OSAKA, Japan — It’s that time again: I’m heading back to Africa for leg #5 of my Jewish Africa photo survey project. With this trip, I’m two years in, less than two years to go, and crossing the halfway line. Leg #8 doesn’t seem all that far, or more importantly, all that unobtainable.
I know it now that this trip is less about the numbers of images than it is about incorporating a few small corners of Jewish Africa life and history that are little known. Frankly, much of what I will photograph is uncertain. While Madagascar, La Reunion, and Angola are hardly known for anything Jewish and offer little to actually photograph, I’d be remiss not to incorporate these locations in my Jewish Africa opus. Besides, when else am I going to go to these places?
First up, the long journey from Osaka via Bangkok, Thailand to a night in Johannesburg, South Africa, then to MADAGASCAR for 8 adventurous days. That fabled land will be the 100th country/territory incorporated into my Jewish Photo Library archives. But only one day, and even then, only a few hours of that one day, will be set aside for photographing things Jewish there. We’ll all have to wait and see just what I set my lens upon for I really have scant idea. I have entrusted both my Jewish and tourist plans to a man with the longest name of anyone I’ve known (or more precisely, about to know): Raherimasoandro Andriamamonjy. Luckily, he’s boiled those 28 letters down to 4: Hery. I can neither spell (without copying) or pronounce his full name correctly, but Hery’s proven himself remarkably dependable, enthusiastic, and accommodating in our emails.
He says things like, “Tomorrow is Yom Haatzmaut and I congratulate this independence of the State of Israel and its people through you. I am always available for questions relating to your trip. Friendly Shalom.” (May 5, 2014 email.)
He certainly understands the aim of my visit: “I am very aware for your mission, that of promoting the Jewish photo project in Africa, therefore, where we will see this Jewish community. Yes, there is not much but I assure you that you will not leave empty-handed. Friendly Shalom.” (May 7, 2014 email.)
So what am I doing the other 7 days in Madagascar?
“It is clear to your need in nature (lemurs…) cultural activities, tourism and more. I ask you a little time to see what are the best; I would like to comparisons and especially to also see the side safety. I will send you the details of that I had the plan. Already, welcome my friend.” (April 30, 2014 email.)
That’s right. Madagascar for Madagascar sake: charming lemurs, abhorrent Madagascar hissing cockroaches, majestic baobab trees, and a serendipitous sojourn. Nothing could be finer.
From there, it’s only an hour flight to LA REUNION island, an overseas department of France. Politically European but geographically African, I felt compelled to include the few photos I’ll acquire there. My friendly contact Jean Akoun has not merely responded graciously to my inquiries, she’s offered her home to me to stay for the three nights I’ll be there. How nice is that?
“There is about 1,000 Jewish on the Island,” she wrote when I first connected with her in May 2013. “Only 200 really practice Judaism. There is two places for office. On Shabbat there is from 12 to 20 people in each. There is no Jewish cimetery. Since 5 years, we have a place for the new tombs. There is no old syna[gogue] or cimetery. And not too much to catch for a photographer.”
I wasn’t dissuaded to go by that last line because I determined that I’d regret not incorporating it into my project and, again, when else am I really going to go to La Reunion?
From there, I’ll sojourn one night in Johannesburg in a guesthouse near the airport before connecting to jigsaw-puzzle-piece-shaped ANGOLA. Just getting my visa was a journey. While most embassies accept applications by post, Angola does not because they require all visitors be pre-finger printed (scanned electronically, actually). So, I took a day off work (and scheduled makeup classes) and rocketed up to Tokyo on the shinkansen (bullet) train, an expensive way to obtain a visa (though I took advantage of the day to lunch with a friend I had not seen in three years and to visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, something I missed on prior Tokyo visits). I was not able to do the day trip until I had all my necessary paperwork in place, however.
The real application hurdle is obtaining a “letter of invitation” from someone within Angola. I don’t know anyone in Angola, but Jewish geography connected me to an extraordinarily trusting and generous Israeli soul who does business there (both his name and business shall remain withheld for the moment). Not only was I required to submit an official letter of invitation, but any non-Angolan foreign national who provides the letter must also submit a copy of their passport and Angola residence visa. So this kind man sent me, an utter stranger, the letter along with a copy of his passport and visa. That sort of trust is remarkable. I surmised that my contact in D. R. Congo who put me in touch with him vouched for me. So, the jigsaw puzzle came together and my Angola visa was finally approved after several weeks of uncertainly on my part (and, I’m sure, my many annoying emails pushing to get the letter just right — it took a couple of drafts for it to state all the details the embassy requires).
Angola, too, offers little in the way of Jewish stuff to photograph. In Luanda, the capital — the most expensive city in Africa (it’s full of diamond, gold, and other mineral rich business people) — there are but a few Jewish graves in a centrally located cemetery. I know neither if they are all together, scattered, or even if they are still there. Details are sketchy. As Raphael Singer, Ambassador of Israel to Angola, wrote to me on May 16, “Wow, I live next door – didn’t know.”
I’ll find more to photograph (but not by much) in the central coastal towns of Catumbela and Benguela, an hour flight south of Luanda. There are small Jewish cemeteries in both towns.
“Don’t worry, I will help you when you arrive [in Benguela],” wrote Jaime Azulay on May 19. I was email introduced to him via the Israeli ambassador. “I’d like to secure that even if I go out from Benguela someone will take you round everywhere you would like to go and help you. Don’t worry about it.”
But just how the Jews in those cemeteries ended up there (apart from actually dying), I am not at all sure. Internet rarely fails to turn up what you’re looking for, but in this case, it pretty much has. I hope to ascertain a more precise understanding of the Jewish history of Angola once I am there.
Just when I thought I had all my Angola Jewish photo ops lined up, I hit upon something most unexpected: another Jew living in Benguela.
In searching for accommodation there, I found Nancy’s English School and Guest House. I perused the website and sent an email to inquire further. My booking was confirmed, and then I did a double-take at the name in the return email: Nancy…wait for it…Gottlieb.
Gottlieb? Gotta be Jewish, I thought.
“Forgive me if I am being forward, but are you Jewish?” I wrote. “I was just considering your name. I am an independent photographer specializing in Jewish documentation. I am working on a project on Jewish Africa.”
Nancy’s reply came back quickly. “I want to also say that I clicked on the little icon that showed up along side the email in my gmail account – the Jewish Photo Library, and got a bit fascinated! I also ended up watching the first part of an interview with you I found on You Tube. So, Just to let you know, I am one Jewish person living in Angola! And, I am guessing you are coming because of your photo work…”
She got that right.
The Jewish world reaches far and wide. In addition to the aforementioned destinations, I’ll be sharing some of my Jewish photographer experiences as a presenter at Limmud South Africa in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban between August 22 and August 31. I presented in Jo’burg last year. I guess they liked me enough not only to invite me back, but to include me in all Limmud events this time round.
From there? A week in Israel; my first visit since February 2012.
Leg #5 kicks off on July 29 and keeps on kicking through September 14.
Click for JEWISH AFRICA PHOTO HIGHLIGHTS.
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