OSAKA, Japan — Plans for leg #4 of my Jewish Africa photo survey project are mostly in place now. The few gaps in my schedule that remain to be filled will mostly be left to chance and spontaneity.
Here’s the plan: I depart on February 8th for Johannesburg, South Africa. By the time I come home on April 4th, I’ll have visited Jewish communities in Ghana, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda. I’ll have also sojourned to country communities in South Africa and even traveled 25 hours on the delicious Johannesburg-to-Cape Town Shosholoza Meyl train. I look forward to the comfort of my private berth Premier Classe Deluxe Sleeper accommodations and enjoying the camaraderie of fellow passengers as we wine, dine, and chat our way across the beautiful landscapes of South Africa. The whole of my journey should be remarkable, and I can think of no better way to end it by spending a week in Cape Town.
But my vision for this trip didn’t start out the way it has shaped up. In the initial planning stages, I was certain I was going to Nigeria. But plans fell through when a “Jewish tour” across the country I had hoped to join was cancelled. Maybe next year instead, so I was told. I hope so, for Nigeria is the destination that I most prefer to travel with others. For the second time, I also intended to go to Madagascar. But February/March is rainy season and that creates potential hazards and hassles. I nearly went to Cape Verde. Alas, the Jewish cemeteries there are currently under restoration so I am holding off a year till the work is complete.
In SOUTH AFRICA, my work continues primarily in and around Johannesburg and Cape Town. I’ll hit the ground running as the day after my arrival, I’ll be taking a 5-day road trip with Diane Fine, a local enthusiast of Jewish heritage particularly around Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape Province. Our journey will also take us to Bloemfontein, capital of Free State Province, and a few other towns as well. Plans to visit these areas fell through on two prior occasions for different reasons — including having had my camera gear stolen in February last year.
In GHANA, I will spend several days with the House of Israel in Sefwi Wiawso District, Western Ghana. As an emerging Jewish group, I will be keen to observe their interpretations of Judaism, their manner of worship, and their daily lives. Their Jewish roots only reach back to 1976 when community leader Aaron Ahomtre Toakyirafa was said to have had a vision calling for a return to their Jewish roots as a lost tribe of Israel. In 1998 in the Jewish neighborhood of New Adiembra, they built their first synagogue. The Sefwi people are thought to have come from Ethiopia and Sudan.
“Please, you can come at an time that you want to come,” assured community leader Alex Armah via Facebook. “Please, what ever you want to know you can ask me I will do all my best to answer you.”
In CAMEROON, spiritual leader of Beth Yeshourun, Serge Etele, has been no less enthusiastic and welcoming to his emerging community. “You can photograph our synagogue and homes and the people in their Jewish life and activities as well as our secular projects,” the mainly self-taught Serge wrote by Facebook, and also told me a bit about the community.
“The community exists since 14 years and is about 40 to 50 people.” Apparently, the group splintered off from an Evangelical church because they no longer believed in Christianity.
“No cemetery or Jewish building yet,” Serge continued. “We are trying to build a dedicated place for worship, but for now, we are using private homes as synagogues. Our main activity is agriculture. We grow cocoa, cassava, plantain, etc. We just started a huge communal cocoa farm project which involves the entire community and should help us improve our economic situation.”
In the DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO (DRC), I’ll be dodging mosquitos and bullets. That sounds dramatic but malaria is extremely prevalent in the DRC. Something like 40% of all new malaria cases in Africa happen there, or so I have been told. As for the bullets, I haven’t yet found a repellent spray. Armed groups and clashes are mainly in the east of the country, but not entirely. I’ll be in the southern city of Lubumbashi, the nation’s second largest, and the capital, Kinshasa, which lies on the western edge of the country literally across the Congo River from Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo.
I am traveling to Lubumbashi (formerly, Elisabethville) from Johannesburg for the purpose of photographing the remaining synagogue, Jewish cemeteries, and meeting the handful of remaining Jewish residents. I’ll fly to Kinshasa from there where I’ll be spending time at Chabad of Central Africa. Yeah, there’s a yeshiva in the DRC. From what little I currently know, it mainly serves Israelis who live and work there.
Jews first arrived in the country in 1907 from Eastern Europe, and a few years later, Jews from the island of Rhodes settled in the former Belgian Congo too. Many people worked in the mining business with the development of a regional copper industry. The city boomed through the 1960s but went mostly on the decline thereafter mainly due to political unrest which, in many respects, continues to this day. Still, the city is dotted with some grand architecture from a bygone era and a visit promises to be very interesting.
In RWANDA, there is no Jewish community to speak of. There are two places of interest for my Jewish Africa photo project, however. One is the Kigali Memorial Centre (KMC). Opened on the 10th anniversary of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the facility is a memorial is built on a site where some 250,000 people are buried, a quarter of the estimated total number of people who were murdered. The KMC has some Jewish features including the “Windows of Hope” stained glass by an artist whose father survived Auschwitz.
The other place of interest is the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) about an hour outside Kigali where I will spend 2 days. Founded by South African Anne Heyman and the Edmond J. Safra Foundation, a US-based philanthropic Jewish organization that fulfills educational, medical, and cultural objectives (among others), the ASYV will be a small but important aspect of Jewish influence in Africa to incorporate in my project. The mission of ASYV, as stated on their official website, is —
“To enable orphaned and vulnerable youth to realize their maximum potential by providing them with a safe and secure living environment, health care, education and necessary life skills. Education and service are used to model and create socially responsible citizens in Rwanda and around the world.”
Both the KMC and the ASYV have obvious connections between the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.
With the completion of leg #4 (of an estimated 8), I’ll be at the halfway point of my Jewish Africa photo survey project, with 14 of the projected 30 countries I hope to visit already in the record books. Rwanda, by the way, will be the 99th country/territory in my Jewish photo archives. By the time I am done with all of that traveling and the intensity of the experiences, I’ll be ready for that relaxing train journey to Cape Town. My Cape Town Jewish schedule is pretty busy, however. Just the way I like it.
IN MEMORIAM: Anne Heyman, native South African and founder of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) in Rwanda, died on February 1, 2014 following a horse riding accident in Florida, USA. It was only in October 2013 that I established an email relationship with her and she secured permission and arrangements for my impending visit to ASYV in March for inclusion in my Jewish Africa photo survey project. “There will absolutely be someone who can facilitate your visit,” she wrote on October 30. “As far as Jewish aspects to the village goes, I believe you will see that the connection to Judaism/Israel is strong, with support from foundations like Safra being only a small part of our Jewish story.” RIP, Anne. For more about ASYV, please visit their website: http://www.asyv.org/. Watch an interview with Anne about ASYV: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6V-PfoexWY
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