The Scramble for Africa

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).

The Scramble for Africa

The Scramble for 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.

Just how big is Africa? Bigger than the US, China, India, Eastern Europe, and most of Western Europe.

Just how big is Africa? As big as the US, China, India, Eastern Europe, and most of Western Europe combined!

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.

0090Alas, 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.

africarap

Africa 2014

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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Not Just Jewish Africa

Osaka, Japan — In some ways, perhaps in many ways, Africa is a conundrum. Africa is so much more than “Africa”. For the geographically challenged, “Africa” is merely a word that disregards the dignity of its people and overlooks its dynamism. For everyone else, those three syllables encompass a tapestry of life and cultures, languages and traditions, economies and political boundaries, flora and fauna, peace and war, extreme wealth and abject poverty. Africa has all the yin and yang you care to add to that list. I fell in love with Africa a long time ago, and not just for its wonder or magic, but for its potential…for my potential. There is nary a dull moment on that great land, and serendipity usually lurks around every corner. Go to Africa, anywhere, at any opportunity because Africa’s majesty far outweighs even its worst — Ebola does not begin to define the continent so colored by the rich amalgam of breathtaking landscapes or the extraordinary people and all their manifestations of life. While the scourge of this dreaded disease ravages west Africa and threatens to expand, I want to share the joy that the African conundrum gives me because I don’t want the stigma of Africa’s worst to ever eclipse its understated best. May all those battling this frightful disease be well, and may Af-ri-ca and all its people reach their potential in peace and in good health.

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Madagascar: Land of Long Names and Long Ancestral Lines

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — I made no attempts to say anyone’s name in Madagascar, never mind try to remember them. Malagasy names are long, really long. Just reading them feels like having a mouthful of marbles. Thankfully, however, Malagasy have recognized this fact as all the people I met seem to have clipped their names into a manageable two or three syllable. Even the traffic-clogged capital city of Antananarivo is affectionately — and simply — called Tana.

Raherimasoandro Hery Andriamamonjy

Raherimasoandro Hery Andriamamonjy

My point man on this fabled land was Raherimasoandro Andriamamonjy (yeah, good luck with that!). Thankfully he too has pruned his 28-letter name to four and a manageable two syllables: Hery. He is, in fact, a prince, descendant of…wait for it…d’Andriamlaramanjaka, Roi de Kaloy et de Ratsitohinimanjaka, mere d’Andrianjaka Roi d’Antananarivo. Well, that’s what it says on his very tiny business card (seriously, the smallest I’ve ever seen, though a few days after receiving it he insisted I take his newer, larger card, so now I have both).

Hery is not Jewish but he has an affinity for Jews. He is the President of the Shalom Club of Madagascar, an international group that liaises with Israeli officials in dealing with mainly cultural and informational arenas. By profession, Hery is an official in the Department of Commerce. It is through his work that he once traveled to Israel and thereafter maintained his Jewish-Israeli ties. In the Shalom Club’s manifesto, The Appeal of the Jewish Community of Madagascar, it states: “The Jewish Community of Madagascar exists, in spite of thousands of kilometers which separate it of the mother country…”

Hery works closely with Communaute Juive de Madagascar and an informal association called “Diaspora Jiosy Gasy (Malagasy Jewish Disaspora” comprised of a number of “devout members [who] had realized that, from the same root, and one faith, that Abraham’s (sic), so in March 2012, an association called 2M2F was created by a group of persons professing the original faith of Abraham, Itsaak and Yakov, aiming to teach Torah…” The community is comprised of a scattered 1,500 people whose goals are: “to teach the Hebrew bible; provide a social education according to the Torah; helping relationship; together without distinction all Malagasy citizens in the Jewish faith community.”

I first contacted Hery in March 2013 but it would not be until August 2014 that I would finally land on the world’s 4th largest island, a splinter of rugged landscapes off the southeast coast of Africa. Plans to go there were postponed by seasonal weather conditions and timing clashes with other trips. I knew so little about Madagascar itself and even less about any Jews or Jewish connections to the country that, in the end, I just threw caution to the wind and let Prince Hery arrange everything for me. He gained my confidence when he emailed on May 7, 2014, “I am very aware for your mission, that of promoting the Jewish photo project in Africa, therefore, where we will see this Jewish community. Yes, there is not much but I assure you that you will not leave empty-handed by[e]. Friendly Shalom.”

When I showed up at Beit HaTefilah Israel community for Shabbat services, I was surprised to encounter such a vibrant Jewish group, I was met primarily by Andriaoelimisarisoa and Andrianaivoarimisa (because they were the only ones of the 50 or so in attendance to speak a workable level of English). To my relief, these 20-something-year-old sisters too go by names that more easily fit in my mouth: Elsie and Joele, respectfully. Their grandfather went to Israel in 1961 as a government official to learn about kibbutz with the intention of implementing a similar social network in Madagascar. His efforts were met with limited success. Still, his granddaughters proudly showed off a number of black and white photos from his stay in the Holy Land.

Flag of the Royal Household of Madagascar feature a Magen David and olive branches

Flag of the Royal Household of Madagascar features a Magen David and olive branches

“We have always considered ourselves Jews,” Elsie told me. Perhaps she has good reason to do so. Some claim, though with dubious evidence and tenuous tales, that the Malagasy are largely descendants of a Lost Tribe of Israel. Circumcision has long been practiced on the island and people don’t eat pork, but these practices are not unique to the people here and those habits alone hardly suffice as evidence of Israelite descent.

Adam Rovner wrote about this subject in his article, “Almost Jewish Madagascar” (Moment Magazine, May-June 2009): “As early as 1658 the island’s French governor, Etienne de Flacourt, affirmed the Malagasy’s Jewish origins in part because he witnessed tribes practicing circumcision, a custom that remains nearly universal here. Englishman Daniel Defoe, best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe, helped popularize the connection between Jews and Madagascar. As the ghostwriter for the popular 1729 “Madagascar: Or, Robert Drury’s Journal, During Fifteen Years Captivity on that Island”, Defoe outdid Flacourt, suspecting that “the Jews derived a great deal from [the Malagasy], instead of they from the Jews.” He went so far as to claim that the priestly garments used in Solomon’s Temple were merely “improvements” on Malagasy customs. Some 19th and 20th century British and French scholars continued to maintain that the Malagasy descended from biblical era seafaring Jews. A Lazarite missionary, Joseph Briant, published a 1946 monograph purporting to find traces of Hebrew in local languages. Starting from the notion that the Malagasy are crypto-Jews, it’s easy to conclude that Madagascar is itself the promised land.”

Prince Ndriana Rabarioelina

Prince Ndriana Rabarioelina

Prince Ndriana Rabarioelina, PhD, claims to be a direct descendant of Aaron the High Priest. He specializes in the history of Madagascar and its Jewish ties (he’s publishing a 1,000-page, 3-volume book on the topic in late 2014). In a somewhat stately room at his family-owned hotel, he told me many stories about the links and lineage of the Malagasy to a Tribe of Israel. He explained that the word Madagascar is derived from Hebrew and he even says that the gold employed in King Solomon’s Temple was mined in Madagascar.

