A Visit to the Jewish Community of Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana

A Visit to the Jewish Community of Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana

Imagine a community of people who have never had a Sefer Torah, but know Torah—by heart; who don't know the word "kosher," but keep kosher; who until recently didn't know they were "Jews," but live a thoroughly Jewish lifestyle, and who claim to know the most impenetrable of Jewish secrets—how to pronounce God's name—but, out of reverence, don't. Ridiculous, you say? Ghana, I say.

My 10-year-old daughter, Abigail, and I spent a weekend with this community of seventy families this summer. Although my primary purpose in Ghana was to lecture at two of Ghana's universities, the highlight of the trip unquestionably was the visit to the Jewish people, and the Shabbat we spent with them was among the most beautiful and inspiring I've ever experienced.

Over the past twenty years, I've gotten into the habit of spending Shabbat with the local Jewish communities wherever I've traveled on business or pleasure. Many of the communities are quite isolated, such as the American communities in Fairbanks, Alaska; Maui, Hawaii, or Fargo, North Dakota, or elsewhere, including Budapest; Manaus, Brazil; Alexandria, Egypt, and Guadalajara, Mexico, where my wife and I honeymooned over Rosh Hashanah nineteen years ago. In short, there are Jews almost everywhere—not in large numbers, but communities.

So, two years ago, when I visited Ghana for the first time, I expected to find a synagogue in Accra, the capital. To my surprise, I didn't. There's no Ghana listing in the Jewish Travel Guide, so I figured I'd call the Israeli embassy. Another surprise: There is no Israeli embassy in Ghana; the two countries haven't had formal relations since 1973. I spent Shabbat alone. But on my return home, Moment magazine carried a brief article on a Jewish community in the Ghanaian hinterland that had just been visited by an African-American Jew. Moment put me in touch with Kulanu, whose head, Jack Zeller, gave me the leader's name and address. Before going, I exchanged several letters with the head of the community, David Ahenkorah.

Donation of Siddurim

Our congregation in Des Moines, Iowa, Tifereth Israel, recently replaced its Sim Shalom siddurim (prayer books) with the new edition that includes the Matriarchs. Rabbi Neil Sandler suggested that the Ghanaian Jews might need some. Indeed, they did: Their supply of prayer books consisted of just a handful, in assorted editions and most in poor condition. Tifereth Israel shipped out 200 of its siddurim, about ten years old but in excellent shape. I hand-carried six for a ceremonial presentation; the rest were shipped and arrived a few weeks after my visit.

Getting There

The trip to Sefwi Wiawso, the Jews' village, was an adventure, to say the least. It's very remote. To give an orientation: Ghana is shaped like an upright rectangle, roughly 300 miles wide and 500 miles tall—about the size and shape of Minnesota. The Atlantic coastline forms the southern border, while the rest of the country is bordered by three other African states—Ivory coast on the west, Burkina Faso on the north, and Togo on the east. Accra, the capital (population 1.7 million), is along the eastern coast. Sefwi Wiawso lies in the Western Region, about 100 miles inland and 80 miles east of the Ivory Coast border. See the map below.

David Ahenkorah had instructed us to travel inland to Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city, 170 miles from Accra—a four to five hour bus ride—and then catch the 2 PM First Class bus to Sefwi Wiawso, which would get us there at 5:30. He hadn't realized that the day before our planned trip to his community, a Thursday, we would be in Takoradi, not Accra. The ride from Takoradi to Kumasi was also four to five hours, and I was concerned about missing the 2 PM connection, so the evening before, I checked the bus schedule. To my surprise, there was one direct bus daily from Takoradi to Sefwi Wiawso, at 9 AM, avoiding the need to go through Kumasi (which, incidentally, is a lovely city—but that's for another article). I was told to be at the bus station by 6 the next morning to be sure of getting a seat.

The bus was filled by 8, and we left at 8:30 for what the driver said would be a six hour drive. In reality, the roads were in such poor condition—mostly one lane, unpaved, rutted and muddy—that the trip of perhaps 150 miles took over eight hours. The scenery was pretty but not spectacular—flat, forested, with small villages every few miles. The last few miles were the best. The bus veered onto a side road that ascended a small mountain. There were views down into the valleys on both sides as the road snaked higher and higher. The main street ran along the crest. The setting reminded me of Tzfat, the mountaintop city in Israel.

