Osaka, Japan — Between 1881 and 1914, Africa was invaded and occupied, colonized and annexed by European imperialism. This era was called the Scramble for Africa (aka, the Partition of Africa and the Conquest of Africa).
I’ve been making my own scramble for Africa this past month and a half as I try to pin down an itinerary for leg #6 of my Jewish Africa photo survey project slated for February/March 2015. Just when I thought I had nailed it, boom goes the dynamite again, generating destination tectonic shifts and tearing asunder my penciled in travel calendar. I have, in fact, considered no fewer than 18 potential countries. Not so fast.
I thought I had it all figured out even before I came home from leg #5 in mid-September. In my mind, I was headed to Senegal, and from there, over to Cape Verde before skipping back to Nigeria for a brief, below-the-radar stop in Abuja (I don’t want Boko Haram to know I’m in town). From there, I thought I’d spend a few weeks in Ethiopia, a few days in Eritrea, and so long as I was in the neighborhood, I thought I’d wind things up with another week in Israel.
But that was all pre-Ebola outbreak and a beheading in Algeria (yup, that was on the list too…the country, not the beheading. I am not losing my head over this Jewish photo thing I do).
I keep two distinct folders for the organizing process: Destinations and Future Legs. I’ve been swapping country names back and forth between the two like pulling Scrabble letters out a pouch, then shuffling them this way and that in order to make up a coherent itinerary. So let’s see. Some of the swaps went something like this:
Region. I need to keep somewhat in the neighborhood. Africa is, after all, considerably larger than most people realize.
A smidgen of West with a dash of East. Mmm, no, perhaps something wilder, like another bite of Southern with a sprinkling of West Coast islands (Cape Verde, Canary Islands, Madeira). Nah, too much flying and hardly time or cost effective. Ok, forget the sprinkles. Maybe an East-Southern combo. Oh, but to fly via Johannesburg or Istanbul, especially if I want to wind up in Israel at the end of the trip. Mmm.
Ethiopia (everyone says I must go, so I am), Eritrea (oh, if only I get a hold of the last Jew there), South Africa (my Southern African base), Mauritius (only if I can combine another visit there with Reunion), Reunion (darn, the new Jewish center will not be ready in time for leg #6), Lesotho (political unrest means elections just exactly when I hoped to go, and hence, the King Letsie III and Queen Masenate Mohato Seeiso cannot receive me; no joke, that was exactly who I was going to meet by way of an introduction from Raherimasoandro Andriamamonjy, a descendent Malagasy prince and my contact when I was in Madagascar). Mmm.
Ok, how about Gabon, then? Complicated, perhaps not worth the expense. Well, I’ll stick to Northern Africa. Perhaps the Canary Islands too. Nope. Received a rare chilly response to my permission request (they don’t like being in the “media”; they don’t seem to understand that I neither work for a media organization nor the scope of my project). Madeira Islands? Can’t come up with solid information about Jewish remnants there. No community there today to speak of, I know. But there is a Jewish cemetery. That’s enough to go for in my book. But, alas, Google has let me down and information is scant. I’ve tried working on a contact via local government offices there. No luck yet.
Cape Verde? Easiest way to get there is from Senegal, but Cape Verde has imposed an entry denial policy if one has traveled to the Hot Zone, including Senegal and Nigeria, within 30 days of arrival. Aarrrgh. So I postponed Nigeria and Senegal. Make more sense to go to that region all at once rather than in separate trips, not to mention that I could end up on a sort of travel quarantine black list if I go near the region.
Egypt and Tunisia. There’s a neat little combination for a couple of weeks each. Problem is, I can’t get a reply out of the Tunisian Jewish community, and though after months (yes, months) of searching for a direct contact to Magda Haroun, the head of the Jewish community of Egypt, my serendipitous telephone chat with her (I finally found a Jewish community of Cairo contact number and I recognized her voice from a couple of interviews I saw of her on Youtube) resulted in her confirming what I had suspected all along: I need permission to photograph not so much from the Jewish community itself, but from the Ministry of State for Antiquities. Paperwork. Bureaucracy. Not helping me confirm an itinerary anytime soon. All Jewish sights are under their jurisdiction. I have tried to start the application process, but I’m in the dark about either how long it’s going to take or how much it’s going to cost me. So, Egypt is off the list for leg #6.
