Swiss-Israeli Anthropologist Journeys to Nigeria

As I came out of Abuja’s airport, two men with kippot and a lady were waiting for me. They greeted me with a cordial “Shalom”. This was just the start of two amazing weeks in Nigeria, which I will not easily forget.

I am a Swiss-Israeli Social Anthropologist, and I came to Nigeria in order to check out possibilities for a PhD project and to see if there was really any sense in doing research about a Jewish (re)naissance movement in Nigeria.

…replying that I came from Israel, he responded that he was Jewish too and that we are all one.

Many Igbo are waiting for the aid of Western Jewry and are looking for rabbis to come or synagogues to be built.

Everything had started in Basel, Switzerland, not far away from Herzl’s famous balcony, in a nightclub where they were playing some R&B music and where I had chatted with a young Igbo fellow over a beer. We exchanged telephone number and he put down his name, which I had not managed to spell correctly: “Levi”.

“But that’s a Jewish name,” I said.

“Yes it is and I am a Jew.”

I got even more curious when this fellow told me that the Igbo came originally from Israel and that his grandparents had told him so.

Shortly thereafter I started to read reports from Nigeria in the Kulanu Newsletter and I tracked down every sort of hint on the Internet and went to the libraries in order to read about Igbo history, religion and culture. I got in touch with Remy Ilona, a lawyer in Abuja who had written a book with the title The Igbos: Jews in Africa? I ordered a copy and started to read it (several times). The topic was fascinating since the Igbo represent a people of about 40-50 million. Were they all saying that they came from Israel? Did they really circumcise on the eighth day? What was the state of the Judaizing communities among the Igbo? I had to see with my own eyes since books and Internet will never tell the same story.

I was very lucky that Remy Ilona devoted two weeks to my visit and made sure that I met as many people as possible and visited as many communities as possible. He had also secured accommodation for me with the help of Tom Timberg, an American Jew working in Abuja, and Teddy Luttwak, a long-time resident in Nigeria and a cosmopolitan, self-made Jew.

Friday evening started surprisingly in a rather Israeli setting. Serving as the tenth man, I was taken (by car) to an Israeli minyan at a hotel. According to the Israeli ambassador in Abuja, Noam Katz, there are about 2000 Israelis living in Nigeria doing business. The Israeli presence in Nigeria is important in the dynamic development of the country’s economy, and Nigeria was one of the first African countries to renew its diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994. Prominent Igbo had played a vital role in the renewal of diplomatic relations. The ambassador went so far as to describe the Igbo as Israel’s main constituency in the country. One reason may lie in the economic co-operation that existed between the Igbo and Israel before the Biafra crisis (1967-1970), but another reason is clearly related to the widespread and deep sentiment of the Igbo that they come from Israel.

One shouldn’t expect to encounter the majority of Igbo practicing rabbinical Judaism. Most belong to a variety of Christian churches and know relatively little or nothing about the difference between Judaism and Christianity. Nevertheless, there is a deep resentment against the Christian missions to the Igbos, and the Igbo hunger for information on Judaism and Israel is what every Jewish community in the Diaspora dreams of.

But Judaism has started to emerge, and I was able to witness that the next Shabbat morning touring three congregations. Like everywhere else, one finds two Jews stating three opinions. Every congregation represented a different way of connecting to Judaism, partly due to interactions with Western Jewry.

At the Gihon community in Abuja, one could describe the orientation as somewhat Orthodox. Their services seemed well organized, and with the newly thatched roof one could describe this place as the Grand Synagogue of Abuja (even though it was a single room with the walls made of mud). As they started to sing beautiful songs (in Hebrew) after the service, a cold shiver ran down my back. But time was short and we had to leave for another congregation. Sar Habakkuk’s congregation could be described as Conservative, and Sar Habakkuk has built up a beautiful compound. Remy Ilona also brought me to his own congregation, which puts its emphasis on incorporating prayers in Igbo language and Torah studies. Their prayers were said to Chukwu (the Almighty). Due to ongoing destruction of places of worship this particular service took place under the open sky between mud huts and under curious eyes of the neighbors.

