Monday, October 20, 2008

Rosh Hashana in Kampala

As the end of my time in Uganda approached I realized just how much I needed to get done in only a few short days. With two reports, a proposal, and a memo due on top of the usual everyday things, I knew I was not going to be able to travel the 4 hours east to Mbale to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with the Abayudaya Jews. As an alternative I began trying to find Israeli or Jewish groups in Kampala that might want to at least eat together. I had tried to find the Embassy or Consulate but was surprised to learn that Israel never returned after evacuating during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. Israel always had an interesting relationship with Uganda, actually training Amin before he came to power, supplying him with weapons before they knew just how crazy he was, and then trying to push him from power once they realized that he was on course to destroy the country. The active Mossad (Israeli CIA) network prompted the paranoid Amin to kick all Israelis and Jews out around the time he exiled the Indians. Israel’s last major interaction with the Ugandan government was when it famously stormed the Palestinian hijackers who had, under the protection of Amin and the Ugandan army, landed their plane at Entebbe. The Israeli mission successfully rescued the passengers killing the hijackers in the process in a dramatic and complicated rescue mission. Since then, though they have normalized their relations, Israel has run all of its Uganda business from its Kenyan embassy.

Thinking my options had run their course I had planned on buying some apples and honey, forcing my colleagues to eat it while cheering happy new years, and going out to dinner. On the debate night outing however, I ran into someone who said they knew a bunch of Israelis who would be able to tell me if there was anything Jewish going on in Kampala. At Latin bar I was introduced to two bald, burly, Israelis who run a major road construction company in Uganda. They had organized a big dinner for their company’s workers and their families (mostly Israeli) and had a few additional people coming as well. What was originally a 60 person affair had turned into a 120 person extravaganza. They gave me the administrator’s number and told me to call him the next day. I called the man who did not speak English very well and we managed to communicate that I would come the next day to their office to pick up tickets for the dinner. He described their location as, in Gubalobi, across from the shell station, near the big muffler sign…somehow I got that.

The following day I took the truck and made my way to the Industrial area near Gubalobi. I bumped my way down what would generously be called potholed roads and enjoyed using the truck’s 4 wheel drive function on a particularly nasty bumpy dirt section (mind you I’m still driving in Kampala, no more than 10 minutes from where I was staying). I turned past a big old muffler sign and drove down a dirt road flanked by menacing looking industrial complexes and offices. On the phone I couldn’t understand if the man said NBI or SDA, or something else, so when I saw SBI I parked in front and hoped I was in the right place. 15 minutes later the Administrator called to say he had returned and a guard let me drive into the complex. I walked into the basic but clean office building and learned that the Rosh Hashanah dinner was being prepared by all of the wives of the company workers with some ingredients imported from Israel. He emphasized how excited he was that they had shipped over Gefilte Fish to which all I could muster was a meager wincing of a sound coupled with a fake smile…who voluntarily eats Gefilte Fish? Aside from the Gefilte though, everything he described was a traditional Israeli Rosh Hashanah…dates, figs, beet root, egg, fish head, round challah., and apples and honey…looked like my Ugandan Rosh Hashanah would actually be the most authentic Israeli event I’d ever attend. The only downer was that no one had communicated to me that this was a paid event so I had to cover my surprise when he asked for the equivalent of $40 in Ugandan Shillings (about 60,000).

As I was walking out a young American couple was coming in. I waited for them to pay and then offered to give them a ride back to wherever they were going. They had just arrived two days prior and it was weird for me to feel like the experienced Kampala person. It made me realize just how well I had come to know the city. I drove them downtown, made some recommendations of places to go explore and gave them the scoop on the social and restaurant scene. They were on an extended honeymoon, the tail end of which included a stint volunteering with the American Jewish World Service’s professionals program.

We made plans to meet up for the dinner and I was happy to know someone in advance of the actual event. On the day of, I made my way to the Sheraton after work…it taking 45 minutes in the car to get the 3 miles away (oh Kampala jams). The security was ridiculously tight, most likely in reaction to the recent Pakistani hotel bombing as well as Eid and Rosh Hashana falling on the same day. I have to be honest though, with recent talk of Somali Al Qaeda arrested in Kampala I was happy to see the extra measures.

I had been in quite a rush, concerned that I would be late for the dinner. An hour and a half after the official start time people were still mulling around the big banquet hall, chatting and drinking. Little did I know that combining Israeli time and East African time actually doubled the late factor. The Israeli I had met at the bar came by to chat and informed me that the Ministers of Finance and Security were to be coming to the dinner. My jaw dropped, probably visibly…The minister of Security is also the Secretary General of the ruling party, and is the President’s right hand man. We had taken him to our program at the Democratic convention but had decided not to follow up with meetings afterwards because he was immediately embroiled in a massive scandal in Uganda, a scandal that also involved the Minister of Finance. He was under unbelievable political pressure and was certainly someone with whom my organization needed to stay on good terms. I was surprised when about 20 minutes later, both ministers not only showed up, but put on Kippahs (yarmulkahs) and sat down with their families for the whole thing. At the beginning Mbabazi (the Minister of Security) stood up to say a few words and thanked SBI for its years of service to Uganda. I had no idea, but according to Mbabazi they had been building roads in the country since the 1960s. I still can’t get over the fact that two of the most powerful and important men aside from the President were present at this company’s Rosh Hashanah dinner. I don’t think I want to know the details of that relationship.

The dinner itself was a little disorganized and confusing. It was nice nonetheless. I sat with the American couple who were placed next to one of the company’s workers, a Cuban refugee who had moved to Uganda in the 80s and stayed there with his family ever since (non Jewish). The food was pretty good and we were all excited for some traditional Israeli salad and Schnitzel. By the end of the dinner I was ready to be out of the very odd atmosphere so I said my goodbyes walked out of the hotel and caught a boda back. I love the bodas at night when the streets are empty and you can feel the cool night air slapping against your face…there is also something just so efficient about it. 5 minute later I was home and back to work.

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