Mbale is the only place where you can find the Jewish community (The Abayudaya) in Uganda. They are found in the villages of Putti, Busamaga in Mbale City. Their origin date as far back as 1919 when the British tasked Semei Kakungulu with spreading Christianity in eastern Uganda. This Jewish community practice what is considered to be Orthodox Judaism.
Originally, Kakungulu was converted to Christianity by British missionaries in around 1880. He believed that the British would allow him to be king of the territories, Bukedi and Bugisu, which he had conquered in battle for them.
However, when the British limited his territory to a significantly smaller size and refused to recognize him as king as they had promised, Kakungulu began to distance himself from them.
In 1913, Kakungulu became a member of the Bamalaki sect, a sect which followed a belief system that combined elements of Christianity, Judaism and Christian Science, most notably, a refusal to use western medicine (based on a few sentences taken from the Old Testament).
This led to conflict with the British when the Bamalaki refused to vaccinate their cattle. However, upon further study of the Bible, Kakungulu came to believe that the customs and laws described in the first 5 books of Moses (Torah) were really true.
When, in 1919, Kakungulu insisted on circumcision as prescribed in the Old Testament, the Bamalaki refused and told him that, if he practiced circumcision, he would be like the Jews. Kakungulu responded, “Then, I am a Jew!” He circumcised his sons and himself and declared that his community was Jewish.
He fled to the foot of Mt. Elgon and settled in a place called Gangama where he started a separatist sect known as Kibina Kya Bayudaya Abeesiga Katonda (the Community of Jews who trust in the Lord).” The British were infuriated by this action and they effectively severed all ties with him and his followers.
The arrival of a foreign Jew known as “Yosef” in 1920 whose ancestral roots are believed to have been European, contributed much towards the community’s acquisition of knowledge about the seasons in which Jewish Festivals such as Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot, and others take place. A source in the Abayudaya community confirms that the first Jew to visit the community was Yosef, who stayed with and taught the community for about six months, and would appear to have first brought the Jewish calendar to the Abayudaya community.
Furthermore, the laws concerning Kashrut were first introduced to the community by Yosef. The community continues to practice kashrut today. Yosef’s teachings influenced Semei Kakungulu to establish a school that acted as a type of Yeshiva, with the purpose of passing on and teaching the skills and knowledge first obtained from Yosef.
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu is the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya Jewish community. He is also the member of Uganda’s parliament representing Bungokho North.