In the winter of 2000 I sent a note to a number of friends and colleagues letting them know that I was heading to Uganda to look for some Bantu Jews and inquiring if anyone wanted to come along. Most people wrote back saying: “Good luck… You are crazy.”
This is how Richard Sobol recalls the beginning of his two-year effort with the Abayudaya—which would become a triumph of photojournalism, ethnomusicology, and the preservation of oral histories. Of course, Sobol was not crazy. He was just one of the first few outsiders to learn about the Abayudaya (which means “the Jewish people” in the community’s native Luganda), and his work has helped to spread knowledge of their culture and their courage, their history of struggle and hope.
You may be asking yourself: but who are they? How did a group of subsistence farmers in eastern Uganda come to establish a community committed to the traditions and practice of the Jewish faith? Even more remarkably, how did they do so with no initial outside influence or assistance? Sobol tells their extraordinary story in his book Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda, published by Abbeville Press, which features his stunning, full color photoessays. The photographs collected in this volume illuminate the Abayudaya and their way of life, and each portrait sings its own story in harmony with the community’s history.
That history begins with Semei Kakungulu—a renowned buffalo hunter, warrior, and local leader, whom the British military enlisted to aid in their effort to colonize Uganda. The British rewarded Kakungulu’s twenty years of service with betrayal and withdrawal of their support. Kakungulu went into seclusion and ultimately found inspiration in the Old Testament, vowing, as Sobol explains, “to return to what he felt was the authentic message of the Bible as it was given to the Jews.”
During his time in Uganda, Sobol had the opportunity to connect with community elders, including then-93-year-old Rabbi Samson Mogombe, who was one of the first disciples of Semei Kakungulu in the 1920s. Rabbi Mogombe now has over eighty children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to carry on his memory and his faith. Sobol shares with us a moment of tenderness between Rabbi Mogombe and his family, after singing a psalm together:
Samson…wipes a tear from his eye and says, “This story of Moses is my story too, and it will be my children who will see the land of Israel, not me. … In the Book of Prophets I have read that as Jews we are promised everlasting life in the world to come. I have lived a long life and will be extremely happy to die as a Jew.”
To celebrate Black History Month, we’re offering a discount on Abayudaya. Click here and use code BLACK HISTORY 2013 at checkout to save 30% off the list price. Please be sure to click the “redeem coupon” button after you enter code BLACK HISTORY 2013 to apply your discount. The code is valid through February 28th.