OSAKA, Japan — In March 2003, I spent a few days in Managua, Nicaragua. I stayed with Eric and Elise, on assignment for the US Department of State, in their American-style house in a leafy neighborhood on a hill that rose just above the swelter of the city. They are two of the smartest and kindest people I’ve ever known, and they are also two of the most intrepid travelers. I wouldn’t expect diplomats to be anything different. I stayed with them 8 years earlier when they were posted to Hanoi, Vietnam to work in the US Liaison Office in the days prior to the re-establishment of a US embassy there. Like them, I love to travel.
It was during my stay in Managua that Eric glimpsed into my future: “Jono,” he said prophetically, “You should call your memoir ‘From Osaka to Lusaka’.”
“Well,” I said. “First, I’ll have to go there.”
And so, at long last, I am going there — though I’d like to think that my life’s story still has plenty of chapters beyond this one.
Lusaka is the capital and largest city of Zambia, a landlocked country in the southern African region. With a population of 1.7 million souls residing some 1,300 meters (4,265 feet) above the sea, I’m hoping the city is just above the swelter and mosquitos of summer.
This forthcoming visit will technically be my second time in the country. In 2000, I camped a single night on Sekoma Island in the middle of the Chobe River while passing en route to the Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls — not quite making it to Lusaka. My week-long visit in February will take me from the country’s fringes to its interior in my quest to photograph the remnants of both a bygone Jewish heritage and glimmers of today’s 50-or-so member community. I’ll sojourn in Livingstone (named for the famed Scottish/British missionary/explorer David, and where the first synagogue in Zambia was built in 1928), a stint in Ndola, Kitwe, and Mulufira in the soi-disant Copper Belt, and, of course, a call at Lusaka where most of the the Jewish community resides. All of these locations at one time had notable Jewish communities, synagogues, and cemeteries, and where most of their remnants can still be found.
Jews first arrived in the late 1800s, mainly from Germany and Lithuania, and established cattle and mining businesses. Though small in number, the Jewish community played a big role in the economic and political development of the nation, formerly, Northern Rhodesia. Simon Zukas, for instance, was a veteran political leader who played an important part in Zambia’s struggle for independence from Great Britain during the 1950s. The country ultimately won independence in October 1964, by which time the Jewish population had shrunk to about half of its 1,200 peak a decade earlier.
In addition to a week in Zambia, I’ll also be a week in Namibia, and a few days each in Mozambique and Mauritius, and some five weeks journeying across South Africa. It all kicks off on departure day, January 29, 2013.
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