I was truly impressed, but I wasn’t. I don’t mean that disparagingly, but with caution. If I am to believe all stories of Tribes of Israel descent, I’d see virtually the entire world as Jewish (even a sect of Shinto in Japan are said to be of a Lost Tribe). It seems far-fetched and far-flung. But then, I am excited by the prospects and I’d certainly be delighted to learn of irrefutable evidence that supports any such claims, so I remain open-minded on the matter.

Beit HaTefilah Israel, Shabbat service

Beit HaTefilah Israel, Shabbat service

When I arrived at Shabbat services at Beit HaTefilah Israel, I had no idea that I was, in fact, the guest of honor. Hery made no mention of anything that was about to happen. In fact, it was only when I inspected the two-page weekly service brochure that I saw my name imprinted on the front. I was incorrectly billed as being from the African Jewish Congress (AJC). Not wanting to disappoint, I did not clarify that fact when I was formally introduced to the group though I did make that clear when I spoke to people individually. I think Hery got the impression I was affiliated with the AJC because I was introduced to him by Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the Traveling Rabbi from Johannesburg, South Africa who is the organization’s President. There seemed to be a slight disappointment when I said I was merely an independent photographer, but that was offset when I told the group that part of my mission is to share their story with the Jewish world through my photos in the hopes they connect with outside communities that will eventually aid their quest for full Jewish conversion and acceptance.

Beit HaTefilha Israel, Kiddush

Beit HaTefilha Israel, Kiddush

I never expected to find tallit-shrouded, kippot-capped people here. I was immediately struck by the earnest manner of their prayer — oft closed eyes and raised open hands, something more akin to a church service and likely a holdover from their prayers as former Christian-somethings. Other aspects were all too familiar: noisy kids running around; women to one side, men to the other; a service that seemed to go on forever despite the pangs of hunger; and a large table covered by an impressive kiddush buffet that was soon devoured by a famished community, myself included. Instead of blessing wine and bread per the usual custom, the spiritual leader raised a plate of macaroni, thanked Hashem several times, and said a few amens. It all felt familiarly unfamiliar.

The Jewish community that I unexpectedly encountered somehow fit neatly within my image of Madagascar as a curious land of contrasts and, well, the unexpected. After all, this place is one of the most bio-diverse spots on the planet, so it only stands to reason that there would be a place for a socially-diverse element too. The land of lemurs may have claims to Lost Tribes, but the Malagasy are far more Indo-Malayan than they are “African” (many Malagasy don’t regard themselves as African). Many of their ancestors were seafarers. Lemurs apparently arrived by rafts, too. This island, itself a veritable raft, was ruled by a line of kings and queens before the French colonized the place (1897~1958), leaving their language, architecture, baguettes, croissants, and coffee culture behind.

A high school sign board featuring %22shalom%22, a Magen David, and olive branches

A high school sign board featuring “shalom”, a Magen David, and olive branches

Today, the largely agrarian population still tills the land without aid of modern mechanized farming equipment. As the world’s 9th poorest country with a GDP per capita of US$972 (2013, IMF), the vast majority of Malagasy are bound by a meagre US$2 a day. Upward mobility is not the dream here, survival is. Perhaps upward spiritual mobility is more realistically attainable as I realized in the Beit HaTefilah Israel community. Though my sojourn scratched merely the surface of this dynamic country, it was clear to see that the spirit of the land, the legends, and the people — no matter what their ancestral lines — are buoyant.

Perhaps the most surprising Jewish connection to Madagascar is the Madagascar Plan, one of several resettlement plans in the late 1800s/early 1900s for European Jews. The Polish government first considered the idea in 1937 but scrapped it when it was determined that it was unsustainable. The Nazis reconsidered the plan in 1940 before coming up with the Final Solution.

FOOTNOTE (added, September 18, 2014): A message received from a member of the Beit HaTefilah Israel community (copied and pasted here verbatim) —>

Shalom Jono
You know, it is not easy for us to discover and to arrive in JUDAISM but on full time when we are thinking about the bible and there is some questions which you don’t find a response , you search , look for….we are not satisfy and finally you find ALL the response in JUDAISM ! and when we discovered it in first, I cry to find it , all the questions we asked for us and no response everywhere when we are in christianity we find the response in JUDAISM, we are so satisfy, happy in our heart ….now, it’s true, JUDAISM is true.
Christianity is a politic brought by France in Madagascar in colonization, and France knows exactly that the origin of malagasy people is jewish, so to bring christianity in Madagascar is for them a success for the colonization (in TORAH Adon says that you must not to have another Adon ONLY HIM) and France knows it and all people believes in Jesus and christianity, so I think that’s a reason malagasy people is so poor , we have a great task to do to make known JUDAISM for malagasy people but we try to make some conferences….

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Why Class

A380, Thai Airlines TG 623, Osaka to Bangkok

A380, Thai Airlines TG 623, Osaka to Bangkok

Osaka Kansai International Airport, Japan — I was looking forward to the first leg of the long schlep to Johannesburg if for no other reason than because it was on the new Airbus A380 — the double-decker behemoth. I hadn’t yet flown in one. As I boarded through the front main door of Thai Airlines TG623, I expected seat 31H to be “to the right.”

“31H?…go through…to the left.”

Flight map.

Flight map.

Wait. What? To the left? I’d been accustomed to turning right into economy class. But on this plane, economy was the entire lower deck plus about twenty rows at the back of the upper deck.

As I settled into my preferred bulkhead aisle seat, I realized the only person in front of me was the pilot. The friendly flight attendant greeted me in traditional Thai style, the wai: a gentle bow with palms pressed together in a prayer-like position.

Seat 31H.

Seat 31H.

“That’s first and business class,” she gestured up the stairwell. “Here is Y class.”

“Y class, as in, ‘Why can’t I sit upstairs?’ or ‘Why are these seats as narrow as they’ve always been?’”

She laughed. I laughed.

With no one in front of me, beside me, or even around me, I felt like I had a veritable private room. I was in heaven — well, I was 35,000 feet closer to it, anyway.

We lumbered down the runway then lifted off with the ease of a ballerina in pirouette. Impressive, I thought.

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

I unfurled the video monitor and settled on Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. It was only fitting as I was on my way to South Africa. I’ve been known (only to myself, perhaps) to succumb to a lump in the throat on flights. (Perhaps it’s that proximity to heaven.) This film moved me.

It was interrupted briefly with “spicy chicken or Thai Curry?” I opted for the latter, though I nearly reconsidered when it was placed in front of me.

“STD.”

“STD? What’s that?” I asked. “Do you know what STD means?”

STD lunch.

STD lunch.

“It means ‘standard lunch’,” came the reply.

When I explained the other meaning of STD, the flight attendant’s eyes widened. “That’s not really a good label,” I said. Not what I need to think about just before tucking in.

My friendly flight attendant invited me to have a look upstairs after takeoff, “…but from the back to the economy class area.” So I did. When I reached the top of the spiral staircase, there was a menacing black and yellow strap across the last step. Then two sets of forbidding eyes glared down upon me.

“Can I help you?” inquired one of the flight attendants with a tone that suggested I bugger off.

“Well, uh,” I trembled as if kneeling before the Wizard of Oz, “the attendant downstairs said I could…well, you see, good and merciful sir, have a look around.”

“Oh, she did, did she?” (added for dramatic effect).

