Starting two fingers above the elbow, Jacob Sebagabo wraps the leather straps of the tefillin around his arm and towards his palm, reciting the book of Hosea in Hebrew as he finishes at the middle finger.
His head nods as the recitation goes, in a practice as old as King Herod and familiar to any Jew who takes his faith seriously.
Only the wet green plateaux of Uganda’s Mount Elgon national park, which frame a lush landscape of pawpaw trees and small garden plots, tell you that this is no ordinary Jewish community.
Near the town of Mbale, 25km from the Kenyan border, sitting under a sun that quickly burns up the morning cool all year round, is the small community of the Abayudaya Jews.
Nearly finished off during the years of Idi Amin’s terror, when many were forced to convert to Islam or Christianity, the 1 000-strong community is making a comeback. Numbers are on the increase and their leader, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, even ran for Parliament in the most recent elections. “We were just a rural community of subsistence farmers,” says Sizomu, sitting underneath the inscription, Shabbat shalom [peaceful Sabbath], in the sitting room of a modest stone house that looks on to the synagogue, the centrepiece of this isolated community.
“The only trip we ever made was to our gardens, hardly ever beyond the house. Now we’re involved in politics and the community, we have a primary and secondary school that people of all faiths travel to. We’re even getting conversions.”
The Abayudaya, or “sons of Judah” in the Luganda language, are unique in the global Jewish community in that they do not claim descent from the 12 tribes of Israel.
Rather, they were started in 1919 by a man named Kakungulu, a soldier and powerful member of the local Baganda tribe. Frustrated by the tenets of Christianity foisted on Africans by European missionaries, he adopted Judaism, as he believed the Old Testament offered a more practical guide to life. He thought the will of God was more clearly reflected in the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
The time to observe shabbat was more clearly defined, he believed, as were the rules governing what could and could not be eaten. Converts were circumcised and, when the railways came, Jewish traders from Britain and elsewhere chanced upon them, teaching the Abayudaya more about the prayers to be observed and how to keep kosher.
However, the oppressive years of Milton Obote and Amin brought persecution, with the community shrinking from 3 000 to fewer than 1 000. The numbers might have continued to drop if a young Jewish student from Brown University in the United States had not met Sizomu on a chance visit by both to the Nairobi synagogue in 1992.
“I began a whispered conversation with Sizomu during services,” said Matthew Meyer, who now runs a clothing business in Nairobi called Eco Sandals. A few weeks later he went to Mbale, following Sizomu’s instructions and taking an overnight bus “that, had my good mother have known, would have made her cry. At the time they were just emerging from the Obote and Amin years. Their numbers had dwindled and it was clear that this little Jewish experiment in rural Uganda could soon face extinction.”
Meyer contacted Jewish groups in the US, sending them cassette tapes with recordings of the unique Ugandan Jewish music played by the Abayudaya. This caught the attention of some rabbis and rabbinical students, who began sending books and other resources such as Torahs to the community.
Since then the Abayudaya have built a new synagogue to replace the mud and brick building used for decades, installed a health centre and set up a primary and secondary school that pupils from all faiths can attend.
“Even if you’re not a Jew, you can go,” said Mohamad Sakura, a local policeman and former pupil. “I’m a Muslim, but we all got breakfast and lunch every day, no matter what religion.”
Still, there are practical problems, some of which tiny Jewish communities in other parts of the world could relate to. “It’s very difficult to meet Jews when we want to marry,” said Susan Namboozo, a 24-year-old aide to the rabbi. “So some of us marry people of other faiths, which means the number of us falls.”
The numbers are on the increase though, up to 1 200 from 700 five years ago, said Sizomu. Some of that increase is due to conversions, even though no one is proselytised. “But when they come, we open our doors,” he said, beaming.