Celebrating Passover with Uganda's Jews Rural eastern Uganda is home to a small but thriving Jewish community called the Abayudaya, which means "the Jews" in the local language. Jocelyn Frank joined them last year for Passover.
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Celebrating Passover with Uganda's Jews

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Celebrating Passover with Uganda's Jews

Celebrating Passover with Uganda's Jews

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Passover begins at sunset tonight. In Jewish homes around the world, families will gather around the Seder table to retell the story of the Jews' exodus from slavery in Egypt. One of the more unexpected places that you might find a Seder is in rural eastern Uganda, home to a small but thriving Jewish community.

Reporter Jocelyn Frank visited them last year just in time for Passover.

JOCELYN FRANK: The Passover story asks, why is this night different from all other nights? And one answer is that on this night Jews eat different symbolic foods, like matzo and bitter herbs. Here in eastern Uganda, Rabbi Erin Kintu Moses(ph) points out one way Passover is different for his community.

He stands beside an aging white pickup truck and shows off the contents in back.

Mr. ERIN KINTU MOSES (Rabbi): How many things you can see. Pineapples, there's maroons(ph), onions, there's some banana, we have sweet potatoes.

FRANK: How many sweet potatoes are in there?

Mr. MOSES: I cannot tell. There are so many.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FRANK: A bounty of food like this is unusual. In Uganda, nearly 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. A few hundred Jews reside here in the small rural neighborhood called Naba Goya Hill(ph). And they pooled their money to buy tonight's provisions.

Their homes are mostly plain cement block construction with tin roofs, and there's no running water, but the place feels lush with green rolling hills and banana trees.

Before 1919, there was not a single Jewish Ugandan, but Semei Kakungulu changed all that.

Mr. JEFFREY SUMMIT (Rabbi, Ethno-Musicologist, Tufts University): Semei Kakungulu was the powerful general and accomplished military leader.

FRANK: Jeffrey Summit is a rabbi and ethno-musicologist at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He's been researching and recording the music of the Jewish community here in Uganda for almost 10 years. Summit says Kakungulu fought battles for the British during the 1880s and even accepted their Christianity to try and win favor.

Mr. SUMMIT: Kakungulu had wanted to be a king in east Africa and they kept promising that if he helped them they would make him a king. But they never followed through with their promises and he finally rejected British colonial rule. And in doing so he rejected the Anglican Christianity that he had been converted to.

FRANK: As a Christian Kakungulu had studied the Old Testament, and soon after his disillusionment with the British, he decided to turn to what he felt were the founding concepts of Christianity - he became a Jew. He circumcised himself and over time about 3,000 other Ugandans followed him into the Jewish faith.

Today, the community called itself the Abayudaya. It means the Jews in the local language of Laganda(ph).

(Soundbite of sweeping)

FRANK: On this day at Naba Goya Hill, the Abayudaya community is deep into Passover preparation. A young man who calls himself Am Ram(ph) is crouched under the low hanging branches of the tree. As he works, the leaves brush the top of his green and white knit yarmulke. He's bent over a large bowl of cool water and beside him are slaughtered chickens to kosher and cook.

Mr. AM RAM: I'm just making (unintelligible) to be into pieces so that we can make it into kosher properly, so that we can't spill something like blood.

FRANK: Celebrations in eastern Uganda haven't always been so open. The thriving community used to exchange and compare Jewish practices with Israeli development workers and other international visitors. But in the 1970s the repressive era of dictator Idi Amin ended that. The Abayudaya community shrank dramatically from 3,000 to about 300 people.

It's taken the Jewish community here a long time to recover. Today, there are still only three active synagogues in the country - there used to be nearly 35. The largest of the remaining temples is the Moses Synagogue here on Naba Goya Hill.

Tall wooden doors open up to a room that's not much bigger than a one-room schoolhouse. And tonight in different corners, tables are set up like workstations.

Unidentified Woman: We're making haroset.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FRANK: Can you hear it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FRANK: Haroset is the gummy mixture meant to represent the mortar that holds bricks together. Jews had to lay bricks when they were slaves in Egypt. At the moment, Sarah Gooden is up to her elbows in this concoction. She's originally from New Jersey, but works as a public health researcher in the capital of Uganda.

Tonight, she's among the many guests who have traveled hours or even days to celebrate here.

Ms. SARAH GOODEN (Public Health Researcher): Normally in the U.S. we make haroset with apples and wine and almonds and cinnamon. But here they don't have those fruits so this is a delicious mixture of peanuts, a peanut paste and very red pineapples. And I am a sticky, sticky, sticky mess.

FRANK: Rabbi Erin Kintu Moses says that in addition to the Passover holiday, tonight is a night for Ugandans to celebrate their freedom to reconnect with the wider Jewish world.

Mr. MOSES: Today, we have so many from all over the world. We have people from Israel, from America, you know, from Kenya, Kampala, all these places. So it's great.

FRANK: In a few hours, hundreds of people will pack this small synagogue, and amid foreign languages and some friendly chaos, they will recite the story of Passover, a story common to them all.

For NPR News, I'm Jocelyn Frank.

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