Home  »  Stories   »   The Heart of Israel Visits the Jewish Community in Uganda

The Heart of Israel Visits the Jewish Community in Uganda

by Maj. A.Y. Katsof
December 27, 2018

The name Entebbe, for every Israeli triggers a red light.

That’s where the plane was hijacked to in 1976.

That’s where Yoni Netanyahu (Bibi’s older brother) was killed on a mission to rescue a hijacked plane.

However, now Uganda is a pretty safe place for Jews.

Well, at least for the one tribe of Jews that live here.

 

After landing, we pile into a small car and drive 225 k”m, but it takes us no less than 8 hours!!!

A narrow road, (they drive on the left side here), packed with motorcycles and cows that cross the street whenever they please. Packed busses stop whenever there is a road-side market place, so the peddlers can surround the bus from all sides and sell cheap food to the passengers, through the windows.

In the meantime, our driver is stuck helplessly behind, all he can do is honk honk and honk, hoping it will push the driver to hurry up. (The honking is still ringing in my head.)

The next day starts with morning prayers, morning blessings, the same ones that we recite every morning at home in Israel. Then, the morning Psalms are sung, in a mix of Hebrew and their local tribal language, to a beat of an African drum.

You may ask how a Jewish tribe of about 3,000 people ended up in East Uganda. Well… About 100 years ago, there was a General who was appointed by the British to be in charge of East Africa. When he read the Bible, he asked, why do we not circumcise? So he had himself and his family circumcised. People started making fun of them calling them Jews and saying that they killed Jesus. They were not able to go to school and were constantly beat up and harassed by their Catholic neighbors, but their faith to Judaism stayed strong.

In the past 20 years, formal Rabbis came and performed official Jewish conversions for them, and today, they live in harmony with their neighbors.

Their homes are self-built by mud bricks that they make on site after burning them for a couple of days. At almost every group of homes, you can still see the left over piles of bricks that were used. Each home consists of a living-room, and two small bedrooms. The walls are bare, no shelves, no pictures, and almost no furniture. In the bedrooms, thin mattresses lay on the floor for people to sleep on.

Every morning and evening, the girls walk to the nearest water hole to draw fresh water. You are considered lucky and living on prime real-estate if you only have to walk 100 meters to the water hole.

Until recently, everyone had to walk a couple of kilometers through the swamp lands and draw water from the spring, but now the government drilled holes and installed hand pumps so people can have water close to their homes.

“It has made our children lazy and spoiled that we have a water pump so close to our home,” one of the mothers tells me. I’m thinking to myself how my kids are too lazy to walk to the fridge or fill up the ice tray so their water will be freezing cold because supposedly it isn’t drinkable otherwise.

Drawing water for the day

The water pump is also the community hang out, where you are most likely to find your spouse, just like Eliezer found Rebecca, Jacob found Rachel and even Moses found Tzippora. I can’t believe the meeting place is where you fill up your daily water.

The girls then place the 20 liter Jerri cans on their heads and walk home.

This water will be used for drinking, cooking, washing dishes, and even showering.

Jewish girl in Uganda doing laundry by the river

In every compound there is a small separate room that you can see the burning smoke marks on the sides of the windows. Yes, that is the “kitchen.”

A tiny room, with three bricks in the corner and a little twig fire, lit with a pot sitting on top of it.

The father of the family that I’m visiting now, has many rice fields. You can see his affluence by the fact that his children are not wearing torn clothes and in the pot on the fire there is even goat meat being cooked. “Kosher, goat meat!” the girl emphasizes to me, as she blows at the fire.

Blowing at the fire to keep the food cooking

Two men from the entire community were trained in Israel for a whole year, in slaughtering kosher meat. Twice a week, the community “shochet” performs the kosher slaughtering process, the meat is then salted with kosher salt and then ready to be cooked, yum!

There are, of course, no refrigerators or even electrical power so you have to eat it all up pretty fast.

I ask how they keep the food warm on Shabbat and they say that for Shabbat day, they have to eat the food cold because they have no way to heat up the food.

Cleaning the laundry

In most of the yards, I see a woman doing laundry, in two pails, scrubbing the clothes with a bar of soap then hanging them across the yard or drying them on nearby bushes.

 

Each person owns two pairs of regular day clothes and one for Shabbat. Many of the children were wearing torn clothes, some of them without any shoes or only one shoe.

I meet a 14 year old girl named Ruth.

I ask her, “Why only one shoe?”

“No money,” she tells me.

“How much do shoes cost?”

“5K shillings” (A little more than a dollar).

The way to get around here is on the back of a motorcycle, which they refer to as, “boda boda.” Probably because of the noise it makes. You can get basically anywhere for about 25 cents. On the way back to the hotel we stopped by the town super market, where our host drops off his phone by the local store to have it charged.

Leaving this Jewish community on the long drive back to Entebbe, I am filled with mixed emotions.

Here is this community of people who converted to Judaism over 100 years ago, living Jewish lives with many hardships. Most likely, our Jewish ancestors from thousands of years ago, looked something like this.

The support and connection for the Jewish community in Israel was hardly felt. I would think the most natural thing for us to do, would be to give them, at least, the minimal support they deserve.