Archive | October, 2013

Bucketlist Aventure with a blessing: My journey to The Abayudaya Community of Uganda.

1 Oct

Bucketlist Aventure with a blessing: My journey to The Abayudaya Community of Uganda..

Bucketlist Aventure with a blessing: My journey to The Abayudaya Community of Uganda.

1 Oct



So part of my bucket list adventures, was to visit the Abayudaya community in Uganda. I first came across the community after my conversion in 2011. I was introduced to a number of sites that were made for Jews of colour whether convertees or of heritage. The first site, which I loved the name, was, (Jews of colour), another was Be’chol Lashon. I looked at the different communities that ere part of it and was intrigued to find that there were many Jewish (black) communities on the African continent. I was obviously intrigued to find an active community in Uganda. I remember writing to the Rabbi to introduce myself and said that he next time I was in Uganda; I would try and visit them. This year whilst working on the Jewish community radio station, Chaifm, I got the chance to interview Rabbi Gershom from the same community. I was so excited, the interview went well and after I promised to visit his community on my next trip to Uganda.

So when making the alternative plans for my Gorilla: Bucketlist adventure, I decided to add this to the trip as well. Looking at the dates, I realised that my dates fell on the festival of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, what a blessing.


After arriving back in Kampala from my Gorilla excursion, I rested for one night then the following morning, a wonderful man by the name of Isaak collected me and we set off on our three hour trip to the eastern part of Uganda, near a town called Mbale.

Isaak runs the guesthouse and grew up in the Abayudaya community. He comes to Kampala on the odd occasion for work and supplies but prefers to stay with the community, as Judaism is not widely spread throughout Kampala.

The trip was quite interesting as Isaac had so many questions about South Africa, the crime, politics etc. It was quite refreshing as normally people ask me about my Judaism and why I had chosen to follow and my upbringing. In our discussions, I gushed about the positive aspects of our country but was honest and frank about the negative attributes. He was particularly concerned at our high rate of crime and rape and protection of women and said he would pray that the South African women would be able to find peace at some point. Along the way we stopped and collected such supplies such as vegetable, toiletries etc., being aware that the meat and poultry is slaughtered on the premises and is kept under strict Kashrut laws.

Kashrut: The set of Jewish dietary laws, among the many laws, it included the prohibitions on the consumption of unclean animals such as pork, mixture of meat and milk and the commandment to slaughter animals in a specific way.


The road was a long straight road with a few potholes but not as bumpy and adventurous as the journey to Kisoro. We arrived at the vibrant bustling town of Mbale. Mbale is a small busy town, not as much traffic as Kampala but a town reflecting that of many other East African towns.


We then ventured into the hills, where the landscape changed tremendously, there was more greenery, the homes were spaced out and there was a stronger sense of a community. We continued into the hills and finally found ourselves at the foot of a gate and at the top of the hill I saw the Star of David, I realised we had arrived.

On arrival, Isaak showed me to my dorm. I opted for a dorm room with the hope that there would be other travellers and I could then be able to share experiences with them. There are private rooms as well. For a mere $30 per day, I had my own bunk, unfortunately I didn’t have anyone sharing my room but there were other travellers staying and visiting for Rosh Hashanah.  I met a young Israeli guy, who decided to explore Africa and like my Portuguese travellers from the gorilla trek, he started with Uganda. His next stop was going to Kisoro then to Kenya, the Ethiopia. He said at some point he would make hi s way to SA.

There was an American couple, Diane and Paul who had been working for he Peace Corps for many years and was stationed in Kampala; Diane was on sabbatical doing her PHD. What interesting stories they had of their travels and phenomenal work that they had done over the years. I was impressed with Diane’s packing savvy, she was the consummate traveller, from having a micro-coffee filter designed for travel, a baked a round Challah (bread), for our special dinner. I managed to keep in touch with Diane and Paul as they came down to SA over Sukkot and I took them to service at my synagogue, I hope to keep relations going. It’s always a great pleasure meeting genuine, good-hearted individuals.

There was another lady form the US who had also taking a sabatacal to help out with the medical fraternity in Mbale.


Back to the community! On my arrival and the sheer excitement I had finally made it there, I decided to go explore. I found the synagogue where all the services would take place and next to the synagogue is where the school is situated.

