Archive for April, 2008

Seder with the Abayudaya, Uganda

April 25, 2008

In the remote hills of eastern Uganda, in the shadow of the Mount Elgon live a small community of black African practising Jews. There population currently stands at around 800 although prior to the persecutions of the Idi Amin regime their numbers exceeded 3,000.

My wife (Genevieve) and I, currently volunteering in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, asked the community leader if we could be guests at their seder. He was thrilled for us to join them and we set out on the six hour bus journey to Mbale. On the journey we read more about the community and learned a bit more of their history.

In 1919, a Christian Ugandan military leader called Semei Kakungulu, upon further study of the Bible, came to believe the customs and laws in the old Testament were quite true. When he was told that it is the Jews that observe such laws he explained “Then we will be Jewish”. He declared his entire tribe to be Jewish and circumcised his sons and himself. In the early 1920s the community was visited by a foreign Jew who stayed with them for six months. He taught them about the festivals, the calendar, the laws of kashrut and was instrumental in the establishment of a school with the purpose of passing on Jewish knowledge and teaching skills.

In 1928 Kakungulu died from tetanus and part of the community reverted to Christianity. The remaining people became the Abayudaya (“The People of Judaea”) and isolated themselves to escape persecution. Almost 90% of the population converted away from Judaism during the Idi Amin era but approximately 300 members remained committed to Judaism and worshipped in secret. Today there are almost 800 Jews of the Abaudaya, divided into six smaller communities spread across 100 miles in the hills overlooking Mbale.

Genevieve and I arrived in Mbale and a local taxi driver drove us out of town along dirt roads into the surrounding hills. It was almost surreal to see African men, their heads covered in kippot, sitting around in front of the blue and white painted “Shalom Shop”, adorned with a Hebrew sign. The children from the community, rather than the usual African welcome of running up to us shouting “Hi muzungu, Hi muzungu” (which translates as white man), came up to us shouting “Shabbat Shalom, Shabbat Shalom”. It was a Saturday and there still a few hours of Shabbat remaining before they community would start preparing for the first seder. I asked if I could take some photos but the men requested that I waited for the 3rd star to become visible before using my camera. I was more than happy to obey their wishes.

The community leader, who was acting Rabbi while the official Rabbi was in USA being ordained, greeted us shortly after we arrived and took us on a walk around his community. The site where the Abayudaya live is absolutely stunning. They have views to the west over Mbale and it’s lush green surrounds, while behind them to the east stands the spectacular Mount Elgon and it’s national park which separates Uganda from Kenya. The community from which the Rabbi is based is the central administration of the Abayudaya. Over time they have received some funding from the Diaspora which has been used for various initiatives including building and maintaining the synagogue, improving the school and the community library and more recently the community have built a guesthouse for visitors. It didn’t escape my attention that this community, compared with other communities of subsistence farmers, seems to have better infrastructure and their thirst for knowledge has given them an advantage over their neighbours.

We were proudly shown the inside of the guesthouse where a handful of other muzungus were gathered, all waiting for Shabbat to end. All of the other visitors were also Jewish, from various countries and had all come to experience an Abayudayan Seder.

The sun set on the distant horizon in a stunning display of oranges and crimsons as the entire community made their way to the synagogue for the Havdallah service. Prayers were said in Hebrew, a havdallah candle was lit and the spice box was passed around the congregation so that everyone could smell the fragrance.

The community synagogue is one large rectangular room built from red brick with glass windows. It has bookcases all the way up one side crammed with books and encyclopaedias on world history and Judaism. The young men from the community carried in tables which they arranged in a line down the middle of the room. With the women and girls on one side of the tables and the men and boys on the other the Rabbi began explaining the schedule for the evening to the community. There were at least 200 people in the room of which at least half were small children. This population spread is not uncommon in Uganda with 50% of the countries’ population being under 15 years old.

My family seder usually has around 20 people present. I’m not sure the women in my family would cope with having to make charoset for 200 people but the Abayudaya women did an incredible job of preparing not only the charoset but also egg & salt water, and maror for everyone. While the rabbi had the seder plate on the table in front of him, vast quantities of the traditional items were carried into the room in large plastic buckets and huge cooking pots. Some of the other overseas guests had brought boxes of matza (a gesture which the entire community were both exceptionally grateful and excited about) and this was meticulously divided into small bite size chunks so that every single member of the community could have a piece to go with their scoop of charoset.

A group of young African girls sitting across from me on the other side of the long table spontaneously burst out into song. They all happily sang together “Day Dayenu, Day Dayeny, Day Dayenu, Dayenu…”. The Rabbi quietly shushed them, asking them to save it for later! It was clear however that the rabbi was very proud of the girls with their urge to sing Hebrew songs. For me, it was just incredible to see young black Africans singing songs that I have always associated with people from a very different culture.

