LUSAKA, Zambia — The rain-soaked sky parted some minutes before landing in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city an hour flight from Livingstone. As the 29-seater prop plane swooped in, rows of houses and buildings suddenly appeared from what had been a carpet of trees spliced by twisting, muddied rivers and bound by ribbons of orange-red dirt roads. There were plenty of richly green crop circles too. Little did I realize it then, but I was probably looking down upon the Jewish-owned Galaunia Farms Ltd — owned by the prominent Galaun family. The view was colorful and warm, and in its midst Jews had forged a life and a history. I was due to meet Michael Galaun, the current head of the Galaunia empire, shortly after my arrival. But first, I had something more important to do: take a self-portrait in front of the “Lusaka” sign at the airport. I had, after all, just completed my journey “from Osaka to Lusaka”.
While I was confident my Jewish Lusaka visit would prove fruitful, I was landing with some uncertainty because I had not quite managed to grasp a clear idea of the who, what, when, where, and how it was going to happen. I really was at the mercy of one man: Michael Galaun.
“We should be pleased to assist you,” emailed Michael on October 27, 2012, then continued somewhat more ominously. “The Jewish community is transient but has a hard core of about 6 individuals you may wish to talk to. All the sites are easily accessible but you will need a robust car and good driver. Traffic in Zambia is manic and road accidents more prolific than they should be. Medical assistance is not good.”
What followed landing was three days of rock star treatment. It started when Michael sent his personal chauffeur to fetch me at my guesthouse. Stephen first took me to meet Michael at his office — and was virtually at my beck and call for the duration of my Lusaka stay.
Admittedly, I was a touch anxious to meet Michael. He is a rock star in his own right. The Galaun family name, after all, is virtually synonymous with Zambian Jewry. His father, Abe (and mother, Vera) had such a hugely successful farming business — which Michael oversees to this very day — that people knew him as “the man who fed the nation.” He was also the founder of the Council of Zambia Jewry. But Michael greeted me warmly and made it perfectly clear that he’d make certain I got the most out of my time, and any concerns I had dissipated.
After a short but informative meet-and-greet, Michael sent me on my way with Stephen to photograph the three Jewish cemeteries and a few formerly-owned Jewish buildings and businesses in town. Stephen fetched me again for an evening out with Michael that included two social events — a group art show at a garden bar/restaurant (complete with free pizzas, cheeses, and other goodies) and a stunning cello/piano German duo recital at the Alliance France (cultural center).
The following day, I finally got to the Lusaka Synagogue. Built in 1941, the sanctuary is well maintained, as is the social hall. But the adjoining classroom is quite literally caving in. The former rabbi’s house is on the same property. It stands empty today, but an etrog tree blooms in the garden like a living memory of the community’s glory days.
On my third day, I spent a few hours driving around the expansive farms just outside Lusaka on a private tour with one of Michael’s underlings. From the ground, the muddied roads didn’t have quite the same colorful appeal from the air. They raise chickens, and produce milk, soya beans, corn, and potatoes among other foodstuffs. I even learned a few things about farming such as chickens have a 35-day lifespan (i.e. before they go to market). In the afternoon, Michael gave me a personally guided tour around the neighborhood to look at some former Jewish homes, including his own (he lived in the house from 1953~1967).
In addition to his farms, he recently opened a cemetery and he is also the Honorary Consul to Austria (“It requires only 1 or 2 hours of my time a month…I don’t get a bean for it”), not to mention that he is the Chairman of the Council of Zambian Jewry.
In short, there is nothing that Michael did not do for me. And for all of that, he truly is a Jewish Star.
IN MEMORIAM: It was with a heavy heart that I learned of Michael’s passing in July 2016. RIP, sir. You will be dearly missed.
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