Floating down the Nile River on a ferry to the grandiose Murchison Falls, watching elephants spray water from their trunks, and taking in the beauty of Africa is undeniably unreal. All of the unpaved dirt roads and impoverishment cannot detract from the sheer natural beauty of Uganda. From sampling fried grasshoppers in an open-air market to going on a safari, get a glimpse of what traveling to Uganda is really like.
The flight to Uganda left me utterly curious. I had never been to Africa before and now I was going to be there for two action-packed weeks. On day one, no time was wasted. The alarm went off at 6 a.m., and while I lamented the lack of sleep, my feelings quickly changed once I was on a ferryboat cruising down the Nile River.
When the boat approached Murchison Falls, I leapt off and hiked to the top of the waterfall for a most fantastic view. About 100 feet in front of me was a sheet of white mist flowing heavily behind two massive boulders. The rocks looked like an entryway for the mist and I wished I could dive straight into it. The lookout over Murchison Falls is intense with sound. It was hard to hear anything other than the roar of the gushing water.
The boat ride down the Nile leading to the waterfall was pretty incredible, but the real fun was about to begin. My group was heading to a local safari reserve. My favorite animal has always been the giraffe, and in Uganda, seeing one up close was exceptional. Their heads held high above the treetops, they move with grace, poise and elegance. They’ve also got huge, delicate eyes with lashes lusher than leafy bushes. Don’t even get me started on those spots! It’s like each one was carefully hand painted.
After a fun-filled safari, my group traveled to Jinja, a city in eastern Uganda. We were split between two scrap metal vans. It was really uncomfortable to be in a moving vehicle on uneven terrain for so long, but the sights along the drive were worth it. I never knew such vibrant colors existed except for on paint palettes. The trees in Uganda are the greenest kind of green, the sky is the bluest kind of blue, and the clouds are the whitest kind of white. It’s incredible. Another revelation of being in a third-world country was my skin. Children living in huts on the road would see us in the vans and go ballistic! I’m talking screaming wildly, arms flailing, running after us. We were the first white people they had ever seen.
After we finally made it to Jinja, we were taken out to a local bar. There was a pool table, bar, and outside tables and chairs. If you are looking to party, you will not find that scene in Uganda. They don’t even have vodka. There are a few indigenous spirits that exist, but other than that, there’s beer. I tried a Nile Special beer that wasn’t bad. We were there to meet with the Putti, a breakaway community of the Abayudaya tribe. The Abayudaya live in the green, rolling hills of eastern Uganda, near the city of Mbale. They support themselves through subsistence farming. These rural Ugandans share much with their neighbors; the surrounding fields bursting with sugar cane, banana trees, births, marriages, death and a western toilet. The only significant difference between the Abayudaya and their neighbors is that they practice Judaism rather than Christianity.
They set themselves apart through devout Judaism and their adherence to the belief that some day they will be accepted and recognized as Jews. The Putti community broke away from the Abayudaya because they wanted to be more religious. A man named Semei Kakungulu founded the Abayudaya (People of Judah) community in 1917 in Uganda. As the community grew, many people began to decide individually what aspects of Judaism they found most important. Those who wanted to pursue Judaism in a more orthodox fashion left the Abayudaya and became the Putti community, Putti being the name of the village they settled in. They live in a village several miles away from the Abayudaya with much fewer amenities. As soon as we stepped off the van, we were greeted with ear-to-ear smiles and friendly handshakes from the entire Putti community.
We followed them to their humble synagogue, a brick structure with a few windows, a white wooden ark and makeshift benches and a bima. Sitting among members of the Putti community, we listened to their leader speak about the community, their upbringing, values and hopes for the future of the community. After listening to the Putti sing beautiful Hebrew songs with their own African flair, we split into groups of Africans and Americans.
The children we were with decided to teach us one of their games. Well, I don’t know if it can be called a game because there’s no winner or loser. You start with everyone sitting down while one person walks around the perimeter of the circle, singing and clapping. Then, the leader taps someone sitting in the circle on the head, that person rises and follows the leader. The leader continues to tap people’s heads and have them join the parade until there is only one person left. Once there is only one person left sitting, everyone runs to that person and tickles him or her until he laughs uncontrollably and then the “game” starts all over again. Our outrageous laughter seemed to attract the entire community because soon everyone was laughing and singing along.