The whole area looks over the beautiful rolling hills of Eastern Uganda. My first friend that I made was a young scholar called Elia. Elia came from Kenya and had been living there for many years. He was studying Torah. He missed his family but said the warmth and love from theta particular community had kept him there. We spoke about religion, life and studies. Like me, Elia was excited about bringing in the New Year.


I took a walk and met a few other people around the village, who were busy rushing around preparing for sunset, which is when we usher in the New Year. I decided to take a nap then shower in preparation for the service staring at 18h00.

At 17h45 I was ready and made my way to the synagogue, by that time, many members of the community had already gathered, all donned in white attire. It is symbolic to wear white during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I met some of the leaders and got introduced to Rabbi’s family. We sat around outside as they sang the made the sot beautiful music, singing along to a guitar all in harmony.

I later discovered that the Abayudaya communities are particularly known for their music.

Music has been an important aspect in the lives of the Abayudaya. In recent years, the community has produced two CDs that are centered on religious themes. In fact, one of the albums, entitled “Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish people of Uganda” produced by Jeffrey Summit was nominated for a BEST TRADITIONAL WORLD MUSIC ABUM at the 47THS GRAMMY AWARDS.

In addition to this, their community has received further recognition and respect within the Jewish community because of the work of Naomi Katz, a Jewish American musician. His 2005 CD, Mirembe (“peace” in Luganda), featured the Abayudaya in the majority of its songs. In addition to studying at a seminary, Katz travels throughout North America, and gives a slideshow/concert, which showcases the music of the Abayudaya.

The music of the Abayudaya is distinctly African yet Jewish at the same time. Many of the songs combined Luganda as well as Hebrew. Additionally, Psalms and prayers are set to a distinctly African tune and rhythm. The community for a variety of reasons views music as important. Some elders of the community have maintained that it was music that enabled the community to persevere through the harsh conditions that it had to endure under the reign of Idi Aman.


Then just before 18h00, Rabbi asked me to announce via a loud speaker, Shana Tova (New year greeting): He asked me to stand at the edge of the cliff and shout out. I suddenly saw the most beautiful image; drones of people all dressed in pure white attire started emerging from their homes, behind trees etc. and were making their way to synagogues.

The choir became more melodic and vibrant and the excitement filled the air, a New Year had begun.

The service was beautiful, I realised that my Hebrew was not us to scratch as unlike in SA, at my synagogue where most of the service is in English, the Abayudaya are a lot more traditional. The community follows the conservative movement. At times duding the praises and singing, I remember closing my eyes, thus taking my mediation to a higher level. This truly was a blessing for me.

After the service of song, we went outside and greeted the friendly community, all of whom were as equally excited to bring in the New Year. We followed the Rabbi to his home, where we did Kiddush, blessing of the wine and had some Challah and the traditional honey and apple, the Challah, which is round symbolized the fruitful round year, the honey and fruit: To bring us a sweet and fruitful year.

After that we went back to Isaak’s home where a beautiful dinner was prepared for us. Diane had also brought some kosher wine, which she had kept for a special occasion. At dinner we spoke about life, Diane and Paul told us wonderful stories of their different stations with the Peace Corp around the world. Of course my life story was intriguing to them and we discussed religion, politics and life.


The next day I woke up really early to catch the fresh, unpolluted air and took a nice walk around the village. Uganda, truly is the pearl of Africa, with all its beauty, tranquility and spirituality, I really had a stronger connection to the area. I washed up, ate breakfast and then went to morning service. Which was just as beautiful as the evening one, with even more melodic songs from the choir. After morning service, a communal lunch was held outside on the lush lawns. The Rabbi caters for the whole community and we all sat around chatting, most of the time, listening as many spoke in Luganda.

After lunch we had an afternoon service followed by a brief evening service. Once again we had Kiddush at Rabbi then a sumptuous meal served by Isaak’s wife.


The next day, I woke up with a heavy heart, as I had to leave at 09h00 in order for Isaak to drop me in Kampala and be back for evening service, bringing in Shabbath. I said my goodbyes, to my newfound family and set off down the hills and along the long dusty road to Kampala.

This in deed was a phenomenal adventure and a bucket list tick, but more importantly the blessing that came with it.

I give thanks, for the opportunity, experience and adventure.

I have made a special promise to myself, something I plan to do, which I will reveal next year that includes the Abayudaya community, but until then, my lips are sealed.


Shana’Tova to a New Year of adventure, prayer, love and joy.