That's where the bus let us off. David's instructions were to ask for Kofi Kwateng's store, near the bus stop. He didn't give the name of the store. As we got off the bus, three or four adolescent boys walked by and I asked if they knew Kofi. Immediately, they picked up our suitcases and carried them across the street and down the block, dropping us and the bags in front of "Shalom Enterprises." Clearly, we were at the right place! Kofi had kept the store open waiting for us, but he immediately closed the shop. "We must hurry, it's almost Shabbat," he remarked. He hailed a taxi, we bundled the suitcases into the trunk, and we drove off, down the hill, to a house under construction—almost but not quite completed, but useable for a few days. It was being built for a Jewish family that had not yet moved in.

"We should take baths before going to the synagogue," Kofi said, "but candle lighting is in ten minutes." Abby and I quickly changed into Shabbat clothes and walked down the hill to the synagogue. It was almost dark, and the synagogue had no electricity. We could dimly see the faces of men, women and children, illuminated by the Shabbat candles. The service was in English, using the text of an old American siddur.

The service was followed by a Shabbat dinner of peanut soup, fried fish, rice and steamed veggies, with Coca Cola to drink and fresh fruit for dessert.

What an Observant Jew Eats in Ghana

En route to Sefwi Wiawso, I had deliberated the etiquette of refusing non-kosher food: Should I explain about kashrut? Should I claim to be a vegetarian? Or to have a stomach problem that precluded my eating meat? Or should I poke around at the meat, pretending to eat it? My fears were quickly allayed, on two counts: They don't eat meat on Shabbat, and when they do during the rest of the week, it's kosher.

Anticipating my concern, David explained, "You don't have to worry about our meat. It's slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law. And," he added for emphasis, "we don't buy any of our meat from the Christian butchers in town, because they don't know the proper way to slaughter it."

The Jews of Sefwi Wiawso slaughter chickens, goats and sheep. They don't eat beef because, during a time of persecution 400 years ago, in Mali, Jews were not allowed to own cattle for several generations. During that time, they lost the knowledge of the proper way to slaughter cattle, so when the prohibition was finally lifted, they were unsure of how to kill a cow.

Most of the food we ate that weekend was typically Ghanaian—peanut soup, boiled, roasted or fried meat or fish smothered in spicy peanut or palm nut sauce, rice or potatoes, boiled greens, and fufu. Fufu is an acquired taste. It's a gelatinous blend of plantains and cassava that's fairly tasteless by itself but acquired the taste of whatever it absorbs. Peanut soup quickly became popular in our family and among friends. It's easy to make and delicious. Use creamy peanut butter, seasoned with garlic, ginger and pepper to taste. Bring a pot of water to a boil, add the seasoning and slowly stir in the peanut butter until it melts, one part peanut butter to six parts water. If you add too much peanut butter at one time, some of it will stick to the bottom of the pan and burn. As with chicken soup, you can add other ingredients as the soup simmers—chicken, potatoes, carrots, and so on. That's what Ghanaians do.

Goat and sheep are a major protein source throughout Ghana. You see them wandering at large in all but the major cities.

The Village

Sefwi Wiawso is a village of 1,500 people in a remote, mountainous region in western Ghana. Although the main street and the access roads in the immediate vicinity are paved, regardless of the direction from which you approach, you have to traverse some horrific dirt roads. Most of the commerce is with Kumasi, about 100 miles northeast. It's a three-hour bus ride. Going there from Sefwi Wiawso, we saw construction crews building a paved road parallel to the dirt one. It will probably be open in a couple of years.

The main street, a block or two long, is lined with small shops selling most everything and, like everywhere in Ghana, there are also street peddlers. The residential areas lie along the slopes of the mountain in every direction. Most of the homes appeared to be quite nice, built of cinderblock or stucco. They have electricity and plumbing, and those I was in had nice furnishings, decorative art, and color or black and white television sets. (There is just one channel in Ghana, although hotels have cable.) There were fans rather than air conditioning. Surprisingly, all of the cooking is done outdoors. I was told the climate was too hot to cook in the house. The houses have kitchens for food preparation, but no indoor stoves.