Days later, I was still captivated by the Putti community as we sped along to a local marketplace. Set along a dusty dirt road in seemingly the middle of nowhere is a vibrant market full of local clothing and delicacies. I made my way to one vendor who was selling fried grasshoppers out of a giant bin. He offered me one to try and I grabbed it by the leg to examine it— green and partly brown from being fried, it looked sufficiently dead so I crunched down hard. It wasn’t as bad as I feared. It was almost like a thicker potato chip. Not that I’ll be making it a dietary staple, but I love to sample the local cuisine wherever I am. I also picked up a long, yellow dress that ties at the shoulders for less than a US dollar. Ugandan women wear the most beautiful and colorful long dresses, and I would definitely recommend picking one up as a souvenir.
After my adventure through the market, my group set off to meet with the Abayudaya tribe and spend Shabbat with them. Upon arrival, we were met with the same welcome as the Putti. However, we were told not mention our previous visit with the Putti community because it would upset the Abayudaya. There was a clear difference in social standing between the two communities; the Abayudaya have many more amenities such as a school consisting of multiple rooms, a vast green field, a charming Beit Knesset, and, wait for it, a western toilet!
Where practically all Ugandan citizens are Catholic, Semei Kakungulu, a Muganda military leader, found deep profoundness in the Torah. He blindly believed in the customs written about and proclaimed “Then we will be Jewish!” To prove he was not only talk, Kakungulu circumcised himself and his sons and declared himself and his community Jewish. The arrival of a foreign Jew named Yosef helped them learn the ABCs, or Aleph Bet Gimel of Judaism. Thanks to Yosef, the community quickly acquired knowledge regarding Jewish customs, traditions, holidays and Kashrut laws. Yosef's teachings influenced Semei Kakungulu to establish a school that acted as a Yeshiva, with the purpose of passing on and teaching the skills and knowledge first attained from Yosef.
After Kakungulu's death, his followers divided into two groups. One group reverted to Christianity and the other group, the Abayudaya, became devout Jews. They isolated themselves for self-protection and survived persecution, including that of Idi Amin, who outlawed Jewish rituals and destroyed temples around the country. Out of fear from Uganda’s abrasive president, a large percentage of the Abayudaya community converted to either Christianity or Islam. A core group of roughly 300 members remained, worshipping secretly, in fear of being discovered by their neighbors and being reported to the authorities. This story of religious persecution sounds almost identical to the story of Morano Jews in Portugal during the Inquisition.
As I settled into a space on the grass atop Abugoya Hill, my eyes beheld true beauty. Trees full of life, the most pristine blue sky, a glorious yellow sun and a group of Americans and Africans, all teeming with things to say. The smell of grass and a slightly musty sensation crept inside my nostrils as distant sounds of children playing prevailed over the immediate conversation being held around me.
Saturday night, after the sun set over the hills signifying that Shabbat was over, my group and the Abayudaya community celebrated each other’s presence with song and dance underneath the brightest stars I have ever seen. Everyone from my group was scattered amongst the crowd dancing with people of all ages. The next morning, we left the Abayudaya with reluctant goodbyes and exchanged email addresses. I thanked them for being able to witness the beauty of their community, their kindness, their hospitality, their good humor and their infinite dignity. Entering their strange nomadic world, so different from my own, made me appreciate everything that isn’t necessary in my life.
We made our way to the country’s capital, Kampala, where we visited the Kasubi Tombs, home to the buried Buganda Kings. We learned about the tombs and the site’s significance in the main building, built as a replica of the first palace. On entering the courtyard to the site, I was captured by the sight of the first palace called Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga. It’s basically a massive hut with a dome-like shape. The thick thatched roof extends all the way down to the ground. One enters Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga through a low, wide arch flanked on both sides by richly woven reeds. The inside of the structure is partitioned using a huge bark cloth which conceals the “sacred forest,” home to the four royal graves. Entrance to the “sacred forest” is limited to the widows of the Kabakas (kings), the royal family, the Naalinya, and Katikkiro.
The inside of the house is adorned with power insignias such as drums, spears, shields, medals, and photographs of the Kabakas buried there. The floor is covered with a thick layer of lemon grass and mats made of palm leaves. Supporting the roof, there are 52 rings of spear grass that also serve as a representation of the number of Ganda clans, or royal families. The tombs and the surrounding area carry strong spiritual and social significance while the architecture itself carries meanings related to the Ganda traditions. Power, wealth, multiple wives, and a big ego are all common factors among the Buganda Kings. After a full day, I fell into a deep sleep at the hotel.
On my last day in Uganda, my group was supposed to go on an exciting excursion to Chimpanzee Island, but we were disappointed on hearing that German government officials took our spot. A big part of travel is adaptability and being able to go with the flow when plans suddenly change. So instead of Chimpanzee Island, we embarked on a walking tour of some obscure forest where we still saw a few monkeys. The end of the trip felt abrupt, but that didn’t stop it from being one of the most eye-opening trips I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.