BITAM, Gabon — Watching the community elder explain his vision for a future synagogue and community center made for great theater. He pirouetted, gesticulated, lunged, and screeched in a histrionic performance of wishful thinking. As his arms flailed right then left then skyward, I could hear his dream, but I couldn’t quite envision it. I wasn’t sure his audience of fellow community members could either.
“Next time you come,” said Pascal Meka, spiritual leader and president of the fledgling Jewish Community of Gabon, “we will have a great synagogue here.”
Nope, despite his conviction, I still couldn’t see it.
My Jewish photo tours have taken me to some far-flung places. Sometimes I stop and think to myself, “How did I get here?” Here was in the middle of an improvised soccer field hacked out of the surrounding lush forest at the end of a dusty untarred road on the fringes of the threadbare town of Oyem in northeastern Gabon in the western region of Central Africa a smidgen north of the equator.
I was told it was only a 45-minute drive from Bitam, the principle town where I stayed for two nights. By now, I should know better. Put a 1 in front of that, and there’s reality.
“Pascal was worried that if he told you the community is actually outside the town, that you wouldn’t want to come,” said Ezechiel, my traveling companion and translator from the Beth Yeshourun Jewish Community in Yaounde, Cameroon.
“I just need to know what to expect so I can prepare mentally for these journeys,” I explained. But that’s thinking too logically because time does not equal distance does not equal time in Africa. Everything, it seems, is “5 minutes.”
Not only could I not picture the synagogue in my mind’s eye, I could not imagine a return journey. In the case of the former, I don’t know how these gentle, warm souls will ever secure the funds to build their dream. Per the latter, I don’t ever again wish to run the gauntlet of road blocks minded by corrupt sweaty police in t-shirts who spend their days trying to squeeze passersby with trumped up problems with their official documents. In the 80 kilometers (45 miles) from Bitam to Oyem, we passed no fewer than 10 ramshackle checkpoints and were stopped and questioned at 7 of them. I ceased putting my passport and vaccination card back in my pocket after stop number three.
Nearly two hours into the journey, and having already passed through and back out of Oyem proper, I knew we had to be no more than about, well, 5 minutes from our ultimate destination. Perhaps we would have been if not for one final hard-ass policeman who seemed to have quenched his thirst with a beer or two. Beer and bullets are not a good mix. Put a uniform on it, and you’ve got yourself a harassment cocktail.
The lithe, sharp-jawed officer came ambling over to our vehicle and stared inside. He doesn’t see too many white faces out here. Pascal handed over his ID card, then I handed him my passport and vaccination card.
He flipped it open with a snap of his wrist. “You don’t have all the required vaccinations,” he insisted. “Where’s your tetanus vaccination?”
“That’s not a communicably transmitted disease and it is not internationally required,” I retorted.
He didn’t like that. He looked at me hard, and muttered in French that I didn’t respect him.
By now, the three local community members I was traveling with, plus Ezechiel and I, were fed up. We all stepped out of the vehicle and sauntered over to the makeshift shelter. Ezechiel and I stood off to one side with another officer who seemed more sensible (and sober) while the others took a seat on the sagging bamboo benches.
Rene may be an elder member — probably in his mid-70s — of the Jewish community of Gabon, but he’s feisty. Our seventh inspection by the gendarmerie (military police) proved too much. He flexed his ballsy certitude by telling off the upstart officer for his behavior and the incessant harassment en route.
“How do you think people feel about our country if you behave like this,” he wailed, nearly screaming. “There is no problem here. You are trying to make one! You shame our country!”
I explained to the sensible officer that there is no way I could get my visa approved, then cross the border, and slip by the checkpoints if all my documents and vaccinations were not in good order. Ten minutes later, we were allowed to go on our way. Five more African minutes after that, exhausted and relieved, we arrived in the village.
By that point, it dawned on me that Gabon was the single-most challenging country of the 140 or so that I’ve visited. And though we had just arrived into the open arms of a warm welcome, I couldn’t wait to get back in the car to make haste for Bitam to be sure we would be back by nightfall.
OUR BORDER AND POLICE INSPECTION woes began as we tried to exit from Cameroon to Gabon. Arriving 30 minutes before the crossing closed for the evening didn’t help. But the main issue was that Ezechiel did not have a visa (I already had my Gabon visa from the Embassy in Tokyo). We managed to get the necessary stamps from the Cameroon authorities, though even that required running here and there and even backtracking a mile up the road to the immigration police office. A stamp here, a whack there, then our details written down in triplicate by three very bored looking officers is a good test of patience.
Finally, we got the go-ahead to cross a narrow bridge over a putrid river to the Gabonese bureaucratic labyrinth of dissatisfied officials. The first one we met berated us for coming so late. In the end, he told us there isn’t time to issue the paperwork and get through three security checks…and then register at the immigration office in Bitam 40-minutes down the road.
Everything literally came to a standstill — utter silence and people standing at attention — as the Gabon national flag was lowered for the night. We had no choice but to turn around and head back to Kye-Ossi, the border town on the Cameroon side. There, we checked into the Saratel Hotel. I was more than pleasantly surprised, if relieved, to find it clean and cozy, complete with wifi, a restaurant, agreeable staff eager to please, and, best of all, Santa Claus standing like a sentry at the front door. Inside, there was a Christmas tree decorated with winking lights and shiny globes. Apparently, everyday is Christmas here.