The Jewish families live near each other in a quarter of the village called New Adiembra, which begins about halfway down the southern slope, while their Christian neighbors live in the rest of the village. I was told that there are seventy Jewish families. Most seemed to have one or two children, which would total somewhere between 200 and 300 people. Most of the Jews have Biblical names— David, Joseph and Joshua, along with Rebecca, Sarah and Abigail. Some have archetypal Ghanaian names like Kofi. The houses are fairly widely spaced, to allow lots for chickens, goats and sheep to forage. Also, many of the families grow crown, peanuts or other crops on small plots alongside their homes.

Few Ghanaians can afford cars—the national per capita income is about $500. Taxis are ubiquitous in every village, regardless how small. They're tiny, old, and very cheap; if it's too far or too hilly to walk, you hail a passing taxi and the fare anywhere in town will be 50 cents or less. I estimated that Sefwi Wiawso had, at most, 50 private cars and at least as many taxis. They cruise just about every street in the village picking up fares.

Another thing that's missing is telephones. There's just one phone for the entire village, in the Post Office. It's answered during business hours. A runner goes out and fetches the person being called. From the States, dial 011-233-272-391. (The first set of three digits is the international access code, 233 is Ghana's country code, 272 the code for the region that includes Sefwi Wiawso, and 391 is the phone number.) But beware—it's difficult to get a circuit through, and you can expect to be placed on hold for five or ten minutes until the person comes to the phone. Kofi Kwateng is the best person to ask for, since his shop is near the Post Office. You can also write to the community: Send mail to David Ahenkorah, Vote for God Photos, P. O. Box 57, Sefwi Wiawso, Western Region, Ghana. David is a professional photographer as well as the religious leader.

The Synagogue

The synagogue in Sefwi Wiawso is an unmarked cinderblock building that can accommodate 150 to 200 people. It has an open doorway and openings for light and air to enter. There is no electricity. Men sit on simple benches on one side of the center aisle, and women on the other side. There is no mechitza (a dividing wall). Children sit in the front rows on either side. It was reminiscent of chapels I've attended at Jewish summer camps in America.

The bimah holds a table with four seats for the leaders. While I was there, only men sat or stood on the bimah. The table has a white covering with the word "Shalom" and a picture of a menorah. A seven-pronged menorah sits atop the table. A Torah scroll, printed on paper (not inscribed on parchment), is set against the wall in a special case. It was hand-delivered to them a year or two ago by an Israeli named Yaakov who was in Ghana on business. Although they cannot read it, they treasure it. I did not have the heart to tell them that, strictly speaking, it is not a kosher Sefer Torah.

A water-filled urn is set at the synagogue entrance. The men and women ritually wash their hands before entering. Men over thirteen wear kippot. Boys under 13 do not cover their heads, but all of the married women cover their heads with beautiful kerchiefs. Tallit and tefillin are unknown. I saw two types of kippot—traditional (and very beautiful) embroidered hats that match the men's outfits, and American-style satin kippot that were donated. Frankly, I found the African kippot far more attractive, and was disappointed that the community prefers the American version, feeling that they are more authentically Jewish.

The synagogue was built at the very bottom of the hill, at the lowest point in the Jewish quarter, at the base of Sefwi Waiwso's mountain. They told me that the site was selected because of the Torah's admonition, "you shall not worship from the high places"—a reference to the Canaanite practice of building altars on mountaintops.

Shabbat

The Shabbat morning service ran from 8 to 10 and followed the English text of the siddur for shacharit. A Torah portion was read from the Hertz Chumash. A Torah scroll was on the bimah, but was not used—no one in the community reads Hebrew. The service was attended by 30 to 40 men, about 10 women, and 20 or 25 children.

A number of songs were chanted, in the local language, Sefwi. The melodies were captivating and the themes were thoroughly Jewish. The songs were well known to the congregation—everyone joined in, with much gusto. On Sunday, I had some of the people record the melodies on a cassette that I brought home. Unfortunately, the recording quality is very poor. If a better recording can be made, I think it can be marketed in America, with profits donated to the people of Sefwi Wiawso.

One of the tunes is about Jerusalem, and says, "We were exiled from Jerusalem because of our sins. Jerusalem is our home, and we long for the day when our hearts are pure enough so that we can return." Another says, "There are gifts you can buy with silver and gold, but the best gift of all is free. It's Shabbat, and it's the best gift because it's a gift from God." Several tunes extol the virtues of King Solomon, whom the Ghanaian Jews hold in as high esteem, or possibly higher, than King David.