South Sudan. The world’s newest country. There’s a novel idea. A friend in Johannesburg thought I could perhaps visit her friends working there for IsraAid. Even if I could get in for two or three days, I thought it would be a great opportunity to go somewhere I never thought I’d even think about going, much less have a specific reason to go for. After an email or two, the person in South Sudan was not going to be there when I was hoping to go and following up seemed kind of tricky.
So how about going back to Zimbabwe to visit the Lemba? Who? Well, finding a reliable contact to get me access to this seemingly elusive Black Jewish tribe has gone on since before the start of my project in August 2012. But when I met a member of the Lemba in Cape Town in August, I thought my luck had finally changed. It did, but slowly. While I finally found an opportunity to include the Lemba, I realized I can’t do it in leg #6 because I am not likely to go to Southern Africa if I am not combining a trip in that region with visits to Lesotho, Reunion, and Mauritius. All of those destinations must be packaged in one trip. In fact, I can probably cover all of them in about 2 weeks — so long as all of them synchronize their availability.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia has remained a constant midst all of this scrambling. And I finally made contact with the last Jew of Eritrea. Whoohoo! When I called him, he was exceptionally gracious and welcoming. Another whoohoo! But I only need at most 4 days there and about 2 and a half weeks in Ethiopia. That still leaves me with a considerable chunk of time open on my February-March trip. How to fill it became an an unsettling question as I am determined to stay on course to complete this Jewish Africa photo gig on time in April 2016. So, my mind suddenly lurched to the country that I had mentally pencilled in for leg #8, the final jaunt of this entire Jewish Africa survey project: Morocco.
Jewish Morocco is big. With over 200 synagogues (of which only a fraction are open and functioning) and some 300 Jewish cemeteries, there is a huge photographic job to be done. In my scramble to fill up the itinerary, I reached out to Raphael Raphy Elmaleh, the sole Jewish tour guide in the country. I had first contacted him in May 2011 when I was considering kicking off my project there before coming to my senses and realizing I needed to work the Jewish African crowd at the bottom end of the continent first because that is where the majority of Jews live, some 70% actually.
Alas, Raphy informed me that, one, he is not personally available during the dates I specified, and, two, that I must obtain permission to photograph from the…something like…Jewish Museum. On the up side, he seemed to think he could fix me up with someone else to guide me. And as far as I could figure, cracking the Moroccan Jewish museum nut would most likely be easier than a Ministry of Anything in Egypt. But I’ve been wrong about so much before.
By and large, things have played out very much as I had anticipated. Southern Africa, just as I predicted, has been the easy part of this journey. I worked Johannesburg and Cape Town, made connections, got my name spread around, and was able to catapult my way around the Southern African region quite easily because of the contacts I made (primarily, due to one man’s help: Rabbi Moshe The Traveling Rabbi Silberhaft in Johannesburg, who connected me to just about every one of his people near and far).
My scramble for Africa has exhausted me, frazzled me, and I haven’t even left home yet (which is when I settle down, actually). I’ve got to confirm the plans. I get antsy when things are so up in the air. I hate being at the mercy of others for the plans. Yeah, so my trip isn’t for another 4 or 5 months, and that kind of turns potential helpers off because they think there’s plenty of time. Not from my point of view. With visas to obtain, flights to book, accommodations to find and reserve, and a host of other logistics to shore up, I can’t afford to wait.
It’s nearly November. I’m still sitting at my desk pecking away at my keyboard. In the end, things usually do work out. Usually. With luck, the pieces will be in place within a week. The scramble for Africa might just be over: A few weeks in Morocco, nearly that long in Ethiopia, four days in Eritrea, and a week in Israel (including celebrating Passover) before returning home from there.
The nub of my eraser remains on standby.
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