While we had bitter herbs in abundance there was not such large quantities of kosher wine. Only a few bottles had to be shared between the entire community. Wine is not something that the Abayudaya have the privilege of being able to drink regularly and it is generally only to mark special occasions. The first night of seder is certainly one of those moments. Not wanting anyone to miss out on sharing the wine it was mixed with a locally brewed alcohol which the community make from fermenting bananas before being poured out into plastic cups.

While the rabbi addressed the community in English (the national language of Uganda), his young assistant translated everything he said into the local dialect to ensure that absolutely everyone could understand. The principle of making sure that the story of the exodus from Egypt is passed onto the children is not lost on the Abyudaya.

A group of thirty or so children gathered at one end of the table to sing the ma-nishtana. After the first question was asked so beautifully the entire community joined in with the remaining three questions. The tune was identical to the one I have grown up with in Leeds.

The aficoman was hidden but by the time the meal had been eaten and all the plates cleared away most of the children were asleep and the adults had drunk enough fermented banana alcohol that they didn’t have the energy to go looking for it!

The ten plagues and the dipping of the little fingers into our cups was carried out with incredible excitement by all. The elders in the community all sat at the bag, allowing the children to be more involved. The elders are all in their 60s and have seen their community shrink from 3,000 to less than 300. Their smiling faces made it clear to me that they were very happy with the enthusiasm of the children when it came to Jewish traditions.

I usually find myself eagerly turning the pages of the Haggada hoping to hurry up time so the meal can be served. On this occasion the joy and positivity in the room led me to hoping that the food was delayed just a while longer while I absorbed the atmosphere. It was wonderful. We finally reached the page in the Haggadot that the community had been given when it was time to serve the meal. Due to the strict jewish observance the preparation of the food did not begin until after Shabbat was out. We had a good deal longer to wait before the seder meal reached the table. It didn’t matter – the young boys and girls took it upon themselves to stand up and sing all the traditional seder songs. One of the older boys had an African drum which he beat with his hands in time with each song. Once all the seder songs had been sung and the meal was still no where to be seen, they sang all the songs again. Everyone joined in. After the third or fourth rendition of Had-Gadya the children moved onto other jewish songs and prayers such as Moshiach, The Shema, Gesher Tzar Meod, Hineh Ma tov o Manayim and Ein Kelohaynu.

The food finally came, many of the children were asleep and were awoken by their mothers so not to miss a meal. The food was no different to the usual Ugandan meals. The locals here eat the same food for breakfast, lunch and dinner – a combination of rice, plantain, potato, some greens and possibly some meat. As the official Rabbi was away there was no one that could bless the chickens in order to make them kosher and therefore the meal we ate was strictly parve.

During the meal I sat next to a man named Aharon from one of the surrounding Jewish communities Aharon had decided to have seder away from his family in the hope of speaking to someone like me. He told me that although funding does come from the Diaspora it all stays with the main community and very little of it reaches the other communities. He told me that while this central community has a brick synagogue, a school, many books and even a guesthouse, his community has a mud hut with no windows that they use for their synagogue. He also said that they can only dream of building a school and they are still hoping for the day when a member of their community can find the funds to attend university. His community is called Namatumba and he told me that they were hoping to raise some funds to improve their village by selling kippot that the women make. He asked me if I could ask the people in my country if they could buy some kippot from them. He had a plastic bag with him with 30 handmade kippot which he pleaded with me to take and return with some money to give back to his community. I agreed to try and sell them and asked him if the women of his community could make more if I did manage to sell them all. He told me that they could make many different designs, sizes and colours and pushed the plastic bag into my hand.

Religion is an important part of everyone’s life in Uganda so it should have come as no surprise that this community was just as passionate about their religion as the Christian and Muslim communities of Uganda. I was, however, still taken aback by the passion and dedication of this remote Jewish community.

It was a wonderful experience.

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Lost in Translation

April 21, 2008

Last week I had a heated discussion with a minibus taxi conductor. The locals that witnessed this event rarely see anyone losing their temper, let alone raising their voice in public. Genevieve and I have been using the same bus route for a number of weeks now and, while at first we paid slightly more than the locals, it’s now obvious that we know the price and all the conductors charge us appropriately.

I was having a bad day, I shouldn’t have let myself get frustrated in this way, and I’ll try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The argument went something like this:

“Are you going to Bugolobi Market?”

“Yes, 700 Shillings”

“700? You’re joking. We use this route every day and it’s always 300”

“It’s 700 now”

“We’ll pay the same price as everyone else. 300. Can you let us on please?”

He obstructed our path.

