A Visit to Uganda's Abayudaya Village

Sept. 23, 2013

By Barbara Vinick

There are some 1,500 Jews living in Uganda's Abayudaya villages. How do they maintain their Judaism in such a remote community?

We are sitting in services listening to melodies both familiar and different. The synagogue is modest with a tin roof, whitewashed walls, plastic chairs and a small ark. Inside, there is a donated Torah. Everyone participates deeply in harmonic singing and praying. We are in a small isolated village in Uganda, one of seven villages where 1,500 members of the Abayudaya community — People of Judah in the local Luganda language — make their modest homes of locally-made bricks and tin or sun-dried mud and thatch.

It is January 2011 and to get here, our group of 12 flew across the world, traveled down bumpy, rutted roads dotted with makeshift businesses and huts, and finally up a track through the bush. The journey to Nabugoye Hill, the main village where the Abayudaya live alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbors, takes about 30 minutes from the town of Mbale in eastern Uganda, about 90 miles from the Kenyan border.

A highlight for me and the other tour participants is the Music and Dance Festival, a yearly Kulanu-sponsored event that brings together dozens of Abayudaya dancers, singers, drummers, musicians, and their supporters young and old, from outlying villages – a generous and colorful sharing of African and Jewish culture and tradition, emblematic of the warmth emanating from this amazing community and the connection we feel so far from home

Another highlight is meeting Rachel Namudosi Keki, a young woman who stayed at my house in Swampscott about 10 years ago when she spoke at a few synagogues in the Boston area. Her father, JJ Keki, is a founder of Mirembe Kawomera ("Delicious Peace"), a successful coffee coop created in 2004 in partnership with Kulanu. The coop produces fair trade coffee grown by close to 1,000 Muslim, Christian and Jewish farmers in the Mbale area.

A teenager when she came to the U.S., Rachel is now a university graduate, a mother, and teacher in the high school that Kulanu helped to build in 2001.She wrote about her bat mitzvah in the book I edited with HBI director Shulamit Reinharz, published by Indiana University Press, "Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World."

At 7 p.m. Oct. 8, there will be an opportunity to meet another young woman from the Abayudaya community. Shoshanna Nambi, a young Abayudaya activist, will visit the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute to share her story and her community's music. Ms. Nambi, 25, will focus on the roles of women in the community. I urge everyone to attend and get to know more about her life, her work in rural health, and the inspiring story of the Jews of Uganda. Please join us to learn about an isolated community that has maintained their religion in the face of adversity, attracting attention and much-needed support from around the world.

Barbara VinickBarbara Vinick is the secretary of Kulanu.