Shabbat in Ghana

Shabbat in Ghana

Young journalist seeks out African Jewish community

Born into a Presbyterian Ghanaian home, it never occurred to me that there was another way of worshiping God apart from Christianity and Ghana's other major religion, Islam.

I had read in the Bible and been taught by my Sunday school teacher about the Jews, who were led to the Promised Land by their maker through prophets of God. However, I could not believe that there were people practicing Judaism in Ghana.

Although I travel frequently to find stories on human-rights abuses, my trip this time was a pilgrimage to see what the Jewish community in Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana, was like.

Sefwi Wiawso

Sefwi Wiawso is located in the western region of Ghana. The journey was close to seven hours from Accra, the nation's capital. I had heard stories and songs about the town, but was surprised when I arrived. Sefwi Wiawso, with its green vegetation, is really a nice place to be.

We—volunteer Dave Maass, photographer Olivier Asselin and myself—had to lodge in a hotel for a day while we waited impatiently for the Sabbath, when we would meet the leader of the House of Israel (as the Jewish group calls itself).

The next day, we met the chief of Sefwi Wiawso, which we usually do when visiting an area for a story. Sitting in the high-tech office in his mansion, he told us that many of the cultural practices of the area are no different from those of the Jews.

“We, the custodians of the land, see no problem (living) together with the Jewish here in Sefwi Wiawso,” he said.

Next, we were taken to Shalom Enterprises, the shop of Kofi Kwarteng. With him was David Ahenkorah, the “rabbi” of the community.

Ghanaians are known for their hospitality, and the Jewish community was no different. We were welcomed into their community, and after a short chat we were taken to Kwarteng's home to meet his family.

Kulanu

We had learned how to get to the Sefwi Wiawso community through an organization called Kulanu, which means “all of us” in Hebrew. The organization describes itself as an encouragement and resource network for lost and dispersed Jewish communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Established 10 years ago, it has board members living in New York City and Silver Spring, Md., but has many other volunteers all over the world.

Harriet Bograd has been the treasurer of the organization since 2001. She heard of Sefwi Wiawso when her daughter was looking for an opportunity to do volunteer work in Africa. She spoke with a family friend, Moshe Cotel (now Rabbi Moshe Cotel), who was involved with Kulanu, and he told her about the Jewish community in Sefwi Wiawso, which needed volunteers to teach Jewish subjects. Harriet and her husband spent a week visiting with their daughter and the community and helping out.

The three of them helped the community open a bank account, set up bylaws, hold an organizational meeting and create a cooperative called the “Tiferet Israel Community Project.”

Kulanu donated $1,000 to the community to start an economic-development fund. Bograd said the community used the money to start a business making challah covers.

Kulanu trained Ben Baidoo, a tailor, to make challah covers and to add embroidered collar and corners to kente cloth tallitot. They've also built and furnished a workshop for Baidoo that has two industrial-quality embroidery sewing machines.

Kulanu has helped sell the challah covers through informal contacts, by selling at some events, through its newsletter and on its Web site, www.kulanuboutique.com.

Bograd said they have taken in more than $22,100 in challah cover sales and have sent the community more than $19,800.

Kulanu, she said, has sent a series of volunteers to live and help out in the community, as well as Jewish books and ritual objects.

Shabbat 101

After inquiring about my religion, Kwarteng and Ahenkorah took me through the rules of Sabbath.

They told me that the Law of Moses reads, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” They try their best to observe this by doing no work on that day.

This meant I had to spend my weekend virtually doing nothing. I couldn't watch movies, listen to music, cook or write, among other things that I usually do on weekends as a Christian.

To avoid any inconvenience, I had to learn and get used to things the way they were. As the adage goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Kwarteng's house and the synagogue are on the same compound at New Adiembra, the part of Sefwi Wiawso where most of the Jews live. Like any other Ghanaian, his land includes a small food-crop farm and poultry.

In the house, we played and chatted with Kwarteng's two sons. As the sun was setting, Kwarteng's older son, about 7 years of age, was preparing candles and said, “It's getting to Sabbath, I need to have my bath.” After bathing, the little boy turned off the television set, which was playing “Tom and Jerry” cartoons.

Soon, Kwarteng was home. He asked how we were getting on and left to also prepare for the Sabbath. Kwarteng was dressed in lace with a black flat cap on his head.

Time to eat

Friday night, it was time to dine, and at the table, I lit the candles for Sabbath. What I didn't know was that usually it is women who light candles on the Sabbath. Kwarteng was pleased.

We observed the Sabbath by reading the prayer book for festivals and weekdays led by Kwarteng. He read and explained for a while and then later opened a pack of Spanish sangria wine. We served ourselves, and he said a prayer before we drank.