Kiddush was recited in the synagogue, over wine, and everyone then went home for lunch. The meal was bountiful, and much like Friday's night's dinner. David apologized for the early hour of services, but said that it was not permitted to eat before the morning prayers. There was ritual hand washing and a short blessing. A long grace after meals concluded the meal. We ate outdoors at David's house with several other families. One of the men explained that the Jews' practice was different from that of their Christian neighbors. "They recite a long benediction before eating. They're hungry and can't pay attention to their benediction. We recite a short blessing because we want to eat, then when we're satisfied, we take the time to give thanks to God." How Jewish!

Following the meal, we were taken home and told to rest until 1:00, at which time a group of 40 or 50 gathered in the synagogue for Torah study. The men took turns coming to the bimah, reading a sentence at a time from a Hertz Chumash while David, the religious leader, gave a linear commentary. It reminded me of reading a Chumash with Rashi's line-by-line commentary. This was followed by the afternoon service, and at 3, we went back home until dinner at 5. The people who brought us dinner apologized for the early dining hour, but explained that it was required to eat three meals on Shabbat. The evening service, concluded with havdalah, was at 6.

Unlike the mainstream custom of observing Shabbat for 25 hours, the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso observe 24 hours. Havdalah was beautiful, with very nice melodies in Sefwi. Instead of using a candle with a twisted wick, candles were placed in the two end candlesticks of the menorah, symbolizing the end of one week and the beginning of the next—the seventh day and the first. For the blessing over spices, spiced wine was used rather than sweet wine. It was sniffed, then drunk.

Conversion

The people seemed pleased that their non-Jewish neighbors sometimes ask if they can become Jewish. Their answer is, "Yes, you can become Jewish, but first you have to learn all of our laws and then you have to practice them." The obvious next question is, "What are these laws?" The answer is, "First you have to be circumcised. Then you must close your business early on Friday and take a bath, and on Saturday you cannot work at all. You cannot eat pork at all, and you must only eat other meat that is slaughtered the proper way. And during your wife's menstrual period, she must sleep in another bed and you cannot have relations with her, and after seven days, that evening she must take a bath and only then can you resume having relations with her."

Upon hearing all of these requirements, the usual reply is, "Okay, that's too much for us. Maybe we won't convert." And the Jews' answer is, "It's not necessary for you to convert. God loves all people who are good people whether they are Jewish or Christian."

Because there are few converts, it's not surprising that the Jews are genetically different from their Christian neighbors. Most Ghanaians have broad noses with round nostrils, but nearly all of the Jews, although having quite dark skin, have long, narrow Semitic noses. The difference is immediately apparent.

Who Are the Jews of Ghana?

They are the proverbial Wandering Jews. They have been wandering about in West Africa for hundreds of years, each time moving because of persecution. According to their oral history, they have lived in Ghana for about 150 years, and before that, in Ivory Coast, a neighboring West African country, for some 250 years. They moved from Ivory Coast to Ghana because of persecution. Until 400 years ago, they lived in Mali, where they also were persecuted. Indeed, I recently read in the Kulanu Website about a community of 1,000 crypto-Jews living today in the vicinity of Timbuktu, Mali, who secretly practice Judaism for fear of persecution from the Islamic rulers. Before Mali, the trail leads from the northeast, from Israel, where they claim to have originated in ancient times.

Ghana treats its Jews well. There is freedom of religion and they get along well both with their Christian neighbors and the government. But there is an underlying current of concern, based on past history, that someday things may change.

Several of my American Jewish friends speculated that Africa's black Jews are descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who was black, but at no point in my discussion with the people of Sefwi Wiawso did they mention her name. One of their songs, however, says that David was a great king, and Solomon an even greater one. Of course, if they were descended from Solomon, they would also be descendants of David, Solomon's father.

How Were They Discovered?

They weren't. Rather, they went out to discover Jews on the outside. For generations, they believed that they (and small communities in Ivory Coast and Mali of which they were aware) were the only Jews in the world. In the 1980s, David's predecessor as leader (now deceased) had a dream that, with the reestablishment of Israel, there must be Jewish people living there, and he set out to find them. He journeyed to Accra to speak with the Israeli Embassy and returned home disappointed after finding out that there was no embassy. Some time later, he and a delegation made the trip to the Israeli Embassy in Ivory Coast where they learned that, indeed, there were Jews not only in Israel but in America and throughout the world.

They were given an address in Israel, waited two years for a reply, and were eventually put in touch with Kulanu.

