Friday, 16 March 2012

Meeting the Ol Kalou Jewish Community

This account of my visit to Keny and Uganda's jewish communities, of Ol Kalou and the Abayudaya is long and will appear over the coming days.


I visited the tiny Ol Kalou jewish community in Kenya ( near Mt Kenya ) after passing by the very well guarded Israeli embassy in Nairobi to pick up some books, pamphlets and maps (Thank you to both the UK and Nairobi embassies) . I spent the time on my hands before leaving for Ol Kalou by walking around the capital. Having walked much of the center of Nairobi during the day and in the evening I now believe it isn't half as dangerous as those pundits posting on the different travel forums will have you believe. The hotel staff who try to persuade you to take taxis they order for you are of course interested in hyping up the dangers (most likely for a share of the take).

With a bit of common sense such as not going into unlit areas, and keeping to the main streets, the only people to fear are the aggressive beggars who truth be told, can make your life miserable. But they aren't everywhere, so if you find yourself in Nairobi center I would recommend not to be put off walking ( as long as you keep a careful watch). After a day or two of getting to know the layout of the place, there isn't in truth much to see. There are few, if any buildings of any architectural significance and the Uhuru park is little more than grassed over wasteland. The feeling is of an old délabré colonial city, at least in the center around Kenyatta Ave. It goes downhill from there.
The only unpleasant incident I had was when I was chased a little way up the street in the downtown area during the day by a half crazed woman carrying a baby, and who was trying to punch me with her free hand! Luckily she became out of breath before me an asthmatic not in the best of fitness came to a standstill (It's surprising what one can do when the adrenilin is racing around the body). I warded off her punches with my cloth bag bought from a supermarket in Germany. It was very nice and weighty with a water bottle in it, the perfect yet harmless disincentive to punching me. My offense had been my disinclination to donate to her cause. The sad fact is that it is impossible to give everyone who asks, and the street beggars are especially difficult as care needs to be taken when giving so as not to be overwhelmed by a crush of those who pile on to receive their share.
Once when a mob of expectant kids made for me I threw all the coins I had in the air behind the throng. That saved me from being mobbed and allowed a (somewhat) quick get away. Not very dignified, but being the target of a feeding frenzy isn't the most pleasant feeling.
Getting to the Ol Kalou community takes about three hours in a minibus 'matatu' that goes from somewhere downtown. 'Downtown' is in the feared River Rd/Latema Rd area. During the day when walking there I didn't see any other 'Mzungu' or 'whiteys'. Wherever you walk in this area and indeed in Kenya and Uganda you will hear this appellation. It's usually not badly meant,  just a greeting, although one man while I have been writing this was very upset to see a 'mzungu' walking around with a black lady. People in the restaurant were smiling, so the man's distress does not seem to be shared by all. Apart from the above incident downtown i've not encountered any bad feelings directed towards me.
After a few hours in the Matatu I arrived in Kasuku a small trading centre and was met by one of my hosts. We took a couple of 'boda boda' motorcycle taxis to Gathundia to meet the Ol Kalou community. The main road was okay, but the couple of kilometres or so dirt road to the village was in quite bad condition, not ideal if like me you suffer from a bad back! The boda drivers would make good rally motorcyclists in the UK. I'm sure the conditions they face are much the worst possible. One track I travelled on was unbelievable. Luckily it wasn't raining.
The center of the jewish community of Gathundia is as usual the synagogue. This is found on the land of Abraham Ndungu. Abraham and his sons farm some 20 acres of land in their tiny community of aspiring jews whose greatest wish is to be accepted by the wider jewish community.

The community lacks anyone trained in the orthodox stream of judaism. They felt rejected when their overtures to the orthodox community in Nairobi were all but rejected. The Ol Kalou jews turned instead towards the Abayudaya community centered in Nabugoya near the town of Mbale in Uganda and led by their conservative trained rabbi Gershom Suzomu (this doesn't mean that the OK jews have turned their backs on orthodoxy. I was given to feel that they would very much like to be accepted by the orthodox community, however slight the possibility of that happening). When rabbi Suzomu visited the Gathundia/Ol Kalou community he was convinced of their sincerity and extended the help of the relatively long established Abayudayah community to them by facilitating the converting and educating of children of Gathundia who make their way to the Abayudaya community in Uganda. 

Some of the younger members of the Gathundia community have now undergone conversion by rabbis belonging to the Conservative movement in America. As the journey to Uganda is long and expensive for community members, it is unlikely that they will ever make the trip, or ever be reccognised as jews by any official stream of jewry. Another problem is that a bet din to examine candidates for conversion is only convened in Nabugoyah the Abayudaya center every 3-5 years.

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