The Jewish community of Ghana – a lost tribe?

Shabbat 21st July 2012.

Best clothes are put on and worn by all. Children are playing in the synagogue. Prayer books are lovingly opened. Songs praising God are being sung. Kiddush is recited over wine.

This is a familiar scene in every Jewish community all over the world.

There is one place, however, where this weekly scene is set in an unobtrusive blue-and-white painted synagogue hidden amongst the cocoa plantations and sugar cane farms of Western Ghana.

In the heart of Africa, in a small remote village called New Adiembra in a town called Sefwi Wiawso, is an isolated community of Jews. The nearest city is a three hour drive by tro-tro – a van which can fit 22 people, babies on laps, and live chickens under the seats, on a journey during which passengers can feel every pothole of the dirt roads.

I travelled to Sefwi Wiawso with a friend to visit the African Jewish community I’d heard so much about. As my work for UK based charity Tzedek is mainly in Tamale, Northern Ghana, it was an adventure in itself trying to get to the Jews. Nine hours and an overnight stay in a hostel in Kumasi later, we finally reached our destination. We had been told by Mr. Joseph Armah, the ‘Assembly-man,’ to take a taxi to his house. He had assured us that all the taxi drivers know where he lives. Mr. Armah is the equivalent of local MP for four villages. He is a well-respected man who is fortunate enough to own a large compound, renting out three rooms to local Muslim and Christian families. We would be staying the weekend in his guest room.

As the sun set over the mountains and rainforests of West Ghana, Mr. Armah and his twelve-year-old daughter Rachel (Ghanaian name – Afua) stood together to light the Shabbat candles and sing the Shabbat blessing over the wine and bread, before joining us in a Friday night meal of boiled yams and kontomire stew – a mixture of tomatoes, onions, eggs and coco yam leaves (tastes a bit like spinach).

After an early night, we were woken by Rachel at 8 in the morning, ready to be taken to the synagogue.

Walking through the village, we were joined by adults and children dressed in their best clothes, a mixture of Ghanaian brightly coloured cloth and Western style dresses for the young girls. Rachel pointed out every Jewish house and informed us that there were three other Jewish children in her class at school and that the Christian teachers had started to understand that the Jewish children sometimes had to miss classes due to festivals.

The Sabbath service began with a song in Twi, the local language in the Ashanti region. We were told that the song means ‘We thank o-d for all He has done for us’ and that thanking God is a nice way to start the Sabbath prayers. Kofi, the leader of the synagogue, led the prayers using prayer books which had been donated by the Tifereth Israel Synagogue of Iowa. The service was mostly in English, as the community only knows a few words of Hebrew, with a number of captivating Ghanaian melodies thrown in.
The weekly Torah portion was read out chapter by chapter by two of the congregation members standing at the front of the synagogue, first in English, followed by Twi. Kofi then summarised the Torah portion in both languages so that the children could understand what had been read.

After the service, the congregation asked if we would return after lunch to teach them something about Judaism and about the UK. After a meal of cold rice and spicy tomato fish, we returned to the synagogue to play the Ghanaian game Ampe with some of the children and to talk to the community members. We had just as many questions for them as they had for us, and as the adults spoke varying levels of English, Kofi became translator.

We learned that the community had only found out about Judaism relatively recently. Their ancestors had always been different from their Christian and Muslim neighbours: they observed their day of rest on Saturday, slaughtered their own meat in a special way, kept family purity laws, and circumcised their sons. In the 1970’s, a visitor to the village noticed their strange customs and realised that this community may have historical links to one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Their leader at the time travelled to Accra, the capital of Ghana, to find out more about Judaism. He was put in touch with an American organization ‘Kulanu’ which specializes in educating and linking isolated Jewish communities around the world with more established communities in America and Europe.

Since then, the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso have grown in strength and numbers. Unlike my Jewish community in London, these African Jews are not mostly doctors and lawyers. They are farmers. They produce about five bags of cocoa beans a year to sell at 200 cedis ($120) a bag and walk four kilometers to sugar cane plantations where they earn fifteen cedis ($8.80) a day. The children mostly leave school at sixteen after junior high school to help their parents work on the farms.

These Jews are proud of who they are. They are teaching their children to stand up and be counted as part of the wider Jewish community. It has not always been easy for them to be different from their neighbors, especially in a country where Judaism is almost unheard of. Walking through the village on Saturday, I noted that my Jewish hosts greeted not only their Jewish friends, but also their Christian and Muslim neighbors, as we passed by. Although they have diverse traditions and practice a religion that’s almost unheard of in Ghana, this community has managed to combine faith and culture in a unique way, promoting values of tolerance and acceptance of others.

As an Orthodox Jew from the UK, I felt drawn to ask myself if these are really our fellow Jews.

This only brought to light many more questions. What defines someone as a Jew? Everyone knows the classical Orthodox position that if your mother is Jewish, you are also Jewish. Yet what is it about someone’s genetics and heritage that makes someone inherently Jewish? Do we really have the right to classify someone as a member of a particular faith? On the other hand, if anyone can identify as Jewish, does this delegitimize the Jewish conversion process? Do we really have the right to judge the commitment of the Ghanaian Jewish community to their faith? What will be the future of the Ghanaian Jews? Will they ever be considered part of the global Jewish community?

Regardless of the answers to these questions, I left the Western region of Ghana inspired by this community. Each member of the community is completely dedicated to the group’s particular way of life and is eager to learn more about Judaism. Not only are they devoted to practicing their faith, but they are also tolerant and understanding of others. As we left Mr. Armah’s compound on Sunday morning, the Christian family next door greeted us on their way to Church, and the Muslim and Jewish children living in the compound waved to us as they pounded yams in the yard together to make local dish ‘fufu’. I must conclude that regardless of the future of this community in Ghana, for now, as they learn more and more about Judaism, let us leave this inspirational community to themselves and learn from them the value of standing up for ourselves in the secular modern world. The question I am left with is not whether these people are really Jews, but whether that matters.

If you do ever find yourself in Ghana, be sure to visit the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso. The community is warm and welcoming and is always pleased to receive visitors.

Hannah Gaventa graduated from King’s College London with a degree in Biomedical Sciences after a gap year in Michlala, Jerusalem. After interning at the Three Faiths Forum, she has been working for UK-based international development charity Tzedek (www.tzedek.org.uk), spending the past 6 months in Tamale, Northern Ghana. She writes a blog about her experiences in Ghana at www.hannahgaventa1.wordpress.com