Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Rabbi Gershom becomes an MP in the Uganda Elections

Rabbi Gershom'soffice in Nabugoye staffed with his loyal followers. It was nice to see that in Nabugoye religioin was not allowed to play any role in the Rabbi's election. Jews, Muslims and Christians all count amongst the Rabbi's supporters

My apologies for having taken so long to update the blog. I have in recent years faced a number of family tragedies and illness.
Rabbi Gershom with some helpers was worried about his supporters being made to stand for hours in the hot sun to vote. The voting procedure seemed designed to wear people down and discourage them. If the hope by the ruling party was that people would go away that did not work, although some people were unable to vote because the 4pm deadline passed whilst they were waiting in line.
Wonderful things have been happening in Uganda and Kenya. The Abayudaya's beloved Rabbi Gershom was after a long, bitter and hard struggle finally in 2016 declared a Member of Parliament with all that entails for him and his community in Mbale. Nabugoye has a new and beautiful synagogue and a bakery. The Ol Kalau community is going from strength to strength with its children being educated in school and communal a allotment being farmed.

When I was in Uganda last year I made it a point to visit communities I had not been to before and hope soon to write about them and also show you the pictures. Uganda is indeed a beautiful country although its people are suffering severely from the recent drought.

We who come from western countries have no idea what it is to stand for election as an opposition MP in a developing country. Uganda has for decades been effectively a one party state although it does barely tolerate the opposition. The opposition whilst allowed to field candidates in elections is not really intended to win those elections. In order that the elections are won by the ruling candidates all manner of tools from the gerrymanders manual of stealing elections are used. Voters and candidates are intimidated, votes are stolen, lost, ballots are stuffed etc etc.
As I was the official observer I felt I could push the boat out and even film the whole event including the police. I did wonder whether this was now going to cost me a beating and arrest (I have learned to be very careful about not upsetting police in developing countries). Election day was however the exception to the rule about photographing police in Uganda. They were on their best behaviour in Nabugoye.
The police are there not so much to assure the safety and sanctity of democratic elections but to make sure that the President and his men get re-elected.
It was a long day for Musa's aged father. This amiable man has not only brought up his children as a farmer on his own but did his duty for the community and his rabbi despite the heat and the sun.

This is where humble me came in. I was asked to be the elections observer to see that no foul play happened and to record anything that did happen. Some untoward things did take place but I was happy to see that my presence seemed to have a calming effect on the police. Beatings are not meant to be splashed in foreign news reports and that is the fear of the ruling classes in despotic countries when international observers are present and doing their job. I say that last phrase because the EU turned up in Mbale and manifestly did not do their job! They spent at the most and hour in the council chambers and a few minutes at the sharp end outside where the police had been using violence. I spent the whole day there and was rewarded with the beautiful sight of the Rabbi being lifted aloft and born away on the shoulders of his voters.

Rabbi Gershom talking to a local reporter in Nabugoye
I know little about the political system in Uganda but have been told that President Musuveni brought peace to Uganda after the catastrophic reigns of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. It was interesting that some people I talked to were more afraid of violence returning than of having their votes not counted.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Chanukah in Ol Kalou

Mt Kenya through a telephoto lens
I went to spend Chanuka with the Ol Kalou community. The community were kind enough to offer to meet me at the airport, but things didn't turn out that way. The day I arrived was the day the minibus drivers decided to strike. My poor friends could not get to the airport, and when I eventually realised that I was on my own (I bought a sim at the airport and then found out what had happened, from my contact in Ol Kalou, who then gave my reception committee my new number ) got a taxi into town. That took around two hours. Getting back to Ol Kalou was also difficult and expensive. For once even the highway outside the city was very busy as people all over the country pressed personal vehicles into use.

Eventually we got to Ol Kalou and I was given one of the family's rooms to sleep in. 
The kitchen, deadly for wheezers like me
 Everyone was so nice, I tried not to get in the way whilst there. Easy when this view is to be had:
The peak of Mt Kenya in the far distance
Whilst in this part of the world it's a crime to forget the birds. Avraham's garden is the best place to spot them
The balloons (filled with rice, nice and noisy) went down a treat
Everyone loves to spoil Sarah the youngest child
 I spent the next few days distributing the various things I had brought. As usual half the things had to be left behind. Whatever you can bring though will be well received. The the boxes of Chanukah candles went well with the lovely menorah brought by a previous american visitor, I think her name was Elaine. The simplest of things back home such as kiddush wine can be a rare commodity out here. 
The chanukiyah is just to the right of the burning shabbat candles.
  The shabbat candles were lit and then the kids sang many of their songs. Many of the songs are well known to anyone in an orthodox jewish community, but they gain a very particular interpretation so that they are not easy to sing along to. It's best just to sit back and enjoy the concert. If you know some songs they will always be very happy to learn from you. Same goes if you have time to spend in the community teaching hebrew or anything else to do with the religion.
The challa made by Daniel was scrumptious
 After the kids sang their songs the chanukiya was lit and I gave my rendering of Hanerot Halalu and Maotsur. (By the eighth day the kids were singing along), and then Ruth said the blessing over the candles, bringing in the shabbat.
Yosef lighting the menorah (The map is the Madaba map of Jerusalem)
There is no cooking on shabbat, but they have invented a slow burning fire made of ashes and charcoal to keep  a kettle of water hot through the night. And very welcome are hot drinks in that part of the world at night. Nights can be very cold despite being on the equator (The place is very high up).
When I needed help with an administrative problem in Kenya I was given a jewish contact who could help. I decided that to solve my problem using the contact would involve a long detour into the back country, so instead opted to have the business done closer to home in Ol Kalou. I should have listened to Yosef my host.

