I'd been interested for some time in the indigenous Jewish communities of East Africa - the Abayudaya of Uganda, and the more recent Ol Kalou / Kasuku community in Kenya, both communities founded by converts to Judaism - and had in any case wanted to visit Africa. I originally booked a trip for last year, but had to cancel in order to take care of some tax matters.
This year, I finally went. I traveled concurrently with (but separately from) my internet buddy Juliette Ochieng, who writes a conservative blog under the name Baldilocks and who has family in Kenya that she'd never met. It was a first visit to Africa for both of us.
The first week of my two-week visit I spent in Kenya. I stayed at the Nairobi Hilton, but spent two nights as a guest of Yehuda Kemani (who was profiled in the Times of Israel article that first put the spotlight on the Kenya community) at his apartment in the remote town of Kasuku, and visited his family and the community elders in the still more remote village of Ol Kalou (rhymes with "allow"). Yehuda's father, Yosef, was one of the founders of the community - three families who broke away from the local Messianic congregation to pursue authentic Judaism. He is the kindly looking man whose photograph I posted earlier.
I left Nairobi for Uganda on 2/21 Sunday with some apprehension. National elections had just been held, and the mood was tense amid rumors of election-rigging and the potential for violence. But I'd promised a Portland friend that I would deliver some humanitarian supplies that she had painstakingly packed, so off I went.
The Abayudaya of Uganda are mainly based in the northeastern city of Mbale (at the foot of Mount Elgon). Their founder, Semei Kakungulu, rebelled against the machinations of the British colonial forces about 100 years ago and adopted the religion of the Hebrew Scriptures as he understood it, circumcising himself and his sons and declaring himself a Jew. Succeeding generations of his followers encountered Jewish travelers from the outside world and adopted mainstream Jewish practices.
About an hour's drive to the southwest of Mbale, there's a smaller community at Namutumba, and that's where I ended up staying, as a guest of that community's young leader, Shadrach Mugoya. It was a week away from electricity and running water - I had to keep myself supplied with bottled water, as the well water is potable for the locals who are accustomed to it but not for an outsider.
I stayed as a guest of Shadrach, at a room in the compound that housed several families, a kitchen and storeroom, and a chapel and Jewish library. Shacharit (morning) services were held daily in the chapel, following the Conservative Jewish rite and liturgy. Shabbat morning services were held at the main synagogue, a ten-minute cross-country drive by car or motorbike. ("It's not permitted to drive on Shabbat, but we permit it because the [non-Jewish] driver is driving," Shadrach explained.) They recite the prayers mostly in Hebrew, but sing some of the Psalms in their native Luganda. Shabbat was concluded on Saturday night with a wonderful havdalah service in the courtyard of the compound.
There were reports of scattered violence, random arrests, and disappearances in the wake of the elections, but widespread disorder never materialized. The opposition FDC party lost ground - probably due to successful ballot-rigging by the long-ruling Museveni regime - but the FDC did score one notable success: Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, leader of the Abayudaya, won a seat in Parliament (representing Mbale - Bungokho North). I had the honor of meeting Rabbi Gershom briefly during one of my visits to Mbale.
Our immediate community largely escaped trouble, but three guys did get picked up by the police for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yonatan, the driver Grace, and another buddy spent the night in jail in downtown Namutumba; they'd wanted to listen to a soccer match on the radio and were out after curfew. We got them released the next day and as far as I know no charges were filed, but there were some tense hours spent waiting in the shadow of the corrugated-steel building that houses the police station and the jail.
On the return trip, I stopped back in Nairobi where I rendezvoused with Juliette, finally meeting her in person for the first time. It was good to finally meet another American, and to have some company and conversation on the long trip back to the States. Juliette is wonderful company and we had great fun comparing notes on our respective experiences.
So that's my two-week trip to East Africa in a nutshell. I took lots of written and voice notes and tons of pictures, which I'll be digesting over the next few days, hopefully to produce some more focused write-ups of the various highlights of the trip. For now, though, I'm just glad to be back home.