Out of Jewish Africa

NAIROBI, Kenya — There isn’t a whole lot of Jewish Kenya to photograph but it certainly has been an interesting four days here in the nation’s traffic-choked capital. I have Charles Szlapak to thank for making it all happen. The spritely octogenarian is the Honorary Life Chairman & Trustee of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation and a pillar of the diminutive but vital community. It is comprised of an eclectic mix of Kenyan-born Europeans, long-term foreigners, transients, and fleeting sojourners like me.

Charles Szlapak, Honorary Life Chairman & Trustee, Nairobi Hebrew Congregation

Charles Szlapak, Honorary Life Chairman & Trustee, Nairobi Hebrew Congregation

Born in Poland in 1933, Charles came to Kenya as a five-year-old boy with his parents who were seeking a better life. As the owners of the Fairview Hotel since 1946, the Szlapaks certainly found what they were looking for. The unique and venerable Fairview Hotel in Nairobi is a world-class five-star country-style oasis, a universe removed from the din of the city.

“Most anyone famous opts to stay at the InterContinental because of its name,” Charles remarked during a personal tour of the grounds and innards of the hotel, including the kitchens and laundry. “They charge twice the price for half the service. We really are so much better.” I knew it was true because Charles is not a man to boast.

Though my teeny weeny hopes that he might offer me a great rate on a room at his five-star hotel didn’t come to fruition, Charles gave me nothing less than the five-star treatment and rock star welcome. He was my go-to guy, looking after me even before I arrived. He fielded numerous emails and sorted out logistics for me in Nairobi and in Mombasa, and also provided maps to the Jewish cemetery in a dusty town called Nakuru (a few hours west of the capital).

On the evening of my arrival, he welcomed me to his delightful home and treated me to fish and freshly grilled vegetables served with a smile by his cook, a fine gentleman in a yellow apron. When Charles and I talked “business” (i.e. the details of my visit), he pulled out a stack of printed emails from me. “You’re a pain in the ass,” he said affectionately (at least, I think so). On my way out, I thanked him and said, “Charles, that was divine. Best of all, our emails are almost up. We can save a tree.”

Nairobi Synagogue sign

Nairobi Synagogue sign

On Friday morning, I walked the five minutes from my central Nairobi hotel to the Nairobi Synagogue. Consecrated in 1955 on the same site as a previous synagogue (from 1912) that was no longer viable, I was pleased to see it in such perfect condition (it had only recently been renovated). The most striking feature is a 360 degree series of stained glass panels adorning the upper portion of the walls. They depict the 12 Tribes of Israel and other Jewish motifs including a section over the entrance to the shul showing the Exodus (donated by the Szlapak family in memory of Rachel, Charles’ mother). I thought that was a fitting memorial as his own family made their own personal Exodus.

Nairobi Synagogue

Nairobi Synagogue

But even more impressive was the surrounding garden, easily the most beautiful and expansive of any synagogue that I have ever visited anywhere in the world. The garden is enviable for its tranquility (particularly being virtually in the city center), its expansiveness, its colors, its variety of sky-thrusting trees, flowering bushes, and roaming pathways betwixt neatly pruned grass. There are even etrog and lulav trees, the only ones in all of Kenya, perhaps the only ones in all of east Africa.

Nairobi Synagogue

Nairobi Synagogue garden

After completing my photo assignments at the Nairobi Synagogue and two Jewish cemeteries (where I went with not one but two plain-clothed armed security officers from the synagogue), I ended up at the Fairview Hotel for a late lunch with Charles. We dined on the buffet (his treat) and then he gave me a complete tour of the lush green grounds complete with fountains and crowds spilling out into the garden and around the giant pool.

I dined at his home again for Shabbat supper along with 7 others. It was delightful and delicious, topped off with a flavorful conversational medley about community life, everyone’s current business projects, and safaris.

On Sunday, I spent a lot of time in the car. I drove out to Kasuku (near Ol Kalou, capital of Nyandarua County) roughly three hours west of Nairobi, with a stop en route in Nakuru City. In the latter, I photographed a small Jewish cemetery and the old synagogue (the Arap Moi Children’s Home since 1967). In the former, I was drawn to an emerging Jewish group called the Kasuku Jewish community.

Former Nakuru Synagogue

Former Nakuru Synagogue

Located down a rough red dirt road midst rolling green hills blanketed by farmland, I journeyed with Yehuda Kimani, an eager 26-year-old whom I’d been introduced to via Facebook. We finally met personally on the Saturday afternoon when he filled me in on his community. About 10 years ago, the Kasuku adopted the Jewish faith and gave up their Messianic ways. Today, there are about 25 members in their community comprised mainly of two families. One of those people is Yehuda who was my link to the community.

The Kasuku have links with Rabbi Gershom Simozu from the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda (where I will be staying for 4 nights later this week). The Kasuku are not officially recognized as Jews (as are the Abayudaya) but that does not prevent them from welcoming visitors and singing an array of Jewish songs in their makeshift synagogue (which appears more as a succah). I was warmly greeted by everyone, including the smallest of the children.

Kasuku Jewish Community

Kasuku Jewish Community

I explained to Yehuda that my job as a photographer is to take pictures and to document Jewish life in all its manifestations. I leave history and judgement up to others.

Mount Kilimanjaro

View of Mount Kilimanjaro en route from Nairobi to Mombasa

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