Exterior View (2012), 15” x 11” Watercolor, Jay A. Waronker
Old Old Namutumba Synagogue (Dating to 1980)
Interior View (2012), 11” x 15” Watercolor, Jay A. Waronker
Uganda is home to the Abayudaya (from the Lugandan word for “Jewish People” or “People of Judah”) community of Jews, a group made up of the large Bantu ethnic group native to Buganda, a subnational kingdom within the country. The black Abayudaya Jews live not at a single place in this region but in a string of unassuming and peaceful villages in the eastern part of Uganda not far from the border with Kenya. There a collection of modest synagogues building over fairly recent years can today be found. These Jewish houses of prayer are located to the east of Mbale, Uganda’s seventh largest city and the main municipal, administrative, and commercial center of Mbale District and the surrounding sub-region.
Christian and Muslim neighbors once looked on the Abayudaya with contempt, but inter-faith relations in recent times have improved, and some now view members of the Abayudaya with respect and admiration. Whereas the Abayudaya Jewish population was estimated at three hundred individuals at the time of the fall of Idi Amin in 1979, the community is said to now number up to two thousand people.
Besides the five synagogues located in the towns of Namutumba, Nabugoye, Putti, Namanyonyi, and Nasenyi, Abayudaya Jewish schools have been established in recent years with outside help from individuals and international Jewish organizations such as Kulanu. As the Abayudaya community has increased its interactions with outside Jews, mainly those from the United States and Israel, over the past dozen or so years, its religious ideology and customs has shifted towards more mainstream and normative Judaism. Members attend Shabbat services regularly following a conventional prayer book, maintain a kosher diet and slaughter their own animals in accordance with its regulations and, out of character from most Jews, remove their shoes before entering the synagogue in reverence to a practice by Jews in biblical times.
The village of Namutumba, east of Mbale and reached by an easy drive, once had a small synagogue. The structure was destroyed by President’s Idi Amin’s forces in the early 1970s. Amin’s rule, categorized by human rights abuse, ethnic cleansing, and political and religious repression, prohibited the operation of synagogues. Shortly after the brutal Amin was deposed, a synagogue was allowed to be rebuilt in Namutumba. The house of prayer came to represent the rebirth and resurgence of Abayudaya’s Jews after years of hardship, oppression, and discrimination.
Namutumba Synagogue is constructed out of locally-made rough bricks, a corrugated metal gabled roof set on simple wood framing, twelve arched openings without proper windows, and a pair of doors leading into the sanctuary with its dirt floor. To the opposite end of the modest if not rudimentary building is the Ark niche, which projects out slightly from the exterior wall plane of the rest of the structure. The synagogue is built directly on the ground without any type of foundation, and it is surrounded by a dirt path and overgrown vegetation. According to the local community, the Jewish population of Namutumba was estimated at one hundred fifty members at the time this painting was completed. The community also indicated to the artist that prayer services are held here on a daily basis.
The modest synagogue is a one room space measuring 20’ x 42’, and it contains a dirt floor, hand-made brick and mud walls, and rough wood roof framing left exposed on the inside that is covered in corrugated metal sheets. The space is intimate and particularly humble: 8’ high walls sloping up to 11’-9” along the roof ridge, twelve arched openings without actual glass windows and hence left open to the elements, and a pairs of entry doors.
The Namutumba Synagogue is filled with several aluminum chairs, and it features an Ark niche intended to store the Sefer Torah. At the time of this painting was complete, there was no Torah or bimah (table were the Torah is read). The walls are bare, and there are no architectural or liturgical decorations or flourishes, whether typical to synagogues anywhere in the world or personalized to this congregation, anywhere in the space. Namutumba Synagogue has no electricity or other utility services. Despite its seemingly rudimentary appearance, one needs to remember that a synagogue is technically just a gathering place (albeit with the Sefer Torah) for a minyan (quorum) to congregate for prayer services, and it does not by any means need to be a well-appointed and lavish space.