The Abayudaya of Uganda have been Jewish since a colonial-era chieftain decided to follow the five books of Moses. A century later, a descendant of those African Jews became a rabbi and ran for parliament. Part 1 of 2.
Mar 28, 2011
It is unbearable to see once again—in spite of the lessons of so many African countries—African politicians fashioning the very instruments by which they and their countries are in the end destroyed.
—V.S. Naipaul, in a letter written from Kampala in 1966
It is election time in Uganda, and the boxy plastic television set in my room in the provincial city of Mbale, four hours east of Kampala, is humming with ads, nearly all of them for Yoweri Museveni, the president for the past 24 years. Museveni is up for another five-year term in office, and his ads mimic the slow-mo camerawork of a Ken Burns documentary—pans and zooms of images of the besuited leader flipping the switch at power plants and pumping wells and unlocking medicine cabinets, all backed by Louis Armstrong’s version of “What a Wonderful World.” His signature flourish is a light khaki boonie hat with a drawstring and a wide brim, which gives his shiny oval head the aspect of a haloed icon. He’s been telling his supporters at campaign rallies across the country to “vote the old man with the hat.” The country and its capital have been plastered with yellow posters of his beatific smile and watchful, unblinking eyes.
What a wonderful world indeed! More than half of Uganda’s 34 million people have known no other leader. The other half knew Idi Amin. A local newspaper declares, straight-faced, that “Spirits predict 87 percent victory” for Museveni’s National Resistance Movement. His TV ad closes on the slogan “Why change?”
The mototaxi boda boys sitting under a frangipani tree on a median in Mbale had just finished something resembling a conference on the pitcher’s mound about the location of the people I had come to see: a small community of Ugandan Jews who live in the hills outside Mbale and who call themselves the Abayudaya. Some of the boys pointed me one way, some in the opposite direction. Then I placed my palm on my head to make the universal sign for Jew. “Oh!” said a boda in a striped Oxford shirt that—like most of Uganda’s clothes—used to belong to an American. “People of the very small hats!” Off we went on his Chinese-made motorcycle down the last of the town’s tarmac, past the municipal town council, and onto red dusty roads rising through coffee and plantain patches, in search of the Abayudaya and their leader, a man who in what can be seen as a late fulfillment of one early version of the Zionist dream, is the first native African-born rabbi to run for parliament in Uganda.
I’d heard about the rabbi because he had used Facebook a few months earlier to make an international appeal for campaign funds to support his candidacy. According to accounts I read, the Abayudaya are, variously, an exotic spiritual flowering, “one of the world’s least-known Jewish communities,” or proof of God’s mystery and the reach of his hand. Led by the diminutive, charismatic, and spiritually endowed Rabbi Gershom Sizomu Wambedde, they are irresistible to the U.S.-based organizations that in the name of Jewish diversity and brotherly feeling support “emerging,” “historic,” or “lost” communities of Jews around the world. A magnet for Jewish charity, Sizomu has celebrated Hanukkah at the White House with President George W. Bush and now has his sights set on becoming the spiritual leader of the Jews of Africa and a power broker in his own country.
In his trading-card-sized campaign flyers (and posters and silk-screened T-shirts, on which misaligned color printing makes his image seem like it should be viewed in 3D), the rabbi looks as if he were posing for a junior-college basketball team’s yearbook-photo—eyes at the lens, flat nose spread over a youthful-looking dusting of mustache hairs. His white shirt is a neck-size too large under a dark suitcoat and tie, but his blue crocheted kippa, with decorative white trim, nestles perfectly over the shaven round expanse of his crown. He seeks election to parliament from the Bungokho North constituency on the list of the opposition FDC party, which is led by presidential candidate Dr. Kissa Besigye, whose sign is the two-fingered V of victory and whose slogan is “One People! One Uganda!” According to his flyer, Sizomu is “For: Community Development and Provision of Accessible Social Services,” meaning food, health, wells, mosquito nets, and maybe transport to a market, a chance to go to school, a little dignity, a small platform on which to build a tiny castle of happiness.
The Abayudaya—perhaps as many as 5,000 at their peak and as few as 50 at their nadir under Idi Amin—trace the origins of their religious affiliation to an extraordinary African chieftain, elephant hunter, warrior king, and colonial agent named Semei Kakungulu, who in 1917, or 1919, or 1920, depending on the source, perhaps following a visit from a trader from Jerusalem, or after encounters with Jewish rail engineers, or in reaction to political slights and rivalries, or because of his refusal to be inoculated, or sometime after he was circumcised, which may have been in 1880 or any time after that (although one of his wives testified that he was not circumcised)—decided to reject all the forms of biblical religion that had been introduced to him by turn-of-the-century English Protestant and French Catholic missionaries for his own textual interpretation of the first five books of Moses, which made him (and his followers and later their descendants) something very close to Jews.
Kakungulu garnered followers and begat children, who raised Jewish-identified children, who eventually met white Jews who helped the Abayudaya become more universally accepted as Jewish. Emissaries brought religious, financial, and material support from abroad and paid for Gershom Sizomu Wambedde, the grandson of one of the chief’s first followers, to travel to America to train to be a rabbi, meet the president of the United States, and run for parliament in Africa.
Over the week in February that I watch Sizomu’s campaign, he spends most of his time swapping cell phones and speaking to his supporters, solicitors, and workers across the district of 120,000 people. Gershom is shuttled over dusty roads to rallies in villages and on school patios and then back to his headquarters in the yard outside his 4-room home in Nabugoye, a village perched atop Kakungulu’s hills. His candidacy is shaping up to be a significant challenge to the one-term incumbent, a Muslim named Yahaya Gudoi Wojje who lives in the opposite corner of the district. The Jews number no more than 1,500, but Sizomu expects votes from Muslims and Christians who want a taste of the relative prosperity that Sizomu has brought to the Abayudaya. To hear the Abayudaya tell it, Wojje has a reputation for general inaction and a taste for the luxuries of the capital. Accusations and counter-accusations of religious smears, intimidation, and Jewish land grabs have been flying throughout the bruising campaign.
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