The gate was drawn back. I poked my head in. I nodded graciously, wordlessly. I retreated back down the stairs. I returned to my assigned seat.

About 10 minutes before touchdown, my amiable section attendant made an intriguing offer. “After we arrive in Bangkok, would you like to go upstairs with me?”

“Now that’s an offer I can’t refuse,” I said with a grin and laughter. She realized how that sounded. “If only you had asked me at the beginning of the flight, I would have been so much more comfortable.”

So, once the first class section had emptied (all 12 passengers), she took me by the hand (no, I’m embellishing that part) and gave me a personal mini-tour of the upper deck.

The first class area looked quite nice with a very large toilet area. “The business section is too busy, too crowded,” she said.

I thought so too.

Why is that?

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#5

OSAKA, Japan — It’s that time again: I’m heading back to Africa for leg #5 of my Jewish Africa photo survey project. With this trip, I’m two years in, less than two years to go, and crossing the halfway line. Leg #8 doesn’t seem all that far, or more importantly, all that unobtainable.

Southern Africa including La Reunion (just south of Mauritius)

Southern Africa including La Reunion (just south of Mauritius)

I know it now that this trip is less about the numbers of images than it is about incorporating a few small corners of Jewish Africa life and history that are little known. Frankly, much of what I will photograph is uncertain. While Madagascar, La Reunion, and Angola are hardly known for anything Jewish and offer little to actually photograph, I’d be remiss not to incorporate these locations in my Jewish Africa opus. Besides, when else am I going to go to these places?

First up, the long journey from Osaka via Bangkok, Thailand to a night in Johannesburg, South Africa, then to MADAGASCAR for 8 adventurous days. That fabled land will be the 100th country/territory incorporated into my Jewish Photo Library archives. But only one day, and even then, only a few hours of that one day, will be set aside for photographing things Jewish there. We’ll all have to wait and see just what I set my lens upon for I really have scant idea. I have entrusted both my Jewish and tourist plans to a man with the longest name of anyone I’ve known (or more precisely, about to know): Raherimasoandro Andriamamonjy. Luckily, he’s boiled those 28 letters down to 4: Hery. I can neither spell (without copying) or pronounce his full name correctly, but Hery’s proven himself remarkably dependable, enthusiastic, and accommodating in our emails.

He says things like, “Tomorrow is Yom Haatzmaut and I congratulate this independence of the State of Israel and its people through you. I am always available for questions relating to your trip. Friendly Shalom.” (May 5, 2014 email.)

He certainly understands the aim of my visit: “I am very aware for your mission, that of promoting the Jewish photo project in Africa, therefore, where we will see this Jewish community. Yes, there is not much but I assure you that you will not leave empty-handed. Friendly Shalom.” (May 7, 2014 email.)

Madagascar visa (redacted)

Madagascar visa (redacted)

So what am I doing the other 7 days in Madagascar?

“It is clear to your need in nature (lemurs…) cultural activities, tourism and more. I ask you a little time to see what are the best; I would like to comparisons and especially to also see the side safety. I will send you the details of that I had the plan. Already, welcome my friend.” (April 30, 2014 email.)

That’s right. Madagascar for Madagascar sake: charming lemurs, abhorrent Madagascar hissing cockroaches, majestic baobab trees, and a serendipitous sojourn. Nothing could be finer.

From there, it’s only an hour flight to LA REUNION island, an overseas department of France. Politically European but geographically African, I felt compelled to include the few photos I’ll acquire there. My friendly contact Jean Akoun has not merely responded graciously to my inquiries, she’s offered her home to me to stay for the three nights I’ll be there. How nice is that?

“There is about 1,000 Jewish on the Island,” she wrote when I first connected with her in May 2013. “Only 200 really practice Judaism. There is two places for office. On Shabbat there is from 12 to 20 people in each. There is no Jewish cimetery. Since 5 years, we have a place for the new tombs. There is no old syna[gogue] or cimetery. And not too much to catch for a photographer.”

I wasn’t dissuaded to go by that last line because I determined that I’d regret not incorporating it into my project and, again, when else am I really going to go to La Reunion?

From there, I’ll sojourn one night in Johannesburg in a guesthouse near the airport before connecting to jigsaw-puzzle-piece-shaped ANGOLA. Just getting my visa was a journey. While most embassies accept applications by post, Angola does not because they require all visitors be pre-finger printed (scanned electronically, actually). So, I took a day off work (and scheduled makeup classes) and rocketed up to Tokyo on the shinkansen (bullet) train, an expensive way to obtain a visa (though I took advantage of the day to lunch with a friend I had not seen in three years and to visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, something I missed on prior Tokyo visits). I was not able to do the day trip until I had all my necessary paperwork in place, however.

Embassy of Angola, Tokyo

Embassy of Angola, Tokyo

The real application hurdle is obtaining a “letter of invitation” from someone within Angola. I don’t know anyone in Angola, but Jewish geography connected me to an extraordinarily trusting and generous Israeli soul who does business there (both his name and business shall remain withheld for the moment). Not only was I required to submit an official letter of invitation, but any non-Angolan foreign national who provides the letter must also submit a copy of their passport and Angola residence visa. So this kind man sent me, an utter stranger, the letter along with a copy of his passport and visa. That sort of trust is remarkable. I surmised that my contact in D. R. Congo who put me in touch with him vouched for me. So, the jigsaw puzzle came together and my Angola visa was finally approved after several weeks of uncertainly on my part (and, I’m sure, my many annoying emails pushing to get the letter just right — it took a couple of drafts for it to state all the details the embassy requires).

Angola visa (redacted)

Angola visa (redacted)

Angola, too, offers little in the way of Jewish stuff to photograph. In Luanda, the capital — the most expensive city in Africa (it’s full of diamond, gold, and other mineral rich business people) — there are but a few Jewish graves in a centrally located cemetery. I know neither if they are all together, scattered, or even if they are still there. Details are sketchy. As Raphael Singer, Ambassador of Israel to Angola, wrote to me on May 16, “Wow, I live next door – didn’t know.”

I’ll find more to photograph (but not by much) in the central coastal towns of Catumbela and Benguela, an hour flight south of Luanda. There are small Jewish cemeteries in both towns.

“Don’t worry, I will help you when you arrive [in Benguela],” wrote Jaime Azulay on May 19. I was email introduced to him via the Israeli ambassador. “I’d like to secure that even if I go out from Benguela someone will take you round everywhere you would like to go and help you. Don’t worry about it.”

But just how the Jews in those cemeteries ended up there (apart from actually dying), I am not at all sure. Internet rarely fails to turn up what you’re looking for, but in this case, it pretty much has. I hope to ascertain a more precise understanding of the Jewish history of Angola once I am there.

Just when I thought I had all my Angola Jewish photo ops lined up, I hit upon something most unexpected: another Jew living in Benguela.

In searching for accommodation there, I found Nancy’s English School and Guest House. I  perused the website and sent an email to inquire further. My booking was confirmed, and then I did a double-take at the name in the return email: Nancy…wait for it…Gottlieb.

Gottlieb? Gotta be Jewish, I thought.

“Forgive me if I am being forward, but are you Jewish?” I wrote. “I was just considering your name. I am an independent photographer specializing in Jewish documentation. I am working on a project on Jewish Africa.”

