This month, our blog’s theme is mikva’ot from around the world. Mikveh is a ritual that spans centuries and continents; earlier this month we shared Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker’s encounter with a mikveh in Cuba, and today we’re sharing Samantha Lakin’s trip to a mikveh in Uganda. Stay tuned for next week, when we share about a unique mikveh in Israel. If you have a mikveh story from another corner of the world, we’d love to hear about.
by Samantha Lakin
In July 2015, when working in Kigali, Rwanda, a friend invited me to accompany him to Mbale, Uganda. My friend was supporting an American church group from California who would be conducting agricultural trainings and family workshops at local churches as part of the NGO Lead4Tomorrow. I readily agreed to join my colleague and the group of Americans, hoping to expand my knowledge and experiences in East Africa.
I arrived in Mbale and met with Pastor Richard and Pastor Tom, two kind men who hosted our small group of six. On Saturday evening, one of the pastors learned that I was Jewish, and he mentioned that there was a Ugandan Jewish community living on the other side of the same hill. He had never been there but he knew about them because they sponsored a Jewish hospital in town. Eager to see if this community truly existed, I stayed back at Pastor Richard’s house that Saturday night, as the volunteer group continued to travel. On Sunday, he promised to adventure with me across the hill to find the Jewish community.
I woke up on Sunday morning, eager to make the drive and see who and what we would find. Having lived abroad for many years, finding different Jewish communities has always been a comforting and continuous factor during my travels and research. You can walk into any synagogue in the world and feel comfortable, know the liturgy, the flow of the service, the traditions, and even the language at times, where Hebrew is spoken.
After a 30-minute car ride, there I was, at the gates to the Abayudaya Jewish Community. We greeted one another: me, two pastors, one pastor’s wife, Harriet, and Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the leader of the Abayudaya community of Ugandan Jews. It was quite a surreal moment. The pastors, who had become my friends and my introduction to rural Uganda, were fascinated by Jewish life and tradition in the community. I knew about the Abayudaya, and was shocked to learn that this famous group of Jews rested on the hill alongside Pastor Richard’s home, never imagining I would end up in Mbale, Uganda, only 30 minutes from the Abayudaya. Rabbi Gershom took us on a tour of the compound, including the makeshift synagogue in a local house, showing the pastors the Torah, the Megillah (scroll of Esther), and other Jewish ritual objects. We toured the new synagogue that was being constructed with support from the international Jewish community. We then went to the Jewish school, which housed students of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths. I was amazed to find that they had a vegan kitchen in order to meet all three religions’ dietary restrictions.
Rabbi Gershom mentioned that there was even a mikveh in the community, a point he was proud of. Personally, I have always been fascinated by the ritual of mikveh. Not necessarily from a purity standpoint, but as a ritual that can mark moments of rebirth and renewal, things I often seek in my personal and professional life. Did I want to see it? Of course! We walked along a dirt path, with a small stream of water flowing beneath our feet. We hopped back and forth to avoid getting too wet. We arrived at a rectangular bath-like structure, now overgrown with grass. One of the Abayudaya community leaders put my hand inside the mikveh, and I could feel the source of the water flowing into it. I could also feel the stairs and walls that had been built in the ground to make the mikveh usable. I wanted to immerse right then, as this was such a surreal experience that I knew would transform me forever. But the mikveh hadn’t been operational for some time; it had become a place where other local women washed clothes. I dipped my hands in to feel the cool water, and the pressure from the source flowed through my fingers. Pastor Richard, Pastor Tom, and Harriet watched me, witnessing my amazement at this entire encounter. As we walked back, I explained the renewing power of the mikveh, as they listened intently.
Since that day, I have remained in touch with Pastor Richard, Pastor Tom, and Rabbi Gershom. Despite our theological differences, we are all committed to human rights, bettering our communities, and to accepting renewal and blessings in any form they may take, including new friendships. Now Pastor Tom is trying to raise money for a tin roof for his church, and his community prays that others can help them. I speak with him most every week and brainstorm, discuss theology, and share blessings. Certainly, my mikveh discovery has brought many renewed blessings into my life, and I will be forever thankful.
Samantha Lakin is a PhD student at The Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Clark University. Her research is centered around post-conflict and post-genocide justice in Rwanda and East Africa. She has traveled extensively in Rwanda and her work has brought her to Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Armenia, and Europe.