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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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