Some thousands of shillings later I found myself deep in Kenyan bureacracy, had wasted a lot of time, was mired in a corrupt system and still did not get what I needed.
The mistake was in thinking like a 'mzungu' used to western norms of administration, forgetting that contacts in african countries can be important in smoothing the way, in avoiding expensive cul de sacs. 

Miriam having her hair braided
 Miriam is 8 years old and without any prompting attends all the community services, knows all the songs. She is basically part of the community, part of the family. She spends nearly all her time playing with yosef's family, taking her meals with them. Little Miriam has adopted this tiny community, like them finding her way into judaism. I didn't see her parents in the weeks i spent with the community.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Reading the Megillah and the Mesibah

I was asked to tell the story of Purim before reading the megillah for the benefit of the children and then began the reading of the text in hebrew before Yoseph took over the reading in the native Kikuyu language. 

Purim isn't new to this community, as messianic jews who live in the area keep jewish festivals such as Purim, although in a christian context (Joseph told me that it was therefore not a difficult step for a messianic jew to decide to believe only in the Torah and halachic teachings).

After reading the megilah we had a party. We had earlier prepared falafel from Osem's very good falafel mix that had travelled to this tiny village in Africa from Israel via Tescos. As well as the falafel balls we made 'laafa' bread for the salad and falaful. Getting the bread baked on the small charcoal burners involved not a little experimenting but we got there in the end.

 Bagels I had taken with me also went down a treat toasted and topped with a piece of mature english cheddar. In one evening I had introduced both bagels and falafel to Africa!

That so many people came to hear the megilah was heart warming. The community members had not jumped into a car and driven in comfort to hear the megilah but for not a few this had meant a walk of many miles over atrocious country lanes in the dark with only the moon to light their way. That is a token of the Ol Kalou jews' determination to keep their faith. 

The pictures above were taken with flash. The room was however quite dark as there is no electric power in the community. Life is quite basic.
The above scene but taken without flash 

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Messianic jews and judaism

In the week I was in Gathundia I did not witness any altercations amongst the children, not even any raised voices.

The warm personality of the soft spoken Ruth and her husband Joseph seems to be reflected in well behaved and happy children.

 In the cold evenings the children congregate together in the tiny smoke filled kitchen eating their dinner, and preparing the next day's school lunch.

Joseph's wife Ruth rarely sat down during the many hours that I was with Yoseph and other members of the community who would pop in. Yoseph was recovering from a bout of a flu like illness so he was taking a break from his normal routine of hard physical work.

Sorting the crop of beans. This year's harvest was meagre owing to the drought

4) Yoseph and members of the community are very interested in modern Israel and its achievements. As former messianic christians who had rejected the teachings of the New Testament they found Josephus enlightening. Josephus wrote his book the Jewish Wars which includes an account not just of the terrible slaughter inflicted on the Jews of the Land of Israel by the Romans, but of much of the life, culture personalities and even of the great building works of the Herodian period, such as the aqueducts, the city of Caesaria and its amazing harbour. That Jesus was not once referred to in this contemporary account does not lend credence to the later writings about him, even if Jesus himself existed, which is not a foregone conclusion.

Josephus confirms the Gathundia jews in their previous decision to leave christianity as practised by the messianic 'jews'. The step was not a great wrench as the messianic christian 'jewish' movement celebrates all jewish holidays, even Purim. And the sabbath is also held on Saturday the seventh day of the week as with jews according to the Bible.

My Purim visit to the community meant taking a five mile trip in a matatu (a transit van filled until the door can only close with difficulty) to an internet shop boasting a grand total of three ancient desktops in order to download a hebrew/english version of Megilat Esther that was kindly uploaded as a pdf file by Chabad. The excruciatingly slow computers were matched only by the printer. Thirteen pages took 45 minutes to print! Anyone who used the first inkjet printers of the mid 90's will remember this experience fondly.

Megilat Esther is recited each year on the festival of Purim to celebrate the saving of the jews of Persia from the vizier Haman who wished to annihilate the whole jewish community. Haman met a bad end as did a later man with the same murderous intent. And now Persia/Iran has Ahmadinejad who is unable to restrain himself when describing his genocidal intent vis-a-vis the jewish people.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Visiting the Kenyan Ol Kalou Jewish Community

I spent the week of Purim with the Gathundian community and was very much affected by the warmth of this tiny community who looked after me and cared for my every need whilst I was with them. Whilst the community is very poor by any western standards they possess qualities that are lost to our materialistic society. Joseph and Ruth's family functions as a unit, with the older ones amongst the 13 children taking their roles in doing the various household tasks.

Doing the washing

For example Joseph's eldest daughter gets up at 5am, walks for an hour in order to arrive in school by 6:30am, doing her homework and preparation for the beginning of the school day at 8:30am. She stays in school until 6pm, and must attend 6 days a week. Getting home at 7:30pm the oldest sibling still at home entails caring for the younger children as well as helping with household tasks such as washing clothes. the eldest child is also delegated by the parents to mediate disputes. Joseph told me that it is rare for a dispute amongst the children to be so serious so as to be brought to their parents' attention. The younger children recognise that their sister will deal fairly with them and accept her decisions.