Hebrew names. We have found the villages of the Abayudaya (literally meaning 'the Jews' in the local tongue of Luganda) Here amidst this 1200 strong community, Judaism flourishes , and this tight knit group of people practice a set of traditions and laws once observed thousands of years ago by the followers of Moses in North Africa. In a sense the Abayudaya have reconnected Judaism with its African roots. We stepped out the car and within minutes a smiling young woman, called out “Shalom” and introduced herself as Shoshana- a 21 year old Jewess, wife and mother of Emmunah- and another woman, Yael, who turned out to be her mother-in-law, warmly welcomed us and thanked us for coming here. We were shown to the guest house, which has a basic communal room and gift shop scattered with Hebrew and prayer books, and then a few bedrooms ,sparsely furnished, but looking relatively clean -probably not even a one star rating!. This will certainly be a change from the Sheraton We also asked about our driver, and they without hesitation said they would accommodate him along the passage. He ,we think, cannot believe us, and we are sure is hugely puzzled by this entire trip he has driven us on. They rushed to make the beds whilst we spoke to Alex from Ghana, who is a Yeshiva bocher(student) doing his time for the third time, here in Uganda. He returns to his own Ghanian Jewish community- of about 86- in December , bringing with him the knowledge he gained here. He also commented that a few people from his home would we coming here in the week to sit before the Beth Din- the rabbinical court- for their conversions. The Sabbath, Shabbat , Jewish festivals and holidays are all observed with passion and commitment and there is a very definite sense of continuity here- everyone we spoke to would only consider marrying a Jewish spouse.
We then went on a tour of the Synagogue, the Beit Midrash- learning centre- and High school with about 350 kids- not all Jewish as it caters for the local children as well. They are the only paying students, whilst the Jewish children in both primary and high school don't pay and are funded by outside donors-there didn't seem to be any evidence of sponsorships or donations. Yaakov met us in the shul, which had a few siddurim- prayer books- and a few Torahs and he too is studying to become a Rabbi. I couldn't help but feel like I was in another world, and when the kids names of Rachel, Natan and Aaron were said, it just added to this crazy feeling. Shoshana spent the afternoon with us. She was born into this community and knows no other way, other than being Jewish and proud of it. She is married to a Jewish man and they are both students in Kampala. They are back home for a while and assist in the community. They will return for the next Semester, taking 18 month old Emmunah with them. We ended in the Hadassah Primary school, sitting in the only administrative office, with the Principal , Aaron Kinti. What a lovely humble man with so many challenges and difficulties to deal with. We had a great discussion with him about his school, the teachers and kids- 293 kids, most of whom are boarders. The classrooms are as basic as can be, and with extremely limited resources he and his staff educate these kids. About 60 kids average to a class , with few books , no electricity, 1 computer (which is in his office) no recreational space, just muddy sandy courtyards, and grossly underpaid teachers earning USD$60.00 per month, this school manages to be the “number one school in the district” How, is difficult to imagine, and we discussed his priorities for making this a better place for these children to learn. A hall, library ,books and a girls dormitory were some of his wish list(we didn't see the living place for the 130 kids who board there), as well as the development of their small egg business and feed for the chickens. Things we take so for granted in our world, are such rarities in his. An unexpected huge rainstorm- creating a mud bath around the school- had us 'locked' in his office and the discussions of Pesach- Passover- and matzah- which they occasionally receive from USA or they make their own from metoka cooked and dried bananas-, wine making- I promised to share my recipe and tips if they should ever get the vines established- and grape growing- something he doesn't believe is possible here. We also offered to try and improve their website, which is 'out of order' and PR so as to encourage interest, visitors, volunteers and funding into his school. I also agreed to try and assist them to link up with our community school in Perth and I will make every effort to get them some student and teacher resources. He was so delighted with our chat and so excited at the possibility of some help. I also asked him about living here as a Jew under the Amin regime. He told us of the difficulties that they endured to practice as Jews and that indeed services were held in private and secret ,in a local cave. His father had also been arrested for being Jewish and he was called a pagan at school. There is very definite evidence of their steadfast beliefs and their desire to maintain their religious identities as Jews at all costs. The Rabbi is unfortunately not here at the moment and will be back later in the week which is when they are also planning to reopen a public clinic in Mbale- free for Jewish patients- which has been sponsored by an American Jew. We hope to visit the clinic on our way to the border town of Busia in the morning. It had been a really interesting afternoon.
I am currently in our simple room writing this blog, and David in the last 20 minutes has killed about 15 mosquitoes. We will definitely be using the net above our bed tonight. We asked about dinner- quite sheepishly- and were even offered a choice, which has landed up being sweet potato, fish -Tilapia from the Nile- and beans. Not sure what we are in for, but a unique experience we are assured of. David has just left to sit in the dining room/lounge
Dinner was served by Yitzchak, who attended Hotel School for 2 years and was delicious , fish in a tomato sauce, rice, sweet potato and beans served with avo slices and a bottle of water. Our driver Joseph also ate with us. We have purchased a few kippot- skullcaps- which are knitted locally as well as 2 CD's, also locally produced,of some Synagogue melodies. Its raining again and hopefully we will meet the chairman of this community early in the morning before we leave.