“If you come on this bus you pay 700”

“We’ve been in Kampala a while now, we know the price. It’s always 300. It’s not even far to Bugolobi. How can you charge us 700?”

“If you don’t pay 700 you can’t come. We are leaving now”

He signalled to the driver by tapping on the roof of the minibus twice with the palm of his hand. The bus started to edge away.

“Hang on. We’ll do it for 400. Come on – be fair”.

“700 or you stay”

We were meeting people in Bugolobi and we’re already late for them. It would take around half an hour to walk or three minutes on the bus. It was dark. There were no pavements for pedestrians along that road. It had been raining. We really didn’t want to have to work but we also didn’t want to have to pay extortionate prices. We’re volunteering here. We’re not earning an income – it was actually more than we could afford.

“We’re late and you’re making everyone else late. We’ll pay 500. Let us go please”.

He double tapped the bus again and they edged off a little further.

“You will pay 700”.

“No way are we paying 700. We’ll pay you the fair price, 500. OK?”

“700 or we go now?”

We refused his attempts to con us for the final time, shaking our heads as the minibus pulled away from us.

We walked in the dark, along the wet, busy and polluted road for 30 frustrating minutes, dodging truck headlights, treading in puddles of sewage and generally wishing we could have afforded to say yes to the extra 200 shillings he wanted us to pay.

Our friends were waiting for us at the restaurant. No-one expects anyone to be on time here – not even close to being on time. Anything with an hour of the time planned is deemed to be “on-time”. A delicious pizza topped with creamy feta and Italian olives, and a couple of cold Club Beers later and we couldn’t even feel our wet trousers and had forgotten all about the nasty con tricks of the minibus conductor.

A few days later I remembered back to the argument and actually thought about the amount of money that we were arguing about and preferring to put ourselves through the annoyance, rigour and sweat over.

I went over the conversation we had with the conductor, this time converting the shilling amounts into English pounds…

“Are you going to Bugolobi Market?”

“Yes, 20 pence”

“20 pence? You’re joking. We use this route every day and it’s always 9 pence”

“It’s 20 pence now”

“We’ll pay the same price as everyone else. 9 pence. Can you let us on please?”

He obstructed our path.

“If you come on this bus you pay 20 pence”

“We’ve been in Kampala a while now, we know the price. It’s always 9 pence. It’s not even far to Bugolobi. How can you charge us 20 pence?”

“If you don’t pay 20 pence you can’t come. We are leaving now”

He signalled to the driver by tapping on the roof of the minibus twice with the palm of his hand. The bus started to edge away.

“Hang on. We’ll do it for 12 pence. Come on – be fair”.

“20 or you stay”

“We’re late and you’re making everyone else late. We’ll pay 15 pence. Let us go please”.

He double tapped the bus again and they edged off a little further.

“You will pay 20 pence”.

“No way are we paying 20 pence. We’ll pay you the fair price, 15 pence. OK?”

“20 pence or we go now?”

We refused his attempts to con us for the final time, shaking our heads as the minibus pulled away from us.

We walked in the dark, along the wet, busy and polluted road for 30 frustrating minutes, dodging truck headlights, treading in puddles of sewage and generally wishing we could have afforded to say yes to the extra five pence he wanted us to pay.

Absurd isn’t it?!

Muzungu, Muzungu, Muzungu…. Muzungu bye!!

April 14, 2008

Almost everywhere we go it feels like we’re the centre of attention. Most often we’re the only white people around amongst a sea of locals. The attention isn’t bad – it can’t be classed as harassment like we receive in India, Morocco and certain other countries – but we’re aware that all eyes are on us. We’re just different – we look different, we move differently, we wear different clothes, we sound different, we’re doing different, possibly interesting things.

For the small kids, as we walk through their small communities, nestled onto the lower slopes of the small hills that rise from the city’s flats, they are ecstatic just to see a white person. If we walk passed a hundred kids in a community I’d be surprised if more than a couple of them managed to resist the temptation to shout “Muzungu”. Many of the kids will come up to us wanting to hold our hands or touch the skin of our arms. As the first few more daring kids are reach us and hang off our limbs it creates a signal to the rest of the kids in the community that we’re open to being used as climbing apparatus. Within a few seconds there might be twenty or thirty small kids, most of them no higher than our waists, holding our hands, grabbing our legs, clinging onto our arms, all squealing with excitement about the fact that they are in contact with a white person. The kids that are more reserved remain in the close proximity of their mothers. They’ll still shout “Muzungu” and most normally wave, again getting very excited when we wave back. “Muzungu, bye”, is their usual reply.