Nancy’s reply came back quickly. “I want to also say that I clicked on the little icon that showed up along side the email in my gmail account – the Jewish Photo Library, and got a bit fascinated! I also ended up watching the first part of an interview with you I found on You Tube. So, Just to let you know, I am one Jewish person living in Angola!  And, I am guessing you are coming because of your photo work…”

She got that right.

The Jewish world reaches far and wide. In addition to the aforementioned destinations, I’ll be sharing some of my Jewish photographer experiences as a presenter at Limmud South Africa in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban between August 22 and August 31. I presented in Jo’burg last year. I guess they liked me enough not only to invite me back, but to include me in all Limmud events this time round.

From there? A week in Israel; my first visit since February 2012.

Leg #5 kicks off on July 29 and keeps on kicking through September 14.

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D’R We’ll See

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — There are some places one just doesn’t associate with Jews. I think the Democratic Republic of Congo, more commonly called the DRC (or sometimes DR Congo, Congo-Kinshasa, Zaire-Congo), is one of those places. What first springs to mind for most people is something more like political unrest, malaria, even Ebola hemorrhagic fever. But “Jews” should be part of the mental image of the DRC, particularly among Jews, for there has been a Jewish presence and influence here for about a century. In some regards, that influence has been disproportionate for their minuscule population (currently estimated at 200 in the capital Kinshasa, 12 in Lubumbashi, capital of the southern Katanga Province, whose governor, Moise Katumbi Chapwe, is Jewish on his father’s side).

Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa (the Jewish Community of Kinshasa)

Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa (the Jewish Community of Kinshasa)

The vibrancy of Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa (the Jewish Community of Kinshasa) today belies the community’s diminutive size and fractured nature for all but a few of the people who comprise the community range from transient, temporary, to-and-fro, fleeting, to curious visitors like myself. A mere handful of people could be described as local.

I couldn’t quite figure out just what was what or who was who before I got here as details were sketchy. Internet searches turned up very little in the way of specifics and the contacts seemed reluctant to correspond with me. It only all made sense once I finally arrived.

There are really two distinct halves of the community, particularly in Kinshasa: the Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa, presided over by Aslan Piha, and Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa, directed by Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, who runs Yeshiva Ohel Moshe. The twain are almost, but not quite, like oil and water: they mix but they do not quite stay blended.

Aslan Piha, President, Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa

Aslan Piha, President, Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa

Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa

Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa

What is regarded as “the community” has its offices, classroom, synagogue, and functions at a single complex. Both Aslan and Rabbi Bentolila have their offices here, but the community and Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa operate as separate entities, though they have combined certain logistical forces. At least, that’s how I understood things to be.

I arrived in Kinshasa from Lubumbashi a day late due to a flight delay, uncertainty, and ultimate cancellation on Korongo Airlines (more aptly named, Koro-no-go Airlines). In fact, I eventually flew on a Safair Airlines plane leased by Koronogo which blew a wheel upon landing in Lubumbashi causing the problems. I didn’t feel “safe-er” on Safair. I was just glad to be on the ground (finally) in Kinshasa. Their tag line is, Experience, Expertise, Excellence; it felt more like Confusion, Consternation, Chaos.

Safair Airlines...Safer?

Safair Airlines…Safer?

The delay left me with a day and a half to get my photo work done. Like so many times before, things just seemed to work out and I found myself busy from start to finish. I was also warmly welcomed.

Arrival wasn’t quite so pleasant, however. I was slightly alarmed when no one was at Kinshasa airport to meet me as I thought had been the plan (at least it was the day before when someone was waiting for my non-arriving flight). It was a stroke of good fortune when the person I asked for help was not merely familiar with the airport and where someone meeting me might be waiting, he let me make a couple of calls on his cell phone. When I couldn’t reach my contacts, he offered a lift to my hotel in town. Turned out this Belgian guy grew up here and had recently returned. As we drove into town, he pointed out “that’s where I used to live” (pointing to a dilapidated building) and “that’s where I used to play” (pointing to the old port).

Once settled in my downtown hotel, I was able to reach Aslan. Twenty minutes later, his driver came to fetch me and take me the two or so kilometers to the community center. From then on, everything worked like a charm.

After meeting with both Aslan and Rabbi Bentolila, I spent an unhurried afternoon photographing Beit Yaacov Synagogue, the mikvah, and various parts of the building, including an inner-courtyard lined with pillars that resemble giant Olympic torches

Courtyard, Jewish Community of Kinshasa

Courtyard, Jewish Community Center of Kinshasa

Perhaps the coziest, most colorful, and cheeriest place in the complex is the classroom. Under the direction and commitment of Myriam Bentolila, the Rabbi’s wife, she’s meticulously created a happy space for teaching the youngsters “our holy heritage,” as Rabbi Bentolila put it. She wouldn’t allow me to take a photo until everything was just so. I liked that.

Classroom, Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa

Classroom, Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa

I also photographed evening services and a study session at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa. Yes, there is a yeshiva in the DRC. Located a few blocks from the Community Center, it houses 8 young men at a time. They come from various places including the USA, Canada, and Israel, and they generally study here for about a year.

Evening study session at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Kinshasa

Evening study session at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Kinshasa

Between the service and the study session, Rabbi Bentolila invited me to dine with him and his wife Myriam and a few other guests in their home which is on the upper floor of the Community Center.

What started as a day of complete uncertainty — from my uncertain flight to my lonely arrival — turned into a hectic, busy, interesting, and photographically productive day.

I was up early the following morning to photograph the 8:00 a.m. service. That over, I headed back to the yeshiva for a bit of breakfast with the boys. Though they have people to prepare their food, they usually help out, so it created a bit of action in the kitchen for me to photograph too.

Breakfast time at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Kinshasa

Breakfast time at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Kinshasa

From there, it was back to the Community Center. By this point, I had really completed my photo work. The only details remaining were chats with both Aslan and Rabbi Bentolila about a few things pertaining to the community and to get brief video commentaries from them. Aslan wasn’t due in until mid-afternoon. Rabbi Bentolila, meanwhile, disappeared. Several hours of waiting later, he reappeared from his abode, having taken a long nap due to not feeling so hot.

I spent the time rephotographing the synagogue, this time with the lights off. The big chandeliers combined with a yellowy ambient light and daubs of natural light all created a challenging luminescence that resulted in some overexposed light fixtures. Hence, I retook many of the same angles from the previous day. The results were remarkably different. I filed both “lights on” and “lights off” versions of Beit Yaacov Synagogue.

Evening service, Beit Yaacov, Kinshasa

Evening service, Beit Yaacov, Kinshasa

After finally catching up with Aslan at nearly 4:00 p.m. and recording a video commentary, I returned to my hotel for a while, then came back yet again a few hours later to have dinner with the Rabbi and his wife. Before calling it a night, the good Rabbi recorded a video comment for me.

