In February of 2014, Menachem Kuchar, an emissary of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, joined me in Cameroon to examine the claim by some local tribes of their Jewish background. The visit was in response to an article written by Rabbi Israel Oriel Nguimbus, a resident of Great Britain on possible Jewish tribes in Cameroon.
According to the article, Rabbi Oriel’s grandmother was a Sabbath observer and lit candles on Friday evenings. When Oriel, who was raised in Cameroon, traveled to Europe for advanced academic studies, he discovered that these observances were Jewish in origin and decided to convert and became a rabbi.
Before I read Rabbi Oriel’s article, I had not given much credence to claims by local tribes of their Jewish origins. And there were several, including the Bassa, the Bamileke and the Douala (I later heard about the Mboo in the South West region of Cameroon). The article encouraged us to investigate the claims.
What I did know was that many local tribes (including my own-Eton) had once observed rituals and customs similar to Jewish ones. The time line of these observances put them before the arrival of Christian missionaries, who had discouraged them.
I can remember from my own childhood that we did not eat the animals that are forbidden in the Bible, and we practiced circumcision, definitely not a Christian custom. We also practiced Halitzah, which demands that a brother take the wife of his deceased brother or relative, to ensure a child is born to the widow and the husband’s name is not lost or forgotten. The custom is no longer practiced.
Menachem had just returned from Spain and Portugal where he was studying the emigration patterns of the Jews after 1391, especially to Africa. He offered to accompany me to visit some of these tribes. In the end, we visited the Bamileke and the Bassa. I was unable to make arrangements with the other tribes during his visit.
For the purpose of this article, I will focus my comments on the Bassa. Our guides were Frederick Ndawo, a Bassa who had joined my own Beth Yeshourun Jewish Community of Cameroon, and his uncle, Mr Song.
The Bassa tribe
The name Bassa in the Bantu language means “conquerors”. According to Frederick, Bassa tribesmen are taught that they are Jews. As in many parts of the world, tribal leaders are the keepers of all traditions and history, which they impart through an oral tradition. Frederick is one of his tribe’s leaders.
According to Frederick, the Bassa immigrated to Africa from Egypt thousands of years ago with Melek, their chief and one of the great grandsons of Judah, son of Jacob. The Bassa oral tradition describes Melek as a military chief in the Egyptian army who chose to stay behind to protect his privileges rather than to follow the uncertain journey espoused by Moses. However, when Melek learned of the death of Pharoah’s army at the Red Sea, he feared the Egyptians would take revenge against the Hebrews who had remained behind.
With the rest of the Israelites gone, Melek led his family and followers from Egypt. First, they traveled south along the Nile, but eventually moved westward, crossed Nigeria, and entered Cameroon. They eventually reached Ngok Lituba, their final destination. The Bassa called G-d, Elolom, the “God of the creation”) and, according to tradition, it was G-d who spoke to Melek and directed him to Ngok Lituba.
The Ngok Lituba Hill
Throughout the centuries, the hill of Ngok Lituba has served as the holiest place of the Bassa people, the place where they used to gather once a year to perform sacrifices. They did this for centuries until German priests arrived in Cameroon in 1845 and forbade the practice. The community continued with their sacrifices in secret until the arrival of the French who stopped them completely by putting to death anyone who performed the sacrifices according to their ancient tradition.
Rites and customs of the Bassa
Whenever possible, circumcision was performed on the eighth day after the birth of a son, and was considered a festive event. If the tribal leader responsible for circumcisions was not available, uncircumcised children would be gathered together later between their eighth and 11th year and would be circumcised in a group ceremony all on the same day.
Family’s purity Laws
When a woman was in her menstrual period, she isolated herself for eight days. During that period, she would not have intercourse with her husband and was not allowed to cook food for her family or do any kind of work in the house. After eight days, she performed her purification and then resumed her normal life.
The Bassa did not eat the animals forbidden in the Bible. They did not eat blood. And when they slaughtered an animal, they would dig a hole and let the blood flow into it. Then they covered it over.
A day of rest
Bassa worked during six days and rested on the seventh, called Ngwa noye u Nlo hinoye (the day of rest). The 7th day was a special day with no agricultural work allowed. People stayed in the village and spent time in rejoicing, eating and drinking and dancing. The priests would pray to Elolom.
The Bassa followed a lunar calendar. They watched the moon to know when to celebrate the new month.
Anyone who attended a funeral had to perform purification. Men had to perform purification after any sexual intercourse. Purification consisted of washing oneself with a plant they call hyssop, then immersing oneself in a river. It could be only one activity or both.
The most important Bassa holiday was the Gansaye festival (The Festival of Purification) celebrated at the foot of Ngok Lituba Hill, which took place once a year, some time between the ninth and the 11th month. People came from all the villages and brought animal sacrifices. Other holidays included a new moon festival and a harvest festival.
The priests were guardians of tribal traditions and ruled over the society. They played many roles, some were judges, others performed rituals.
Marriages were arranged between families. The dowry brought by the man’s family had to include 70 items. A man who could not afford a dowry would work for the wife’s family for an agreed period of time after which he received his wife.
The Bassa didn’t give their daughters to other tribes that they called uncircumcised. The only tribe they allowed their daughter to marry was the Eton tribe that they believed descended from a brother of one of their ancestors.
Five days after the burying of a man and four days after that of a woman, there was a rite of separation that allowed the soul to leave the area and not continue to wander around.
The above descriptions are abbreviated, but demonstrate some similarities to Jewish customs and rituals. The information was given to us by Frederick and his uncle, Mr. Song who is a Bassa chief. During our discussion with Frederick and Mr. Song, Menachem asked them where they learned about the Shabbat if they didn’t attend the giving of the Torah in the desert of Sinai. They told him the giving of the Torah was only a revelation of something the people already knew from their ancestors.
Could these customs be a result of Bassa exposure to the Christian Bible? No Christian group is known to have adopted such practices. Or are they really part of the tribe of Yehuda as they claim? Most of these practices have fallen into disuse over many years. We will probably never know if they represent a real link to the ancient Israelites.
Even with their descriptions of ancient practices, neither Frederick nor his uncle recognizes Rabbi Oriel’s claims regarding Bassa Jewish practices. Nor do they claim to be one of the lost tribes exiled from Israel as does the Bamileke tribe. They say they never went into the Promised Land but they know they will also go there one day and rejoin their brothers from whom they have been separated for 3,500 years. According to the Midrash, only 20% of the Israelite population in Egypt left with Moses, with 80% remaining behind. Does this corroborate Frederick’s story? We may never know.