By Lorne Mallin
NABUGOYE HILL, Mbale, Uganda—Endings and beginnings. The Jewish world recently celebrated Simchat Torah, when we mark the end of the yearly cycle of Torah reading by chanting the last few verses of the scroll and then beginning anew with the first few verses of Genesis. I joined the Abayudaya community at services in drumming, dancing and singing our hearts out.
My time at Nabugoya Hill is coming to an end. I will miss the beauty of the land and the Abayudaya. There are many threads to weave together in the next few days from my volunteer work over the past six months. On Shabbat I’m sponsoring a Kiddush lunch of rice,beans, goat and eggplant (including a token contribution from whatsurvived in my garden). On Sunday, I’m going to Entebbe airport with JJ Keki, who is flying to Amsterdam with me before we separate – JJ to New York to begin his Kulanu-Abayudaya speaking tour
(www.kulanu.org), and me back to Canada….
And then a new beginning. God willing, I’ll return to Uganda around Dec. 1 to get settled in my new home in Kampala and begin working Dec. 15 as manager of publications and material development for the Uganda office of BRAC, the world’s largest antipoverty group (www.brac.net). A great fringe benefit of the job is that with BRAC being Bangladesh-based, the lunch room serves yummy curries.
In Kampala, I’ve rented a brand-new three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment for $383 Canadian a month (far more than mostUgandans earn in a month). It’s a 10-minute walk from my new office,which is about five kilometres south of downtown Kampala. In the ritzier sections of the city it would easily cost three times as much.
There are cattle, chickens and vegetable plots along the dirt road to my place. Unfurnished here means no fridge or stove. With no legislated tenant protection, landlords have free rein – six months’ rent in advance plus a month’s security deposit.
The High Holy Days were very high here in Nabugoya with almost 300 people, many dressed in white, jamming the Moses Synagogue.
Services were a combination of Abayudaya practices developed over the 90 years since their community began, and more familiar Conservative songs and prayers from Rabbi Gershom Sizomu’s training in that movement. I walked late into mincha (afternoon) services on Rosh Hashanah to hear something for the first time – Shirat Hayam,the Song of the Sea (of reeds), translated into Luganda by the founder of the Abayudaya, Semei Kakungulu. The rhythm he composed was steady, almost plodding, and the melody simple and repetitive, evoking the songs of Canadian First Nations peoples.
For many years, this was the centrepiece of Abayudaya worship and everyone memorized
Another first was offering the Birkat Hacohanim (Priestly Blessing) by myself. I’m usually one of a number of descendents of the priestly tribe in the congregation. One Israeli visitor on Rosh Hashanah happened to be a Levi and helped me with the ritual handwashing.
I also enjoyed being the Baal Tekiah, blowing the shofar that punctuates the services, and reading Torah on Yom Kippur.
Friends and I felt very elevated in our full-length, white kanzu robes. The Yom Kippur fast went quite easily,except for when the sun’s beating down on the metal roof turned the synagogue into a steambath. We all broke the fast with cups of steaming porridge from a large vat.
After returning to Uganda, I’m planning to visit the Abayudaya one Shabbat a month. There’s no synagogue in Kampala. Almost all the 200 or so Israelis there are secular. There are some non-Israeli Jewish expatriates and a handful of Abayudaya students going to university.
I love Shabbat and hope to create some kind of prayer/chant/ communal opportunity.
I leave here with a sense of some accomplishments and some loose ends. Great news: A $5,000 US grant for cervical cancer screening for the Abayudaya women and their neighbors has been approved with the very real prospect of saving lives. The poultry project is back on track with the chicken coop virtually complete and day-old chicks ordered. Aaron Kintu Moses, headmaster of Hadassah Primary School and my best friend here, took back the project from the contractor, who had only worked two days in six weeks. I’m invited every Shabbat morning to lead my teacher Rabbi Shefa Gold’s chant for Nishmat Kol Chai with the English part translated into Luganda.
The Mbale Spelling Challenge was a success even though MTN, the telecom giant, failed at the last minute to provide major sponsorship. But they did give us T-shirts that the students love. In the end, Mbale Secondary School won the trophy with 17 points, Hamdan Girls’ High School (a Muslim boarding school) earned 13 and our team racked up six. Still, our students came home in high spirits. They had enjoyed a special day with lunch at the guest house, transportation in a minivan taxi, the thrill of competition, plus the shirts and Certificatesof Participation as rewards. Now the schools know how to conduct
a spelling contest and everyone wants them to continue. MTN is talking about a 15-school competition next year but I don’t knowwhether that’s more than talk.
The Abayudaya Jewish Cookbook project now has a good body of recipes and photographs from several villages. It has been a wonderful and often tasty experience to work with the women and get a glimpse into their lives. In the coming months, I intend to test the recipes in my own kitchen and turn the research into a book proposal toattract an agent who will interest a publisher. All profits will go to the Abayudaya Women’s Association.
This article was reprinted from the fall issue of Kulanu (http://www.kulanu.org/newsletters/2009-fall.pdf) Lorne Mallin is a journalist and chant leader who volunteered for six months in Uganda, teaching writing to 11th graders, coaching a spelling team, launching an orphans’ lunch program, coaching teachers, working to bring cervical cancer screening there and to neighboring towns, putting together a cookbook of Abayudaya recipes, et al.