The only gift we wanted was a peaceful night. Santa came through for us. We rested well that night.
At 7:00 a.m., we made our way back to the Gabon side of the border smoothly. Then we waited. The same border cop was there. He demanded that Pascal come in person to verify our visit (but he should have told us that the evening before). Somehow, we managed to call him, and nearly 2 hours later, he turned up with a driver and Rene. Surely, I thought, two elder and dignified Gabonese would make this crossing easy.
It was, mostly, until we reached the third and final layer of the border check. Everyone in the car but me was wearing a kippa.
I sat in the car and saw the guard peeking out the window at me. He was repeatedly tapping the top of his head then gesturing with an open hand.
“Where is your hat,” as he called it. I wasn’t sure how to respond because I didn’t know if he was trying to be funny, or if he was serious. So I kind of just glared back at him with confused eyes. Finally, after he kept his banter up, I rolled down my window and said, “Because I still have hair on my head. They don’t,” and rolled my window up.
Finally, we left the border behind and Gabon was rolling beneath our “Hebreux” wheels. But then there was another gendarmerie, and another before reaching the Bitam immigration office. Now about noon (yeah, noon — it took us that long to finally cross the border), we deposited our passports. Mine was returned and approved almost immediately. It took another 5 minutes and an hour a half (yep, nearly 2 hours) to get Ezechiel’s Gabon visa. We were all kind of squirming by this point.
I felt like a captive. I was hot, fed up, bored, and hungry. We couldn’t leave the office because we had to be there when we were called. Documents back in hand, we went for a nice lunch in a dilapidated alfresco hole-in-the-wall before checking into Benedicta Hotel (which I had pre-booked). It seemed aptly named — by now, we needed a blessing. A sign, a signal. Something. Anything that could make all these inspections go away.
Enter the king. Elvis. He was our friendly receptionist and the man who had fielded my reservation emails: “Welcome to my world, won’t you come in…Leave your cares behind. Welcome to my world.” — sang the other Elvis.
At last, I was truly in Gabon.
I FIRST MET PASCAL in Sa’a, Cameroon in February 2014. At the time, he was just beginning a religious metamorphosis from Pentecostal minister to spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Gabon. His journey really began with the encouragement and assistance of the emerging Beth Yeshourun Jewish Community of Cameroon and their eager spiritual leader, Serge, Etele (who went on to study at Yeshiva in Israel after my first Cameroon visit).
“Truth is in Torah,” Pascal said. “Our community feels a deeper connection to Hashem’s path than to Jesus’.” About two-thirds of his flock flew the coop when he switched teams, but the split was amicable.
“We’ve not had any problems with our former members or with our neighbors,” Pascal noted.
As with other emerging communities such as in Madagascar, Ghana, and Kenya, I believe their hearts and minds are in the right place, but they have much to learn and still have some skin to shed from the previous religious followings. During the service at Bethlehem Synagogue in Bitam, they held out their open hands in a sort of Christian surrender and they kneeled on their pews with heads bowed for another prayer. Clearly, these are not the ways of Jewish prayer. But with guidance, commitment, and some outside support, they will learn fast.
Still, they do their best to follow the Tanakh (Tanach) and they treasure a small kosher Torah presented to them by a supportive rabbi from the United States (I brought them some kippot and a couple of kosher mezuzot). And they sure can sing! The belted out a number of familiar tunes such as Shalom Aleichem and Le’cha Do’di.
I could hear their voices when I first arrived at Bethlehem Synagogue in Bitam. The scene felt almost Biblical. There, on a dusty slope, a shepherd whipped his flock of cows past the simple concrete house of worship down to a gurgling river just a stone’s throw away. They came out to greet me before I could reach the door encircling me with smiles and handshakes. Inside, I introduced myself and explained why I was there, and they all seemed pleased to receive only their second non-African visitor.
They asked a couple of questions and wished me a good visit. Little did they know just how arduous crossing the border can be so it may have been a bit disingenuous when I replied, “Gabon, C’est bon! (Gabon, it’s good)” That won a chorus of giggles. From then, the phrase became a sort of mantra for Ezechiel and me.
THE FOLLOWING LATE AFTERNOON, after returning from our abridged but spirited visit to Oyem, I joined the Bethlehem members again for Shabbat service. It was marked by the lighting of candles and the reading of Shabbat prayers. Then there were a few songs.
“Be ready at 9:45 a.m., punctually,” insisted Pascal as we bid each other good evening.
“Really?” I thought. “Does that word even exist in Africa?”
When he showed up 12 minutes late, I gestured to my watch to admonish him. I, on the other hand, was bang on time, ready and waiting.
Pascal came for us thinking that we should head straight for the border. It wasn’t a bad idea, actually, but I was compelled to partake in the Shabbat morning service. I was glad I did.
I got to see how bonded this small community is. They share the burden of preparing meals, the ladies each bringing different dishes. With the men and boys on one side and the ladies and girls on the other, I didn’t feel so far from something familiar after all. When the service ended, they blessed the wine and broke bread, then put out a Shabbat kiddish to be envied. There was grilled fish and baked chicken and an assortment of vegetables, rice, and pasta.
OUT IN THAT FIELD, I interrupted Pascal and the members of the Oyem community, but not because I was anxious to head back to Bitam.
“You know how I know you are Jewish?” I asked. “Two reasons: One, you like to eat. Two, because you like to talk over each other.”
So that’s how I got there. Getting back? Well, that’s another story.
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