The plane rolled out its landing gear at 5:40 a.m., and I was all set for my visit in Entebbe. It felt good to be Jewish and landing in Uganda without hiding under the cover of darkness as the commandos had done nearly 30 years before, when Israeli soldiers rescued more than 100 hostages from Entebbe’s old airport.
My adventure in East Africa began with a long drive from the airport to Nbogoye Hill, the home of the Abayudaya, a group of Ugandan Jews.
The journey along the narrow and dusty road eastward through the unbelievably green, lush Ugandan countryside was bumpy. As we made our way up the hill to the village, I saw women and children balancing water and food on their heads, goats, cows and chickens grazing — just like the picture of Africa that I had in my mind before arriving.
At the top of the hill, I was greeted warmly by a large group of people who rushed over to me with beaming smiles and embraced me. They immediately grabbed my bags and ushered me into my new home, a very cozy and comfortable room in the corner of the Hadassah Primary School.
My accommodations were a step up from the round mud huts with thatched roofs that dotted the Mbale Hills.
The best thing about living at the primary school was the kids. Behind the classrooms, there was a larger room in which 23 little children sleep four to a bed. Many of them board there because their families live too far away to make the commute; the others are orphans whose parents have died from AIDS or have abandoned them.
The kids were adorable and beautiful; it was so much fun playing with them during the day, teaching them songs, snapping pictures with my digital camera and showing them their faces in the photos — and at night telling them ghost stories or saying the Shema to help them fall asleep.
I’ll admit that, although I have traveled extensively, I was extremely nervous about this trip. I was in tears when I said goodbye to my parents in the United States. It’s just that there was a lot to be worried about here for a 20-year-old kid, by himself, in a village without running water and electricity, exposed to all of the terrible tropical diseases and health risks that exist here, in the middle of nowhere.
I was relieved, though, that the next day was the beginning of the holiday of Shavuot — an opportunity for me to get better acclimated to my new surroundings, meet my hosts and prepare for the work that I would be doing for the next few weeks.
In preparation for the holiday, everything shut down by midday, people stopped working, and the Jewish kids left school early. I went with a few of the youngsters to the Mbale marketplace to buy some food for the festival.
Children scampered around everywhere, filthy and malnourished.
Things are extremely cheap in Uganda. It really was possible to live on $1 day, eating extremely well. In this completely rural agrarian society, people have very basic diets. Their staple foods include rice, beans, plantains and maize.
Do not get the wrong image: This is not Somalia or Sudan where there is widespread famine. Still, the kids have barely enough to eat and often miss meals. Challah is a delicacy here; only when the people have had a good week financially will they have sufficient funds to buy the flour and eggs needed to make the bread.
When we returned to the village, the women were preparing for a big holiday feast, the houses were cleaned, and people were bathing — many for the first time the entire week, myself included.
As the sun went down, people from the six Abayudaya villages made their way over to the Moses shul for services.
The Abayudaya had their own melodies for the entire service of Hebrew prayers and Lugandan translated psalms. Listening to their rich voices, it became apparent to me how spiritual they are.
When the service concluded, the president of the community welcomed me to the village. I got up in front of a packed crowd of 200 people and introduced the tradition of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the custom of staying up all night long learning Torah on the Feast of Weeks.
I spoke about the holiday’s connection to the story of Ruth, a narrative about a Jewish convert who overcomes tremendous suffering and hardships while maintaining her faith. The people were fascinated by the parallels of this story to their own tribe’s history.
The Abayudaya’s story begins with Semei Kakungulu, the local agent of British imperialists at the turn of the 20th century. In addition to carrying out political orders, Kakungulu was to be a missionary for the British, converting the people of Mbale to Christianity.
Tensions grew between Kakungulu and the British, though, when he came to reject Christianity in favor of the Hebrew Bible alone. He began practicing a strict version of Judasim — first circumcising himself and 3,000 of his followers as well as keeping the dietary laws and observing the Sabbath.
Soon, locals began referring to Kakungulu and his Jewish minions — pejoratively at first — as the “Abayudaya,” sons of Judah in the native tongue.
He began constructing synagogues in the hills around Mbale and spreading Torah to his followers. After Kakungulu’s death in 1928, many members left the Abayudaya in favor of the education and clothing that would come from the British with the acceptance of Christianity.
In 1971, Idi Amin came to power, banning Jewish practice, ordering Jews to convert to Islam or Christianity. Amin took 32 synagogues for public use and shut the Israeli Embassy, which never reopened.
In early 2002, most of the Abayudaya were officially converted to Judaism by a panel of four Conservative rabbis in a move some hoped would help them gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Jewish world.
Community members relate stories of religious persecution: relatives tortured for building a sukkah, older brothers and sisters fatally beaten for refusing to weed in the school gardens on Saturdays.
Many Abayudaya converted to Islam and Christianity. However, there were those who remained Jewish, praying and practicing in secrecy. And since the end of Amin’s reign, there has been a resurgence in Jewish life throughout the Abayudaya villages.
Currently, the community maintains a Jewish primary and high school, six synagogues and a mikvah, or ritual bath. Ritual circumcisions, and shechita, or ritual slaughter, are practiced.
It was well into the night, I was dozing off, and there were little Jewish Ugandan children sprawled out all over the cold floor of the synagogue. When I awoke at sunrise, the young adults were still awake, learning, singing, telling stories from the Bible and playing games.
It was amazing to see the sincerity, passion and fervor with which these Jews practiced Judaism. Moreover, throughout the holiday the Abayudaya had welcomed me into their homes and families as one of their own.
My initial feelings of loneliness and homesickness quickly dissipated. I would now be able to focus all of my efforts on the main purpose of my trip to the Abayudaya villages: community health work.
In addition to common chronic diseases that affect populations all over the world — such as hypertension, cancer, diabetes and heart disease — the Abayudaya must cope, increasingly, with severe cases of malaria.
Infectious diseases and malnutrition are the principal causes of morbidity and mortality with diarrhea and acute respiratory infections predominating as causes of early death and HIV, malaria and tuberculosis being major causes of death later in life. Some other sexually transmitted diseases are common as well.
The infant mortality rate is very high, and the average life expectancy is around 50 years of age. With all of these prevalent health issues, the main problem is the Abayudaya’s inability to access basic medical care. There is an overcrowded government hospital in the district but it is many miles away and provides very minimal health care to the people.
There are no doctors, health clinics or even basic medications in the villages.
Consequently, the community is now exploring the possibility of acquiring a mobile health unit that can travel from one village to the next and treat and transport patients accordingly. Until that happens, though, I thought it would be useful to train community members as primary health care workers to be able to cope with some basic health issues.
Additionally, I organized a health clinic where I brought in a medical student from the town to examine and diagnose more than 75 Abayudaya, Muslim and Christian patients in a small makeshift clinic in the back of one of the school’s classrooms. The Abayudaya have established their schools and other community institutions and services for people of all religions and tribes.
While I know that I will not miss having to use the outhouse, or bathing once a week, I am thankful for having had the opportunity to work with the Abayudada.
And despite my good intentions to help these impoverished human beings, somehow, at the end of the day, I feel as though I came back home with much more then I left there.
Shaannan Meyerstein is a Columbia University student who recently volunteered independently in Uganda after being set up by the organization Kulanu.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.