Pronouncing the Unpronounceable

I saved the most intriguing part of the trip for last. Sorry, those of you who are curious, but out of deference to those who would find it discomfiting or inappropriate, you're not going to find out here how to pronounce the Tetragrammaton, God's four letter name. But the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso claim to know how to pronounce it. And they just may be right.

A little background for those of you who may not have a background in Hebrew. In the Torah, God's name is written yud-hey-vuv-hey, which in the English equivalent of YHVH. In the days of the Temple, the High Priest would utter the name on Yom Kippur, spellbinding the Israelites who heard it. The Hebrew alphabet consists of 22 letters, all consonants. To read Biblical Hebrew, you must have sufficient mastery of the language to supply from knowledge the missing vowels. English-speaking people routinely do the same thing.

For instance, if a street sign says "Blvd.," we recognize the word as "Boulevard." If we knew only a little English, we might think the word is "Beloved," which would fit although it would be wrong in the context of a street sign. Or if we knew no English but knew the alphabet, we might read the sign as "Boloovaid," which would be plausible (the consonants are there, and in the proper sequence) but isn't an English word. On the other hand, if someone pronounced "Blvd." as "Banivard," we would immediately know that it's wrong—"Blvd." has no letter "N."

Now, back to the Hebrew. In the Middle Ages, a group called the Masorites devised a system for writing the vowels as subscripts or superscripts on the consonants, which is the system used today in Hebrew Bibles and prayer books to enable Jews with limited knowledge of the language to pray in Hebrew. But since God's name had not been pronounced in hundreds of years, the Masorites did not know how to vowellate yud-hey-vuv-hey. So they arbitrarily assigned it vowels.

When Jews come to that word, they do not pronounce it. Instead, they substitute the word "Adonai," meaning "My Lord." But various Christian groups read the word as "Jehovah," and the name is sometimes also referred to as "Yahweh." Both of these are obviously wrong, as Hebrew has neither a "J" sound nor a "W" sound.

David Ahenkorah must have noticed me looking surprised when—in the places where mainstream Jewry would say "Adonai"—the Sefwi Wiawso congregation substituted "Jehovah." "You're not supposed to say God's name," he leaned over and explained. "Our Christian friends say 'Jehovah' because they think it is God's name, but we say it because we know it's wrong."

"How," I asked, "do you know it's wrong?"

"We know," he replied, "because we know that God's name is ----." And he said it, as if I had asked the most obvious of questions, adding, "the name has been passed down from generation to generation since antiquity." Just to be sure, I asked him to repeat it, and he did. It was a plausible pronunciation; the consonants were the right ones, and in the right order, so that you could make "yud-hey-vuv-hey" come out just as David said it by supplying the proper vowels. Of course, that doesn't guarantee that the pronunciation is in fact the right one; different vowel combinations could lead to a dozen or more pronunciations of the word. But at least it couldn't be peremptorily dismissed.

But is it right? I don't know, but there's some tantalizing evidence that it may be. The first piece of evidence relates to the law of probability. The Jews of Sefwi Wiawso don't know any Hebrew, so if the pronunciation permutated over the years, there would be a good chance that an obvious error would creep in. Odds are, something in the pronunciation would signal that it was wrong.

The second relates to their proper pronunciation of a known word—Biblical Hebrew for "Jerusalem." In modern Hebrew, Israel's capital is "Yerushalayim," but in the Bible, it appears as "Yerushalem." During their services, the Ghanaian Jews sang a hauntingly beautiful melody about Jerusalem—the city of their exile. They pronounced it "Yerushalem."

I didn't think much of it until one day I was debating with an Orthodox rabbinical friend whether the people in Ghana were really Jews. I argued that from their religious practices, immediately recognizable as Judaism, and their oral tradition going back hundreds, thousands, of year, that they were. He took the opposite position—their practices deviated too far from normative Judaism. Somehow, our conversation veered toward their chants and I mentioned the one about Jerusalem.

"How do they pronounce it," he asked. "Jerusalem or Yerushalayim?"

"Neither. They say 'Yerushalem'."

It was as if a light bulb lit up in his head. "Really! Takeh, I think maybe they really ARE ancient Jews. How else could they know to say 'Yerushalem'? Most American Jews don't even know it, but it's in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) as 'Yerushalem.' It was changed to Yerushalayim later on."

Indeed. And undoubtedly it was passed down from generation to generation, since antiquity.