All of us at the table washed our hands in a big bowl of water before we ate our meal.

We were served boiled plantains with a sauce made from cocoyam leaves (often known as palava sauce or kontonmire), and some big fried fish. Bread was also served.

On Sabbath morning, we had a breakfast of bread, eggs and tea and headed for the synagogue, which was across the yard from Kwarteng's home.

The synagogue is like any ordinary Ghanaian church. It is rectangular in shape and painted blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag.

I sat with my friends among the males in the synagogue. Quickly, Ahenkorah asked me to sit where the women sat and explained to me that the males sit separately from the females.

Another thing I observed during the service was that all the people in the synagogue could recite the Torah in English without reading from a book. Some people whom I noticed might not have a formal education, like the children below the age of 10, also recited the Torah fluently.

Community origins

According to tradition, before Christianity came to Africa, the people of Sefwi Wiawso were practicing traditions specific to Judaism. They rested from work on Saturdays, they circumcised their male children, and they observed the laws of kashrut. They would not eat certain types of fish and meat and performed prayers before slaughtering animals.

The similarity of the practices to those of Judaism could not be coincidental, said Ahenkorah, who established Tiferet Synagogue at the House of Israel Community 14 years ago.

Ahenkorah is 53 years old, and even though he has not been to a rabbinical school, he acts as the rabbi in the community. He came across Judaism about 20 years back, when he first met Aaron Ahenkyire, the founder of Judaism in Sefwi Wiawso.

“It was not something he discovered, but it was through a vision that he had,” Ahenkorah said. “Aaron had a vision concerning the Lost Tribes of Israel; meaning Israel had 12 tribes, 10 of which was lost and was all over the world.”

He went on to say that the traditions of the ancestors of Sefwi Wiawso were the same as Jewish traditions from the Torah.

Ahenkyire, according to Ahenkorah, once practiced Islam but stopped when he got his call to Judaism. Ahenkyire started by using the Hebrew Bible to preach to the masses and told them of the way the Jews came about and the way the Hebrew customs and traditions were performed.

“I have been hearing from Muslims, Christians and pagans about their way of worshipping, which they all saw as the best, till I heard about Aaron,” said Ahenkorah. “Others and I arranged for him to come to Adiembra to preach to us. We compared his preaching to our ancestors' way of life that we had heard of, and I realized this was the real religion to practice because our ancestors did that.”

The people in the community attacked Ahenkorah and Ahenkyire because they thought they were bringing a strange religion to them.

“They beat us, took us to the police for arrest, prepared our charges to court, even though we have not insulted or caused harm to anyone,” Ahenkorah said. “Most of the people who did this were Christians and pagans. They thought we had come to destroy their way of worshipping. The Christians condemned us by saying that Judaism had been abolished, and that we were trying to create confusion.”

Because of what Ahenkorah and Ahenkyire went through, they decided to move to Cote D'Ivoire, which had a similar ancestral history.

Cote D'Ivoire, according to him, was also dominated by Christians. They faced the same problems they faced back home and decided to come back.

Back in Ghana, Ahenkorah and Ahenkyire never gave up doing the work of God. They kept evangelizing Judaism both in Sefwi Wiawso and Cote D'Ivoire until Ahenkyire passed away in 1991.

Ahenkorah was left without his mentor in Judaism but never gave up. He pursued God's work with a few others who believed in Judaism.

Initially, they met in one of the classrooms of the schools in the town, but due to the challenges they faced, they changed location.

They started meeting in the living room of one of the members until they had enough money from their tithe to start to build a synagogue.

Kulanu is trying to arrange for Ahenkorah to obtain a visa to visit the United States next year, where he would be for some months. During that time, he would attend a conference and visit at least three cities. Kulanu has arranged for several rabbis to study with Ahenkorah and teach him for two weeks.

Havdallah

After sitting all day without doing anything except sleep, I waited patiently for sundown when Sabbath would end.

Havdallah was celebrated in a form of feast, which began with Kwarteng extinguishing the Sabbath candles in wine.

We had the same meal we had yesterday for supper. Kwarteng's youngest son was really happy and took an impressive amount of wine.

Kwarteng's children could not wait for Sabbath to end. They kept turning on the television even though he yelled at them to stop.

After we ended Sabbath, Kwarteng played a Hebrew song. His children enjoyed the music and sang along as it was played.

For more information about Kulanu, visit www.kulanu.org.

Florence Gbolu is a young Ghanaian journalist-in-training. She is learning to write about social-justice issues from volunteers with Journalists for Human Rights, a Toronto-based organization that builds the reporting capacity of the media in order to grow awareness of human-rights issues. Gbolu recently spent Shabbat with members of Ghana's Jewish community.