HISTORY. A meaningful Jewish presence in the DRC goes back to about 1904 when, under King Leopold II (1835~1909), the 2nd King of the Belgians and founder and controller of the Congo Free State (1885~1908), Jews arrived from Belgium and South Africa. They were Ashkenazi hailing mainly from central Europe, Lithuania, and Russia. A second wave of Jewish arrivals came in 1923 and they were predominantly Sephardim from Rhodes Island. With the building of a railway from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa and the Atlantic Ocean, Jewish businesses of all sorts cropped up along the line, even in remote areas, but eventually, the Jewish communities grew in the main towns of Elizabethville (today, Lubumbashi), Luluabourg (today, Kananga), and Leopoldville (today, Kinshasa). Some of the early Jewish pioneers included Solomon Benatar, Ruben Amato, Nelson Hazan, Simon Israel. Other Jewish names include Surmani, Habib, Blattner, Alhadeff, Cohen, Piha, and Mizrahi.

These Jewish pioneers faced many challenges including the threat of malaria (the disease is still today a huge risk in the DRC). While they helped establish the Belgian Congo, the 1929 stock market crash left many in the Congo in bankruptcy forcing them into a sort of economic exile. The majority of the Ashkenazi Jews started anew in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Zambia. The resulting mainly Sephardic community enticed Rabbi Moses Levy, from the Rabbinical College of Rhodes, to the Congo where he presided as the community’s Chief Rabbi for more than half a century (1937~1991).

The Communauté du Congo Belge et du Ruanda-Urundi, the Jewish community center, was established in 1911. The first synagogue was consecrated in 1930 in Elizabethville (Lubumbashi); the second synagogue — Beit Yaacov — would not be built until 1987 in Kinshasa.

Lubumbashi Synagogue, consecrated 1930

Lubumbashi Synagogue, consecrated 1930

Beit Yaacov (Kinshasa), consecrated 1987

Beit Yaacov Synagogue (Kinshasa), consecrated 1987

Prior to independence, approximately 3,000 Jews lived in the Congo; 50% resided in Elisabethville and about 70 Jewish families were based in Kinshasa. Jewish children were provided classes in Hebrew and Judaism. In 1960, the Republic of Congo established diplomatic relations with Israel. Zaire broke relations with Israel under Arab pressure in 1973. A decade later, Zaire was one of the first to reestablish relations with Israel. Today, Israeli expatriates make up the majority of the Jewish community of the DRC.

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Hunger Games

LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo — Time. Food. We set our clocks by these things. But how we set them is relative. If I’ve learned nothing else in all my time and travels across Africa, it’s that time and associated expressions of time do not have a one-to-one correlation.

“Five minutes” and “just now”, for instance, merely mean “wait…perhaps for a long time. It’ll happen. Maybe it won’t.”

Just the other day, upon touchdown in Johannesburg, a guy on my flight called someone and I heard him say, “We have just landed [it was actually 10 minutes ago]…I’ll be coming out just now.” I thought to myself, “No you won’t. It will be at least 45 minutes from now till you appear at the front door. So that’s an absolute falsehood that you’ll be there “just now”.”

Or was it? I suppose it all depends on who the receiver is, who the speaker is, and just where on the planet the utterance is transmitted.

When hunger is compounded with “five minutes” or “just now”, time balloons and nearly stands still while your stomach and mind might actually be squirming.

My 50-year-old Belgian point man in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo (let’s call him Nathan), is a great guy. He did an outstanding job of not merely making sure I got the photos I came here for, but of steering me through a chaotic maze of bureaucracy in and out of the Lubumbashi airport (that’s a whole other story which can be summed up in two syllables: oy vey). Let me be clear: There isn’t anything Nathan did not do for me. He patiently fielded my many emails over several month. But, alas, we all have our foibles. In a land where time seems to have stopped or ceased to mean much by today’s general concepts, Nathan seems to have himself forgotten just how long two or five or ten minutes really is for he doesn’t seem to have the slightest sense of time. The lapses in measurement of time might have actually been comical if only — oh, if only — they had not left me so hungry.

The time warp began upon my landing. He was not at the Lubumbashi airport upon my arrival as was the plan. We had confirmed at least 10 times. I think almost literally.

Clearly, I needed to confirm 11 times.

I borrowed someone’s phone. Twice. “Nathan?”

“Oui?” said a doubtful voice on the first call.

“It’s Jono. Jono David.” Uncertainty. I tried a French-ish accent. “Jeaneau Daveed. I’m at za airport. Are you coming?”

“Ah, oui, oui. Yes, I weel be zere in 10 minoots.” I called him again 25 minoots later, and voilà, there he was.

Being a Sunday, his time was free for me. He patiently allowed me to work as freely as I needed to get photos of the well-maintained cemeteries and the capacious synagogue. That evening over pizza, he told me he would come for me at 9 a.m. the following morning. At 9:30, he rang to say he’d come some time after 2 p.m.

I spent my morning editing photos from the day before.

He turned up at 12:30. “Okay, let’s go!” he said with a wave of his arm and a tilt of his head.

“Uh, Nathan, I’m not ready.” I was expecting you at 2 p.m., I was thinking but did not say. “I need several minutes to put away my computer and get ready.” He waited.

Later in the day, he set dinner time for 7:00. I texted him at 7:24. He called half an hour after that. “I weel be zere at 8:30. It is good for you?”

“Yes, that’s fine.” Hunger and I waited in the lobby at that appointed time. At 8:46 p.m., I texted again: “It is getting late. Jono.”

At 9:00, I gave up and retreated to my room. At 9:08, Nathan rang. “Jeaneau, I weel be zere in 2 minoots.”

“No, it’s too late for me, Nathan. I can’t eat dinner this late. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”

He was surprised. “Really?” Yes, really. “Zen I weel see you in za morning.”

I dipped into my reserve (yes reserve) food supply: energy bar, mixed nuts and berries, chocolate biscuits.

The plan for the morning was for him to come at 9:30 to be at the airport for 10:00 for my 11:30 flight to Kinshasa.

Pickup time came…and went. At 9:35, I called him. “Nathan. Bon jour. Where are you?”

“I am coming.”

“When?”

“Two-two-two minoots,” was the reply. I wasn’t sure if the stuttered response meant two minoots and twenty-two seconds, twenty-two minoots and two seconds, two hundred and twenty-two minoots, or really two minoots. At 9:45, I dialed his number again, and voilà, he was pulling up to the hotel.

At the airport, with a wink and a smile, I asked Joseph, the check-in man for Korongo Airlines (affectionately renamed by me as Koro-no-go Airlines), if the flight was on time. He hesitated ever so slightly. “Ten minoots delay, not more.” And then, as if to reassure me, “I promees you not more.”

I felt so much better. No, not really. In fact, I’ve never felt so uneasy in an airport before. It is so oppressively bureaucratic.

Nathan went on his way and I sat…and sat and sat…in the scruffy waiting area. Four hours later, again hungry, the flight was cancelled due to an issue with a wheel. I was rebooked for the following morning at 8:00 a.m.

Nathan graciously welcomed me to his home for the night. I spent the afternoon resting and using the internet while he did his work.

“This evening,” I said sometime around 4:00 p.m., “I must eat a proper supper.”

“We will go somewhere nice.”

By 7:00 p.m., I was desperate for food. Nathan, however, was in his usual condition: on the phone and entranced by something on the computer screen. He looked as if he had all the time in the world.

“Nathan, I’m hungry. I really must eat.”

I waited.

At 7:35, I heard the clink and clang of a spoon swirling around a mug. I looked over and to my astonishment he was ever so casually making himself a cup of tea.

