Shalom Ugan­da: A Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty On the Equator

  • Review
By – March 13, 2021

In 1949, Kam­pala, Ugan­da became home to a small com­mu­ni­ty of East­ern Euro­pean Jews who set­tled there after the sec­ond world war. Jan­ice Masur, the author of Shalom Ugan­da, spent part of her child­hood in Kam­pala, and in this well-researched book she offers a thor­ough his­to­ry of the region, as well as a per­son­al account of life in that community.

The book begins with a gen­er­al overview of Jews in Africa, going back as far as 1867 (though the book points out that Jews start­ed to arrive on the African coast in the 1400s). Masur’s own com­mu­ni­ty set­tled in Kam­pala between 1949 and 1961. Her per­son­al mem­o­ries — sup­ple­ment­ed by inter­views with oth­ers who lived there — offer glimpses into the day-to-day life, the Jew­ish prac­tice, and the ways in which the com­mu­ni­ty lived with echoes of the Holocaust.

Some of the author’s rec­ol­lec­tions are charm­ing anec­dotes: she describes how her Eritre­an nurse­maid, Abhret, taught her how to thread glass beads on a string, how to swear in Tigre, and how to throw stones at stray dogs when [they] walked about the town togeth­er.” Oth­er mem­o­ries deft­ly explore inter­ac­tions from her youth whose sig­nif­i­cance she only came to under­stand lat­er in life: My moth­er spent a lot of time scream­ing at the house­boy in frus­tra­tion at his sup­posed inabil­i­ty to fol­low instruc­tions, which I lat­er learned was a pas­sive tac­tic of rebel­lion against British rule.”

Whilethe com­mu­ni­ty had no rab­bi, the fam­i­lies did their best to main­tain Jew­ish cus­toms, includ­ing hav­ing six­ty pounds of matzah sent from Nairo­bi in time for Passover, and, one year, a rab­bi was import­ed from South Africa for Yom Kip­pur.” Still, while Masur writes that she was not aware of any open dis­crim­i­na­tion among her Kam­palan teenage cohort, anti-Semi­tism con­tin­ued to be the dark under­bel­ly — oblique and sub­tle, applied to cer­tain schools, choice hous­ing and job allo­ca­tion.” Some chose to hide their Jew­ish­ness, and Masur’s own par­ents gave her the choice of whether to hide or reveal her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty depend­ing on circumstances.

Ulti­mate­ly, the com­mu­ni­ty in Kam­pala did not sur­vive and left few traces of its exis­tence. The fam­i­lies left. There had been no syn­a­gogue to mark the community’s life there, and the Jew­ish ceme­tery dis­ap­peared, leav­ing no trace. Most dis­turbing­ly, this com­mu­ni­ty of East­ern Euro­pean Jews seems to have been writ­ten out of the his­to­ry of the region.

Masur notes that there is some aware­ness of the Abayu­daya Jews of Ugan­da — descen­dants of an African mil­i­tary leader who began liv­ing a Jew­ish life in 1919 — but, until now, there has been lit­tle com­mon knowl­edge of the his­to­ry of Euro­pean Jews in Africa, and Shalom Ugan­da serves as a fas­ci­nat­ing overview of this sel­dom dis­cussed history.

Discussion Questions