History of the Abayudaya

The Abayudaya, which means “People of Judah,” in Ugandan local language Luganda, originated from among the Ganda people (a Bantu ethnic group) a little over a century ago.

The Beginning: 1880s-1910s

 
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The Abayudaya’s founder, a Ganda military leader and mercenary called Semei Kakungulu, was originally introduced to Jewish texts via British missionaries who converted Kakungulu to Protestantism in the 1880s.

 

Promised support and territorial control by British authorities, Kakungulu conquered areas of eastern Uganda and helped bring them under British influence.

Historical reports indicate that when the British instead confined him to a small area in what is now the city of Mbale, he began to feel disillusioned with the British and their interpretation of the Bible.

In the 1910s, Kakungulu turned away from Protestantism and joined the Malaki religion: a mixture of Christianity, Judaism, and Christian Science. 

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Kakungulu Fully Converts: 1920s

 

By 1919, Kakungulu had moved his family and followers to an area a few miles north of Mbale, in the shadow of extinct volcano Mount Elgon.

There, he founded a separatist sect called Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda (the Community of Jews who trust in the Lord) and dived into studying Swahili translations of Hebrew scriptures contained within the New Testament. Soon, Kakungulu circumcised himself, his sons, and demanded his followers do the same. Alternate histories cite either the year 1917 or the year 1919 for Kakungulu's circumcision and full conversion.

In the early 1920s, a foreign Jew called Yosef (some say he was of Ashkenazi origin) reportedly visited the fledging community. Yosef taught Kakungulu and his followers about the rules of Kashrut, the basics of Hebrew, Jewish holidays, and gave them a copy of the full Hebrew Tanach with English translation.

Kakungulu died in 1928, leading the community to continue self-isolating for protection.

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Mbale and Mount Elgon today

Photograph Copyright © Samantha Rose Mandeles, 2021

Arye Oded

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After a series of disputes over who would succeed Kakungulu as leader of the Abayudaya, his disciple Samsom Mugombe Israeli eventually became the spiritual leader of the community. 

The travelogue author Mordechai Kuchar writes that, according to Ababyudaya elders, Mugombe, "introduced the custom of marriage only within the tribe. He ensured that his daughters, Deborah, Rachel, Naomi and Tamar married men within the tribe. Under his leadership new synagogues were opened in other villages. By the early sixties the tribe had grown to a population of about 3,000 members, living in a number of villages stretching the foothills of Mount Elgon. It seems that under Samsom's leadership members of the tribe started to adopt biblical names.

In 1962, an Israeli diplomat studying in Kampala—Arye Oded—visited and introduced the Abayudaya to modern Hebrew, Israel, and world Jewry.

With Oded’s writings, international Jewry learned of the Abayudaya and began to support the community—allowing the group to grow.

New Leadership: 1930s-1960s

 

Idi Amin's Campaign of Terror: 1970s

 

In early 1971, infamous military leader Idi Amin seized power in a violent coup; Amin’s subsequent eight-year rule showed him to be one of the most brutal despots in modern history.

 

Amin is notorious for helping to facilitate the June 1976 hijacking of an Air France flight to Israel by terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; Amin allowed the terrorists to land at Entebbe, and tried to foil the Israeli rescue operation (Operation Thunder).

 

Throughout his rule, Amin persecuted the Abayudaya to such a degree that the community—which had previously an estimated population of 2,000—was almost entirely decimated.

JJ Keki, a leader of the Abayudaya, recalled in 2001, "The reign of Dictator Idi Amin was a turning point in the history of the Abayudaya. He declared a ban on all other religious observances except those of Christianity and Islam. He also banned all pro-Zionist movements. Abayudaya synagogues were closed down and members were not allowed to own any Hebrew prayer books. Synagogue and burial services were banned in order to force Abayudaya into Islam or Christianity. Members of the community who wished to observe had to do so secretly to avoid government agents. I remember the time when my father was found studying the Torah in his concealed Sukkah behind his house. He was arrested by a government agent and survived only after paying a bribe of 5 goats. There was a moment of joy after the news of a successful rescue of the Israeli hostages at Entebbe Airport. This news helped to neutralise the prevailing impression that Amin was undefeatable. Indeed the successful rescue mission was an indication that sooner or later, the Abayudaya and the nation at large would be rescued from Idi Amin's dictatorship."

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Idi Amin, 1975

Renewal and Rebirth: 1980s- Today

 
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Photograph Copyright © Samantha Rose Mandeles, 2021

Since the fall of Idi Amin, Semei Kakungulu’s spiritual descendants have worked to recreate the community; they now number about 2,000 souls.

In 2002, 400 Abayudaya were formally converted by Conservative rabbis; conversions have continued intermittently since then.

Today, the Abayudaya’s Chief Rabbi, Gershom Suzomu, has helped raise the community’s profile; he also served a term in Uganda’s parliament.

The Abayudaya are pious, keeping Shabbat, Kashrut, and celebrating all Jewish holidays; their liturgy is mostly Ashkenazi, with Luganda and Lusoga translation and music.

The Abayudaya of the village of Namutumba subsist mainly on small farming and raising goats, chickens, and other animals for sale. Most villages in the area, including Namutumba, do not have electricity or running water and depend on their water supply from rain water collected in local wells.

Today's Abayudaya Communities

 
  • Mbale-Nabugoye (HQ)

  • Apac

  • Buseta

  • Buyende

  • Mukono

  • Nalubembe

  • Namanyonyi

  • Namutumba

  • Nangolo

  • Nasenyi

  • Putti

All photographs in above gallery Copyright © Samantha Rose Mandeles, 2021