The colourful kippot worn by the men of the Abayudaya community of rural East Uganda are more than a statement of their Jewish identity. They hope to sell the skullcaps to Jews worldwide and drastically improve their impoverished living conditions.
The man helping them to help themselves is a British Jew, Adam Williams, 34. The accountant, born in Leeds, moved to Uganda two years ago, and was astonished to find villages of devout Jews living in mud and stick houses.
Their Jewishness dates from 1919 when a Christian Ugandan leader, Semei Kakungulu, declared himself and his tribe Jewish because he felt a strong affinity with the Torah. He circumcised his sons and himself, and learnt about Judaism from an American Jew who had established a Jewish school and taught the Ugandans about kashrut, festivals and Shabbat.
Like Jews all over the world, the Abayudaya have known persecution. Under the harsh regime of Idi Amin, many were forced to convert to Christianity or Islam. But some 300 clung to their Judaism, worshipping in secret, and now the community numbers 1,000.
Adam Williams and his wife Genevieve have shared Sedarim and Shabbat with the Abayudaya. Seder night is celebrated with "wine" made from fermented bananas, and a Shabbat meal is plantain and beans.
He admired the colourful kippot worn by the men, and set up a website (www.kippotforhope.org) to sell them worldwide. Their lives have already improved. "In the 12 months since we set up Kippot for Hope, we have installed glass windows in the synagogue, built a pineapple plantation and installed two new pit latrines," said Adam.
He has plans to improve the community's water supplies and agriculture, and to fund schools. He also hopes to send students abroad for medical training, who could eventually set up their own clinic. Currently, a sick or injured person has to be taken by bicycle many miles to the nearest town.
The community's rabbi, Gershom Sizomu, studied at a Conservative seminary in Los Angeles and is Chief Rabbi of Uganda. His family suffered persecution in the Amin years; his father was arrested for building a succah and was only released when his family paid a ransom of five goats.
Rabbi Sizomu has converted other Africans to Judaism. The Abayudaya are fully recognised by Progressive Jewish communities, but some are seeking to re-convert under Orthodox auspices.
Adam and Genevieve Williams met in Melbourne and moved to Uganda to work on aid projects. Baby Zane was born in Uganda last July. "We think Uganda is the perfect country to bring up Zane, without the trappings of the western world."