Monday, February 22, 2010
Mbale, Sipi falls, and the Abayuday
we just got returned from a weekend out east in Mbale. Mbale is a town close to the Kenyan border, about 4 hours by public taxi from Kampala. the trip was a consolation prize for not having the time to climb mount Elgon, the 4th largest mountain in Africa. Our first stop was Sipi falls, a series of tall waterfalls that cascade down the side of mt Elgon.
The trip to Sipi falls involves a public taxi toMbale, the 4th largest town in Uganda, but really just an African trading center. From Mbale we got into a random van. As you get out into the Ugandan bush, taxis become less frequent, and so anyone with a car becomes a taxi. Unfortunatly, as Guy was getting out of the van, his phone fell out of his pocket. Once we were sitting at the camp in the middle of a huge rain/hail storm and guy realized that he did not have his phone, we of course called it and an African man answered and promptly hung up when he heard a mzungus's voice. We played a game like that, texting that there would be a reward if the phone was returned with no answer. Eventually, a kid who works at the camp came by and knew the guy who was driving the van. He called him and lo and behold, the guy knew where the phone was. Apparently, after dropping us off, a boy had picked it up but that boy was then dropped off at the hospital in town and the driver needed to pay some policeman to help get the phone back. the driver was able to accomplish this task in all of 5 minutes and it was quite clear that he had taken the phone and was trying to save face while making a buck. The phone eventually came back (with some airtime still left on it, surprisingly) and Guy gave him 40,000 shillings ($20) to pay for the "policeman". Ah Africa....
After that small adventure, we had a great time in Sipi. The falls are beautiful and we hiked through small villages, matoke groves, and bull-plowed fields to reach all three of them. The water was fresh and cold and we had a good swim with some local boys (seems to be the theme) and drank some local beer with local farmers made of corn (disgusting and pulpy). Along the way, in the middle of a very steep downhill including rickety wooden ladders and no switchbacks, we came across a Ugandan farmer walking up the same trail balancing 3 bunches of matoke and a hoe, weighing upwards of 80 lbs. on her head. She was walking up the steep hill, including the ladders with her amazing load!
We left Sipi without any phone delays and carried on to spend Shabbat with a community of Ugandan Jews called the Abayudaya. This community was founded in the early 1900s by a Ugandan who was given jurisdiction over the eastern region of Uganda by the British while it was still a protectorate. He decided that Christian practice had strayed too far from the original intent of the bible and decided to rewind and follow the old testament, forming a group of followers that began to practice Judaism. Today Abayudaya have about 1000 members spread over eastern Uganda and focused around Mbale. They have a Ugandan rabbi who studied in Los Angeles and Israel and they read and speak Hebrew during services, keep kosher, wear Kipas, keep Shabbat and follow conservative Jewish traditions. Apart from that, the place is totally African: naked babies, chickens pecking the earth, laundry drying on bushes, women carrying things on their heads, kids chasing us and calling us mzungu, boda bodas etc... We were invited to attend Friday night services which started with drums and songs but continued as evening services would in any conservative synagogue. We met Itzchak Byaki, Samson Shadrak, Israel manumbamba, and Yael Gadongawe, what a trip! We did Kiddush at Israel's house using a local made Challah and Kosher grape juice imported from Kenya. Unfortunately we did not get a chance to hang out with the rabbi or any of the other community members because we had dinner with Isaac who runs the guesthouse. Shabbat dinner was "food" with fried fish.
The experience was surreal: Authentic Jewish service, discussion of the difficulties of being a Jew in this foreign environment and reading and reciting Hebrew with word for word translation into Lugandan. They focused on the ancient Jewish theme of strangers in a strange land, and of the meek holding the light of truth against the strong tide of the many. The Abayudaya run a Jewish primary and secondary school that is open to all and is reportedly the best school in Mbale. They appear to have support from western liberal Jewish institutions. They even have a Torah donated by the state of Israel. We were fascinated and found it hard to get our minds around the crazy contradictions of their life.
We made it back to Kampala in one piece and had an evening with my friend Rachel who was also a resident in Oakland and is now working in Malawi doing HIV/TB medicine through Baylor university. She was in Kampala with her mom on a vacation and it was really fun to catch up.
we have 2 more weeks of work here in Uganda and then the traveling really begins. stay tuned for more posts...
Click here for the link to more pictures from Mbale and the abayudaya.