Tommy Trenchard

Mbale, Uganda

A Muslim man walks along a footpath in Nabugoye village. Even in Nabugoye, the centre of the Abayudaya community, Judaism is still dwarfed by both Islam and Christianity. But despite tensions in the past, particularly during the time of Idi Amin, the various religions live together peacefully.The Abayudaya (meaning the 'people of Judah', in the local language) form a tiny and isolated Jewish community living in just a handful of villages in the hills of eastern Uganda. Unlike other isolated Jewish communities, the Abayudaya claim no ancestral link to Judaism. They are the legacy of a warrior chief named Semei Kakungulu who, in 1919, inspired by the five books of Moses in the old testament and feeling shunned by the British colonial administration, circumcised himself and his two sons and declared himself Jewish. In the years that followed Jewish travellers provided support and Hebrew texts to the fledgling community which adopted more and more facets of Jewish life and practice. Today, the Abayudaya number around 2000, some of them officially converted into conservative Judaism, others are content to just practice without official recognition. They eat kosher, learn Hebrew, pray at the prescribed times and strictly observe the Sabbath and other Jewish festivals.The community has good relations with both their Christian and Muslim neighbours, though they have faced persecution in the past, particularly during the rule of Idi Amin, who launched a crackdown against the group, forcing them to convert or flee.Since then, the community has rebounded. A large new synagogue is under construction in Nabugoye village, the spiritual home of the Abayudaya, complete with a Mikveh for future convertees. In February 2016 Uganda's Jews received a major boost when their leader, Gershom Sizomu, Uganda's first and only Rabbi, beat seven other candidates in his Muslim-dominated constituency to become the first Jew ever to win a seat in the country's parliament.

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Tommy Trenchard
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