In 1917, a sect led by Semei Kakungulu, a Ugandan military general, developed a religious belief that included practice close to Judaism. The genesis of Kakungulu’s transformation is complex, coming as a result of political struggles between the British administration of the time and African tribes that had been converted to various forms of Christianity.
Originally, Kakungulu was converted to Christianity by British missionaries around 1880. He believed that by doing so, the British would allow him to be the chief ruler of the territories he conquered in battle for them. However, when the British limited his territory to a significantly smaller size, Kakungulu began to distance himself from them.
In 1913, he became a Melkite Christian. However, upon further study of the Bible, Kakungulu came to believe that the customs and laws described in the Torah were true.
As a result, Kakungulu rejected the adherence to the New Testament of most of his brethren and, in 1919, demanded the observance of all the “Moses Commandments.” He circumcised his children and gave them Hebrew names including Yuda, Israel, Nimrod, Abraham, Jonah and Miriam. The British were infuriated by this action and they effectively severed all ties with him.
Kakungulu established a community known as the Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda (the “Community of Jews who trust in the Lord”). Eventually, his followers became known as the Abayudaya (“People of Judah” in the native Luganda language). They began to keep kosher to the best of their ability – this included not eating pork and only eating animals they had slaughtered themselves, as well as separating milk and meat. They observed Saturday as the Sabbath (rather than Sunday as in the surrounding Christian community) on which they do no work and do not cook. Kakungulu did, however, permit his male followers to take multiple wives, citing that the patriarch Abraham did so.
Much of the community’s knowledge about Judaism came from a Jewish traveler and merchant named Joseph who visited the community in 1920. Joseph, it is said, came from Europe and taught them about the Jewish holidays and the Jewish calendar. Joseph’s teachings apparently influenced Kakungulu to establish a school that acted as a type of yeshiva. Through Joseph, the Abayudaya deleted any Christian prayers that were still being said, stopped reading the New Testament and baptizing children, and began wearing head coverings. Joseph stayed with the Abayudaya for about six months.
Kakungulu, influenced by Christian Science-like practices among the Malaki, refused to take medicines and would not even immunize the animals he owned. Semei Kakungulu died in 1928 from tetanus, afterward his followers divided into two groups, one that reverted to Christianity and another that strengthened their Jewish practice. They isolated themselves for self-protection and survived persecution, including that of Idi Amin, who outlawed Jewish rituals and destroyed synagogues.
During the persecutions of Idi Amin, some 80–90% of the Abayudaya community converted to either Christianity or Islam in the face of religious persecution. A core group of roughly 300 members remained, but worshipped secretly. This group named itself “She’erit Yisrael” (the Remnant of Israel).
The community has never been large, numbering at most some 3,000 members during its early years. After Idi Amin was deposed, the group increased in numbers, rising to its current level of just over 1,000 people.
The community now has its own Torah and a Conservative rabbi, Gershom Sizomu, who was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) in Los Angeles in 2008. Sizomu, 39, is a fourth-generation Abayudaya. He grew up in Nangolo, a tiny community some five miles from Nabugoye. His grandfather and father before him were spiritual leaders of the community.
About 400 Abayudaya have converted under the auspices of the Conservative movement; another 130 are seeking Orthodox conversion, with an eye towards immigrating to Israel.
Today, most of the community lives around the Moses synagogue on Nabugoye Hill outside Mbale or the nearby synagogue in the village of Namanyoyi. Others live several miles away from Mbale in Nasenyi and Putti. A fifth synagogue is in Magada village (Namutumba District), approximately 70 km away.
The community has two Jewish schools (elementary and high school), a medical clinic, guesthouse and “yeshiva” funded by the Conservative Movement.
The Kulanu organization is perhaps most active in supporting and publicizing the Abayudaya. The group has sent groups of students and Jewish community leaders to Uganda, many of whom have written extensively about their experience.
Here are some links to the articles about the Abayudaya.
The most comprehensive report on the history of Christianity, Islam and the emergence of Judaism in Uganda from the 1880s until today can be found at the Jewish Virtual Library.
Wikipedia has an informative entry with many links.
Photoessayist Richars Sobol (whose photos have appeared in National Geographic, Time, Newsweek and the New York Times Magazine, among others) published a 160-page book on the Abayudaya with some breathtaking photographs. The 2002 book is still available on Amazon.com but at a premium price ($50).
The U.S.’s National Public Radio visited the Abayudaya in 2008 and celebrated Passover with the group. Their radio report is here.
An article by Hilary Leila Krieger in the Jerusalem Post in 2005 quotes Conservative movement leader Andy Sachs after his visit to Uganda. One cute anecdote: after the community learned the custom of holding a wedding under a chupah, they gave it a local touch by using tall canes of sugar to hold up the canopy. “Afterwards, they chopped up the poles and gave the sweet pieces out to children, much like other Jews throw candy to kids to celebrate a bar mitzvah,” Krieger writes. The article is here. (This version is hard to read; here’s a clearer link on the Kulanu website.
There’s another story in the Jerusalem Post (originally published in the Jerusalem Report) on Sizomu.
The main Kulanu page on the Abayudaya is here.
Kulanu has put together a nice slideshow with images from the Abayudaya.
The community has been extensively documented in video. Here are some links on YouTube:
School children singing Hebrew songs including HaTikva, the Israeli national anthem.
Kids singing Oseh Shalom.
Lecha Dodi – Uganda style (an original African melody).
Music from the Abayudaya can be purchased here.
Will Galperin has produced a 22-minute documentary on his 6-week stay in Mbale, Uganda, which also includes a portrayal of the Abayudaya.