“Would you like a tea or coffee?” he offered.

“No, thanks. I need food. Now.” Nice of him to offer, I supposed. But nope, I needed solid food. I needed something to chew on, to savor, to tantalize my tongue.

“I weel just feeneesh my tea, zen we will go,” he said with a backward flip of his hand. “Not more zan five minoots,” he added with a shrug and puckered lips.

Fifteen minoots later: “Nathan, I’m sorry. I am grateful for all you are doing for me, but I really…must…eat. S’il vous plaît.” Yes, I said s’il vous plaît.

I was actually pleading with him to take me to eat.

Finally, just before 8:00 p.m., we got in the car.  He revved it up…then his phone rang.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuckkkkk!!!!!” reverberated inside my head.

He switched off the car and held me captive for an eternal five minoots more. I was squirming inside.

Finally, we drove. About 10 minoots later, we pulled into a parking lot of what appeared to be an Italian restaurant. I was beginning to salivate.

“No, no. Zis is wrong,” Nathan said. “It is za next entraance.”

You’re killing me here, I was thinking.

At last, the right parking lot. We sat on a verandah on a perfectly cool Lubumbashi evening at a Greek-owned restaurant. Thirty minoots later, I was staring at and drooling over a plate of chicken fillets smothered in a cream sauce with a side of rice and salad. Real food. Before tucking in, I actually grinned at it as if to welcome it to my mouth. I washed it down with a large size chilled Simba beer, a local brew.

I devoured it all in two minoots. No, not quite. I just wanted to say “two minoots” one more time.

Oy vey.

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Marooned in Cameroon

YAOUNDE, Cameroon — Exhausting. Frankly, that’s the one word that sums up my visit to the Beth Yeshourun Jewish community of Cameroon. I was exhausted before I got here. I shared what began to feel like and endless stream of emails over a few months with spiritual leader Serge Etele to make arrangements (though I must emphasize that Serge was always gracious, patient, accommodating, and welcoming). Once I finally arrived, I found the heat and humidity draining, the traffic-choked roads stressful, and the potholes punishing as they pounded on my body like a boxer. I was booked for six nights. I needed only three. With nothing of tourist interest to see or do in either the capital of Yaounde nor the coastal city of Douala, time itself became a task.

Beth Yeshourun members photo themselves at the Ambomo home, the community gathering place in Douala.

Beth Yeshourun members photo themselves at the Ambomo home, the community gathering place in Douala.

Most trying of all, however, my visit was sabotaged by a disagreeable, self-righteous 60-something Australian named Menachem who misrepresented himself as an Israeli. Just what his purpose for visiting the community was, I never found out. Prior to my arrival, Serge had asked if he could join our itinerary. I agreed so long as all driver/transport costs were shared equally. When he refused to pay half the petrol cost at the first fill-up, I knew I was in for trouble with this guy.

Before arrival, I didn’t think it was necessary to stipulate to Serge that the person would have to abide by a mutual itinerary. No, this guy wanted it all, and on the second day, I was done with him. The clash with this guy can be summed up in this exchange: “You can take a bus back [to Yaounde from Saa],” he ordered me. “You’re not going back in this vehicle. Our plans are made.”

Overnight, he unilaterally decided to visit another town (some five-hours away) with Serge, and he couldn’t care less how I would return to my hotel in Yaounde from the village of Saa (an hour’s drive), where the community is mainly based.

“We’ll discuss matters with Serge,” I said diplomatically. He would hear nothing of it, and when he protested, I firmly repeated myself.

For all intents and purposes, he commandeered the vehicle (even the front passenger seat), the itinerary, and the time and attention from the community members. Even when we met a long-time Israeli resident in Yaounde the previous day, he sat and spoke to him for over an hour only in Hebrew, a language that not one of the other dozen people around the table speaks. He shut everyone out. He was so overbearing that it was easier to just let it all go. In the end, I saved myself not only a great deal of stress and aggravation, but hundreds of dollars in driver and fuel costs for what would have proved very few additional images for the archives.

Despite all of that, I only have kind words to say about the Beth Yeshourun Jewish community of Cameroon. Everyone I met, was terrific. I didn’t come here expecting a great deal of photographic opportunities, nor to leave with thousands of images for the archives. I basically got what I came for, which was to visit the community in Douala, Yaounde, and Saa, and get enough images to represent their emerging community.

Beth Yeshourun community members (at community prayer/social hall), Sa’a.

Beth Yeshourun community members (at community prayer/social hall), Sa’a.

I landed at Douala International Airport, one of the least desirable airports in the world, from Accra, Ghana via Lome, Togo. There were no other planes parked at the terminal gates. It soon became clear why: It’s a grotty, worn, and hot place. The baggage claim was a veritable sauna. I brought with me an uchiwa, a non-folding fan from Japan. Consequently, I was in the coolest spot in that cramped hall. The stuffiness of the late afternoon air outside was actually cooler than inside the terminal. It was all warmed over by an enthusiastic welcome by community member Parfait Bodo who basically acted as my chaperone for the duration of my visit.

“Thank you very much for your message and links,” Serge wrote me via Facebook in June, fully half a year prior to my visit. “Your pictures are fabulous and your project is fantastic.”

With those words, I knew I had a reliable partner.

“We only have one synagogue in the town of Saa,” he continued, “which is in my father’s house. In Yaounde, we gather in my home for Shabbath but we all go to Saa for holidays. There are a few people in Douala too, but no synagogue there for now.”

I liked Serge’s hopefulness.

“The community exists since 14 years and is about 40 to 50 people. No cimetery (sic) or Jewish building yet, we are trying to build a dedicated place for worship, but for now, we are using private houses as synagogues.”

A farming community, they grow cassava, plantains, some fruits such as papaya, and cocoa, the most valuable crop. But their sights are set on something bigger.

“We have just started a huge communal cocoa farm project which involves the entire community and should help us improve our economic situation. Anyway, you can photograph all those places and the people in their Jewish life and activities as well as in our secular projects.”

Moreh Nachman Etele, community leader, on his cocoa farm, Sa’a.

Moreh Nachman Etele, community leader, on his cocoa farm, Sa’a.

Many of today’s Beth Yeshourun members were Evangelical Christians who felt the embrace of Judaism better fit their lifestyle and beliefs. But unlike the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda, the believers in Cameroon have yet to be officially converted or even recognized as Jews by any official Jewish body. They have, however, had varying degrees of outside help and a fair amount of interest, the Kulanu Organization being the biggest spiritual and financial provider to date. Much of what the members know and practice of Judaism has been self-instructed via the internet.

Serge Etele, spiritual leader of the Beth Yeshourun Jewish community of Cameroon, uses a stone to hammer a mezuzah into the doorframe of the Ambomo family home (where the community gathers in Douala). Balthazar Ambomo assists eagerly as Frederick Ndawo (at left) observes reflectively. “This is the first Jewish home in Douala,” said Balthazar to applause.

Serge Etele, spiritual leader of the Beth Yeshourun Jewish community of Cameroon, uses a stone to hammer a mezuzah into the doorframe of the Ambomo family home (where the community gathers in Douala). Balthazar Ambomo assists eagerly as Frederick Ndawo (at left) observes reflectively. “This is the first Jewish home in Douala,” said Balthazar to applause.