The older kids that have started school take the conversation to the next level. “Muzungu, how are you?”, they will shout as we approach. They can see us coming for miles. It’s as though we’re shining white lights, glowing bright as we approach their neighbourhoods. You can hear the excitement building amongst the kids as we draw nearer. One kid may spot us coming a long time before we’ve seen him. He’ll light the metaphoric beacon where he stands with a quick excited outburst of “Muzungu”. For the other kids within earshot, who may have been playing with the same half of a plastic bottle or stick on a rope or, if they’re very lucky, an old rubber bicycle tyre for the past few hours, the quiet whispering of the word Muzungu pricks their ears, they see if they can spot the white person approaching and the “beacons” are very quickly lit throughout the entire community.

“Muzungu, muzungu, muzungu”. “Muzungu. Bye”. “Muzungu, how are you?” When we reply to their question it’s more than often greeted with a very quick “I’m fine”, followed by an even quicker retreat to the safety of their front doors. On the occasions where Genevieve is surrounded by hoards of overexcited children I may pull the camera out of my bag to snap a quick photo. The appearance of the camera only leads to more kids coming out from the confines of their home turf to get close to Genevieve for the photo. Yesterday evening, for the first time, I showed the photo that I had just taken of the kids to them all on the camera’s screen. The reaction was immediate. All the kids ran off in the same direction, waving their arms in the air screaming ecstatically, jumping into the air. These are the happiest children I have ever come across. They have next to nothing. Their family homes are one room, built from mud bricks, wooden poles and corrugated iron roofing. They have no kitchen or bathroom.

The mothers do all the cooking on the street out the front of their homes. Most have a speciality dish that they have become known for. One mother will make chapattis, another fried bananas, another matoka. Some will fry pigs trotters, others boil eggs or fry chipped potatoes in huge pans of boiling oil. The community clan is one huge family. The food is exchanged between the mothers so each family has a variety of food for their meals.

The kids’ bathroom consists of a plastic washing up tub half filled with water which has been warmed on the fire and placed next to the front door. The adults must wash in the privacy of their homes.

The homes have no running water. All the water that they use is carried to their homes from the local pump in ten litre plastic yellow petrol containers. Light in the home is provided by the sun and at night, by fire from candles. The community does have electricity, but only for a few communal rooms. The bar is lit at night and pumps out music as the locals play pool amongst the goats. There is a separate big screen which shows movies or, more often than not, English Premiership football. The Ugandans are crazy about football. They’ve never had a strong national team but they all have strong support for teams from England. Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal are followed by 99% of the locals. I did see one poor delusional man wearing a blue and yellow striped Leeds United top from 1993. Maybe he doesn’t know? Maybe the die-hard loyalty that Leeds fans have doesn’t stop at the English based supporters? Maybe he really does know – that, one day, Leeds will be back, bigger than ever and he can say that he stuck with them through thick and thin, the highs and lows, the ups and downs He is proud not to be one of the masses that jumped on the Manyoo bandwagon in 1999 or joined the Russian Revolution at Chelsea or the French croissant eating aristocracy at Arsenal in even more recent times.

Anyway, back to the hillside community and its smiling happy shiny people. The young adult men that approach us usually have a story to tell. They tell us the recent history of their family, their sons and daughters who have died, their nephews and nieces in their care due to the early death of their parents, their struggle to earn enough money to provide all their children with a school education. They don’t want our money. They want us to give them a job.

Rich muzungus in Africa can come across as lazy abusers of the cheap labour that the locals can provide. While some may view the fact that a white man has a driver, a personal shopper, a daily cleaner, someone to cook for them, a nanny for their kids, two security guards, a house keeper and someone to give extra tuition to their children as unnecessary, the reality of the situation is that he is giving his staff a good income, directly supporting all of their families and distributing the money he has around the local community. While we are all capable of washing our own dishes and changing and cleaning the sheets on our beds, a muzungu can do much more for the community to pay someone to do these tasks for them.

It’s even better if a muzungu has a business here in which he can employ locals. It’s just a shame that we’re volunteering here and when young bright eyed men approach us asking for work we have to put out their fires by telling them we don’t have a business or anything we can offer them. Still, they’re too proud to plead and beg and they quickly turn the conversation towards pleasantries about the day.

But it’s the children that have had the biggest effect on me so far. It’s just incredible how happy they all are in their villages. If a small child has one toy it will keep him entertained for hours on end. There might be a small gave of football between some of the slightly bigger kids – I’m yet to see a football being used that has any air in it! Still, they seem to be able to control a fully deflated ball as well as most of us can use a pumped up ball. It’s not uncommon to see two or three babies of no more than 18 months old, sitting down together, communicating with each other while pointing to a few bottle tops that they are amusing themselves with. The kids are left alone for long periods of time, the parents perfectly happy that they are safe to wander round anywhere within the community.

They all seem so content with their lives. They have next to nothing.