As Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni celebrated yet another election success in late February, he has been in power for 30 years, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu and his followers in the remote eastern village of Nabugoye were celebrating their own electoral victory.
The head of a tiny rural community of Ugandan Jews, known as the Abayudaya, Sizomu had made history on February 19, becoming the first Jewish candidate to win a seat in the country’s Parliament.
“I had a flash of happiness through my body,” says Sizomu, who won 29 percent of the votes in his constituency of Bungokho North, a rural area near the Kenyan border, and edged out seven other candidates.
“We don’t ask for a lot. Political influence is good for our survival. I can use this position to advocate for my people.” Sizomu was sworn into the Ugandan Parliament in mid-May, the only Jew among some 380 lawmakers.
The charismatic, guitar-playing Rabbi comes from a family of Abayudaya leaders, and hopes to use his new position to advocate for Uganda’s Jews.
“We’re still a minority group in Uganda,” says Eliah Muyamba, a religious leader in the village of Namanyoni. “So we’re not politically influential in the current system."
Muamba hopes that having representation in parliament will help the community, which at times feels neglected by the government in Kampala, gain recognition and funding.
Unlike other isolated Jewish communities, the Abayudaya, which translates as People of Judah in the local Luganda language, claim no ancestral link to Judaism. They are the legacy of a warrior chief named Semei Kakungulu who, in 1919, inspired by the five books of Moses in the old testament and feeling shunned by the British colonial administration, circumcised himself and his two sons and declared himself Jewish.
In the years that followed, Jewish travellers provided support and Hebrew texts to the fledgling community, who adopted more and more Jewish customs into their daily life.
Today, there are around 2,000 Abayudaya, some of whom have officially converted into Conservative Judaism, and others who just practice without official recognition. They eat kosher food, learn Hebrew, pray at the prescribed times and strictly observe the Sabbath and other Jewish festivals.
The community co-exists peacefully with it’s Muslim and Christian neighbours, though life hasn't always been easy for them. The repressive reign of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the 1970s was a particularly difficult time for the Abayudaya, after Amin banned Judaism, forcing the community to convert or flee.
By the time he fled into exile in 1979 (on Passover, as the Abayudaya like to point out), the number of Abuyudaya had dwindled to just 300, down from 2,000 when Amin first came to power eight years earlier.
In May, Rabbi Sizomu was sworn into parliament and the community is now feeling optimistic about its future. In the village of Nabugoye, they are building a large new synagogue, complete with a mikveh—a bath used for ritual immersion—for future convertees. The rabbi’s success has also helped to raise the Abayudaya’s profile overseas, boosting the prospect of more international support for the community.