The Jews of Cameroon share at least one common denominator with other emerging communities in Africa: an extremely tenuous, even far-fetched, claim to an ancient Jewish presence in the country via traders who arrived from Egypt and/or the Sudan. While it is proven that Jewish merchants and craftsmen lived and worked along established ancient trade routes, modern Cameroon is geographically disconnected from those ancient pathways. Islamic conquests across North Africa most certainly sent Jews scurrying, but to where remains an open question. Many of them were likely forcibly converted to Islam or Christianity. At least as likely, Christian missionaries who came to Cameroon and environs to dispense their gospel probably viewed any varying ethnic African groups who differed from the more general and stereotypical deeply black population as having some non-African lineage, and hence, as a possible Lost Tribe of Israel. It doesn’t take much in the way of persuasion from “people of the cloth” to make an impact on unassuming and unquestioning populations. If you throw enough stories at the wall, a certain number of tales are bound to stick and become part and parcel of the local history.

So much for oral traditions.

Jewish star and the Cameroon star, at the Beth Yeshourun prayer/study/social hall, at home of Moreh Nachman Etele) in Sa’a.

Jewish star and the Cameroon star, at the Beth Yeshourun prayer/study/social hall, at home of Moreh Nachman Etele) in Sa’a.

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FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSION / BIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS MY JEWISH GEOGRAPHY APP QUIZ GAME iTUNES STORE / FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

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House of Israel, Ghana: Days 4 and 5 (of 5), A Jewish Epiphany

NOTE: This post is part four of a four part series on the House of Israel, Ghana.

SEFWI WIAWSO, WESTERN REGION, Ghana — Wednesday, February 19: “There’s a guy in town who makes challah covers,” Alex mentioned the other day to my astonishment. I wanted to meet him.

The plan for Wednesday was for Alex to stop by late-morning at my hotel en route to meet this man. Alas, the challah cover guy was not around. It didn’t leave much else to do for the day.

“Well, take me somewhere that you’d like to show me,” I said. “Something touristy.” There’s nothing remotely touristy out here. There’s only remotely.

A typical dirt lane in New Adiembra, Sefwi Wiawso, Western Region, Ghana.

A typical dirt lane in New Adiembra, Sefwi Wiawso, Western Region, Ghana.

Not far from the synagogue is the College of Education, an adult education facility geared to prepping aspiring teachers. We took a pleasant stroll in the searing mid-day heat across the agreeable sprawling campus and circled our way back to the guesthouse. It was particularly peaceful as classes were not in session. The local roads were quiet too as most everyone was in the fields working. Being the only white person around, one tends to stand out. But this worked to my favor. From afar, kids and adults alike tossed waves and giddy smiles my way. Out here, everyone greets everyone with politeness. I exchanged many “Good afternoons”.

I spent the remainder of the day relaxing at my hotel, chilling (literally and figuratively) in my air conditioned room. I worked on my blog and backed up all my images from the recent few days.

ACCRA — Thursday, February 20: Thursday morning was supposed to be relaxed before the long drive back to Kumasi airport and my return to Accra. I thought my photo work would have been completed. With no service to photograph on Monday morning, I was determined to include Thursday’s service. So I was up with the roosters in order to be ready for a 7:15 a.m. pick up by the same driver who fetched me with Alex at the airport, and who was to drive me back to the airport too.

When I got to the guesthouse, Alex had disappointing news: The challah guy was still not around, and only a few people had shown up for the service. I sighed, then we went over to the synagogue.

Alex initially told me Monday and Thursday morning services were held at 8:00 a.m. When I showed up on Monday at 8:00 to find only Joseph there, he told me services are usually at 6:00 a.m. That’s early. On Wednesday, Alex asked what time I’d like to start.

Morning service, Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

Morning service, Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

“Well, that’s not up to me. But, phew, 6:00 is too early for me. I don’t think I can make that,” I said. So we actually negotiated a time and settled on 7:30. “So long as that works for you. I can’t expect everyone to suit me.”

In the end, there were three ladies and three gentlemen, plus myself, in attendance. Alex held an abbreviated service. “Even if we get 10 people including women, we count a minyan,” he told me. On this day, the Torah remained unopened.

Alex Armah, spiritual leader of the House of Israel, leads the morning service at Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

Alex Armah, spiritual leader of the House of Israel, leads the morning service at Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

When the 30-minute service concluded, held mostly in the local language, a bit of English (for my benefit), and a spattering of Hebrew, Alex asked me if there was anything I’d like to say.  From the bimah, I thanked them all very much for the welcome and opportunity. I also explained that my Jewish photo work is my passion, but it hardly pays the bills.

Before the service, they seemed a bit circumspect.

“Many people have been here to photograph our community,” one of the men told me dubiously. “Will we get a copy of your book?”

“Well,” I said, “I certainly hope so. But I still have a long way to go and it may be a few years.”

They seemed disappointed by that. I made sure they understood that I was working on an Africa-wide Jewish project, not just their community, and it was only about half completed.

“I will keep in contact with Alex. In the meantime, however, all of the photos I have taken I am giving to Alex today before I leave. So your community has them for sharing and record keeping.” They seemed ok with that.

“I want people to know about your community. I hope that my photographs will generate interest in and support for your community.” They seemed pleased by that too.

Alex and I returned to the guesthouse where I quickly downloaded the service images, then scanned and edited a few of them. I then download all my images from my visit to his computer. (It is my personal policy to reciprocate the time, assistance, and welcome each and every community and/or institution provides me by making my photographs available to them free of charge. This reciprocity only seems fair.)

Members of the House of Israel Jewish community outside Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

Members of the House of Israel Jewish community outside Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

It was a long ride back to Kumasi airport. By the end of the 3 hour, 45 minute, 167 kilometer (104 mile) journey, I was hot, sweaty, tired, and anxious to get out of the vehicle. I have no idea how many speed bumps we jolted over, but for all their annoyance, I was actually grateful they were there. Where the road passes a village, many of the speed bumps are dirt humps the locals made themselves. I guess they got tired of waiting for the official road works authority to turn up and took matters into their own hands. Kudos to them, actually.

As we got caught up in the traffic in Kumasi, I looked more closely at passing cars. I saw a few taxis with Israeli flags on the dashboards, peculiarly enough. One van had the word “Israel” written across the rear window.

What’s that about, I wondered aloud. Alex didn’t have an explanation for me.

As I look back through the rear window of my five-day sojourn with the House of Israel Jewish community, I wonder where their believer road is going for it seems to have as many speed bumps ahead as those I had just traversed. Let’s be honest: These people are monetarily poor and are lacking materially as a Jewish community. Never did I sense sadness or frustration because of this condition, however. As a photographer, my focus is in the images and to portray each community and each of its member for who they are, for how they live, and, most importantly, for how they see themselves as Jews. It is not for me to judge their commitment or their claims of Judaism. I was not welcomed to be their referee. I’ll leave interpretation to someone else.

What I do know is that Alex and his flock have accepted Judaism in their hearts and minds because they have found spiritual wealth in the tenets of the religion, something that was clearly lacking in their previous lives as Roman Catholics.

