In the small village of Nabugoye, 224 km east of the capital Kampala near Mbale town, is a synagogue with lush gardens at its frontyard.
This is the Stern Synagogue, East African headquarters of the Abayudaaya (meaning “Jews” in the local dialect) community. It is a minority group of Ugandans who profess Judaism.
I visited the synagogue on a Saturday, marked as Sabbath (Sabato) – a day it is supposed to be open for prayers – but there was minimal activity due to the Covid-19 restrictions that have kept prayerhouses under lock and key.
The air was crisp and clear; the only sounds were of cocks crowing in the distance, birdsong and the happy voices of five children rehearsing some dance moves. They are members of the Abayudaya Community Choir whose compilation album, Abayudaya: The Music of the Jewish People of Uganda, was nominated in 2005 for a Grammy for Best Traditional World Music Album.
“We call ourselves Jews because Jews and Judaism are inseparable. They belong to the tribe of Judah and practice Judaism,” says Rabbi Gershom Wambedde, leader of the Abayudaya in Uganda.
A former MP for Bungokho North County in Mbale, Wambedde is the first – and only – rabbi of the Abayudaya, in sub-Saharan Africa.
Wambedde was ordained in 2009 after completing a four-year course in rabbinic studies at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, California.
“After my ordination, the Abayudaya community of Uganda was recognised by the Jewish Agency for Israel, an organisation that certifies communities outside Israel as Jewish,” Wambedde said, adding that the government only recognises the Abayudaya as an NGO although Uganda’s 1995 constitution gives freedom of worship and rights to belong to any religious group.
“That recognition is important for us because Israel because Judaism started in Israel, it’s our Mecca. Besides, it’s also the only country that speaks Hebrew, the language in which the Bible we read is written,” Rabbi Wambedde said.
The Abayudaya community offers free medical services at its Tobin Health Centre in Mbale and free education for children from disadvantaged families regardless of their religious beliefs.
“Judaism is not mandatory in our schools. We only teach those interested in religion. In fact, we don’t preach outside our community because our tradition is against preaching. We believe that faith is spiritual, not physical. You cannot guess someone’s faith or his inner feelings,” said Mr Konkodi, caretaker of the Stern Synagogue in Mbale.
The Abayudaya keep the Sabaath, mark New Year’s Day, in September (dates vary) and in place of Christmas, they celebrate Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) as the most holy for Judaists.
The Abayudaya community was founded by Semei Kakungulu, a Buganda Kingdom army general-turned British collaborator more than a century ago.
One day is 1919, Gen. Kakungulu, who renounced Christianity after falling out with his British colonialists, founded his own religious sect with teachings solely based on the Book of Malachi.
Perhaps this explains why the Abayudaya community has grown at snail’s pace since its inception over a century ago. In Uganda, believers are only about between 2,000 and 3,000 followers, according to Mr Konkodi.
Not a religion for many
“Judaism is not a religion for many people even though it’s the mother of Christianity and Islam. Christianity and Islam grew in numbers because they were built on missionary work to convert. Judaism is not advertised; people find it and decide whether to join us or not,” said Wambedde.”
The Abayudaya community has only eight worship centres, including the one in Kampala’s suburb of Bunga, with a membership of about 60.
There are two synagogues each in Namutumba and Kibuku, and one each in Mukono, Pallisa, and Apac. Nabugoye remains the most populous with 300 worshippers.
In the region, there is one worship centre in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County in Kenya, one in Tanzania and one in Madagascar, according to Wambedde.
Nigeria has 60 synagogues but the number of those who practice Judaism is unknown. He said “Other Judaism communities in Africa are not recognised in Israel because none of them have an ordained rabbi,” said Wambedde, adding that he is currently working with the Nigerian communities to help them have at least one ordained rabbi.