Amponsah is a taxi driver friend of Alex. It was he who, with Alex, met me at and returned me to Kumasi airport. When I first got in the car on arrival, there was a crucifix affixed to the inside of his windscreen that read “Jesus Saves”. There was also a hologram dangling from the rear view mirror with Jesus on one side and Mary on the other.

“You need to change that for Moses and Rachel,” I said, laughing. I didn’t bother trying to explain the  “Jesus saves, Moses invests” joke, however.

When Amponsah fetched me at the hotel on that final morning to take me to the synagogue, I noticed the dangling Jesus and Mary hologram was gone. But the cross was still there.

“I want to be with you,” Amponsah said, theologically speaking.

“You really should talk to Alex. He can guide you.”

“I’ll do that,” he acknowledged.

“But before you do, you need to do something else.”

“What?”

“You need to renounce Jesus as your Lord and Savior,” I said. “You can start by removing the cross from with window.”

Maybe that’s how it all starts for some people, with a Jewish epiphany. After all, the House of Israel was said to have started as a result of a vision (unlike the evangelists where it begins on television).

 

NOTE: This post is part four of a four part series on the House of Israel, Ghana.

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FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSION / BIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS MY JEWISH GEOGRAPHY APP QUIZ GAME iTUNES STORE / FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

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House of Israel, Ghana: Day 3 (of 5), “Meshugah for Mezuzah”

NOTE: This post is part three of a four part series on the House of Israel, Ghana.

SEFWI WIAWSO, WESTERN REGION, Ghana — Tuesday, February 18: I met Alex just before 10:00 a.m. at the community guesthouse where he and his wife reside. We went to the synagogue with the mezuzahs. I photographed him as he tightly rolled up the scrolls and sealed them in the cases.

Alex Armah, spiritual leader, places kosher mezuzah scrolls into their cases.

Alex Armah, spiritual leader, places kosher mezuzah scrolls into their cases.

I took note the previous evening that only one of the synagogue’s three doors, the most commonly used door, had a mezuzah. Unexpectedly, Alex removed the weather beaten mezuzah and replaced it with a new one. As he hammered the shiny new mezuzah into place with the butt end of a lock for a hammer, I think we both shared a sense of joy in the moment.

“I’ve never actually put up a mezuzah,” I said. Alex seemed as surprised by that as I was. I had never thought about it till that moment.

Alex Armah affixes a new mezuzah to the main door of Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

Alex Armah affixes a new mezuzah to the main door of Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

I explained to him that the kosher scrolls were a gift from a woman in Texas, USA and that I had provided the covers. “The mezuzahs are yours and you can put them where you like, of course, but I really think the guesthouse needs one,” I said. So we went back next door.

Again, I photographed Alex as he affixed the first-ever mezuzah to the frame of the main door on the incomplete guesthouse. Once that was done, we returned to the synagogue where Alex recorded two video commentaries and posed for a portrait photo. Alex is a low key person, but he seems to quietly relish the attention that a spiritual leadership role demands.

Spiritual leader Alex Armah affixes the first-ever mezuzah to the main door of the community guesthouse.

Spiritual leader Alex Armah affixes the first-ever mezuzah to the main door of the community guesthouse.

The verdant rolling hills of the Sefwi Wiawso District of Western Ghana delayed the arrival of missionaries and their gospel. Long before they finally penetrated these parts, the indigenous people practiced their own religion, one that was similar to the laws of the Torah, though written documentation does not exist. It is known that the sabbath was strictly observed, pigs and other unclean animals were not eaten, and males were circumcised. But Christianity eventually took hold and the Jewish-like practices faded.

Aaron Ahomtre Toakyirafa (alt. spelling, Towakyerafa) is regarded as the founder of the modern day House of Israel. It is said that in 1976 he had a vision that the Sefwi people were descendants of a Lost Tribe of Israel who can trace their origins to Ethiopia and Sudan. His Jewish epiphany returned his flock to the ways and laws of Judaism. But it was not easy. Locals did not accept their Jewish faith and ultimately forced the newly-born Jewish community to flee their village in Old Adiembra and relocated in New Adiembra. In more recent times, the Freedom of Worship Act insured not only religious liberation, but deliverance from the threats of violence. Today, the House of Israel Jewish community is comprised of some 120 souls who live in social and religious harmony with their Christian and Muslim brethren.

Initially, the community was granted 40 acres of land by the local chief, and today the community is mainly agrarian. Over time, they earned enough money from cocoa, cassava, sugar cane, and plantain crops (among others) to build the Tifereth Israel Synagogue, the only synagogue in all of Ghana.

Alex, whose Hebrew name is Aaharon Ben Avraham, studied in earnest with the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda under the supervision and direction of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu. He did a number of tours of study with the Abayudaya between 2008 and 2012, earning him a “Certificate of Introduction to Rabbinics” issued on 21 October that final year. He’s even trained in kashrut (of chickens and small animals, not cows).

Alex Armah shows off his Certificate of Rabbinics he earned under the supervision of Abayudaya Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Uganda.

Alex Armah shows off his Certificate of Rabbinics he earned under the supervision of Abayudaya Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Uganda.

Besides financial resources, I asked what he feels the community needs most: “The three most important needs of our community are to connect with the outside world; for our community to be officially converted; and to be recognized by the State of Israel,” Alex replied without thinking about how to answer.. “I also want all our children to go to school and get the health care they need.”

“Well,” I said, “I hope my photographs and blog notes about your community will help with the first one. That’s part of my overall mission — to bring light to communities.”

Alex was driven to Judaism for “purpose and responsibility” that the Roman Catholicism he renounced didn’t provide. “Commitment to Judaism and teaching its laws and ways of life are commandments,” he noted. “So these things give me purpose.”

From the synagogue, we headed back to the town near my hotel to visit Akiva Kenah, the community chairman. With his nine-month-old daughter Rachel on his knee, we sat in the front room of his very modest house chatting about his farming life and his role as chairman. But what I liked most was hearing him say the names of his other children: Elijah, Deborah, and Moses.

Akiva Kenah, House of Israel chairman, at home with his daughter, Rachel.

Akiva Kenah, House of Israel chairman, at home with his daughter, Rachel.

In the late afternoon, Alex took me back to the home of Isaac and Florence Aidoo. They again welcomed me with smiles. Jovial Florence offered several giggles. Isaac, shirtless and sweaty, had just returned from the fields. Nevertheless, he put on a shirt, picked up his machete, and let me photograph him as he hacked a long tree branch into a mallet that will be used for pounding cassava and yams.

Isaac Aidoo hacks out a new mallet for pounding cassava and yams.

Isaac Aidoo hacks out a new mallet for pounding cassava and yams.

Florence, meanwhile, was crouched in her kitchen — just as I had seen her two days earlier — crushing small chili peppers into a fiery hot paste. She just seems to enjoy herself and being with her family.

Florence Aidoo in her kitchen mashing chili peppers while her brother eats an early supper.

Florence Aidoo in her kitchen mashing chili peppers while her brother eats an early supper.

NOTE: This post is part three of a four part series on the House of Israel, Ghana.

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FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSION / BIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS MY JEWISH GEOGRAPHY APP QUIZ GAME iTUNES STORE / FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

FOLLOW THIS BLOG: Sign up for updates by email by joining the followers list. Return to the HOME page and enter your email address (followers’ names and email addresses are not revealed to me nor to other followers).