Poverty and lack of access to information and learning materials are just two of the problems the Judaizing communities are facing in Abuja. My impression was that it’s not conversion that most Igbo will seek, but access to information and a reconnection to their own traditions.

From Abuja we left for three Igbo states (Enugu, Anambra and Abia) in the Southeast of the country. We went to Awka, Nnewi, and Okigwi and visited the priests of NRI as a first stop. Being the only white for a week was a special experience at first, but I never had an unfriendly encounter and I almost forgot about it in time. I felt especially welcome as a Jew and Israeli. I particularly remember a driver of the famous okada bikes in the city of Enugu asking me which tribe I was from. Replying that I came from Israel, he responded that he was Jewish too and that we are all one.

I can’t recall meeting a single Igbo in the Southeast who did not state that he or she came from Israel. A highlight of my visit was my meeting with NRI elders, said to parallel the priestly clan of the Levites, near the town of Awka. The NRI are often described as the most important keepers of Igbo traditions, responsible for performing rituals of purification in other Igbo clans. The meeting was accompanied by the traditional breaking of the cola nut, the palm wine offering, and prayers to Chukwu. I also had the opportunity to speak with really old people, which is rather a rare sight in Nigeria (the average life expectancy is about 50 years and most people seem to be in their 20s).

A meeting was held with other members of the clan with discussions on how to ensure that Igbo traditions won’t be lost and how a reconnection of the children of Israel could be consolidated. As was mentioned before, the issue at hand is not necessarily to convert to rabbinical Judaism (although I am sure that thousands of Igbo would like to do that), but rather how to reconnect to other children of Israel and their own traditions. These traditions are under threat of being lost to the new generation under the pressure of Christian churches and also because of lack of written sources.

Many participants in the discussions complained about the current state of Igbo affairs in Nigeria. Throughout many discussions I noticed that Igbo felt threatened by Islamic developments in the northern states of Nigeria. A popular saying in Nigeria is that a place is not fit for human habitation if no Igbo man can be found there. In most of Nigeria’s cities a considerable proportion of the population is Igbo. Thus many Igbo people up north may have witnessed the recent introduction of Islamic Sharia law and fear the repetition of ethnic persecution under the pretext of religion. The memories of Biafra are still an open wound, and every family has a story to tell.

Speaking also to non-Igbo resembles talk about the Jews in Europe. Their economic power is feared and they are said to control positions of power. Does this sound familiar to you? Many Igbo are traders and “overrepresented” in Nigeria’s growing “Nollywood” film industry.

Many Igbo are waiting for the aid of Western Jewry and are looking for rabbis to come or synagogues to be built.

Next to similarities of Igbo customs to Jewish customs (like observing the laws of nidda) parallels in experience can also be found and are expressed repeatedly. In Nnewi we met an Igbo businessman from Williamsburg, New York City. This was a spontaneous meeting and this man confirmed having noticed similarities of custom between the Jews in Williamsburg and the Igbo. He was eager to buy Remy Ilona’s book, which by then had been sold on many occasions.

From Nnewi we went on to visit Remy’s clan, Ozubulu. At Okigwi we also met his niece, Uchenna. Remy also showed me the burial place of his parents in the family compound. It was so touching to see the still fresh earth on his mother’s grave. This is also the location where he intends to open an Institute for Jewish and Igbo studies in the future.

One purpose of my trip was to get in touch with the academic world in Nigeria. We visited Abia State University and Nsukka University, and I also had a meeting with a lecturer at Ibadan University later on in Abuja. In those discussions, as in others, I encountered skepticism that the Igbo came from Israel. Nevertheless, towards the end of such discussions people shifted to ascertain the importance and urgency of such a discussion and that more research has to be done about it since every Igbo child will learn at an early age that he or she is from Israel. Even with people who are skeptical about the Igbo-Jewish link, news about events in Israel is eagerly followed and sympathies are expressed in a way one may not encounter in other parts of the world.

The lack of access to information may well be symbolized by one encounter Remy Ilona and I had in a bookshop in Enugu. After a spontaneous discussion with the shop owner and another Igbo author in which both ascertained that they were Jews, I noticed a book about Adolph Hitler on a bookshelf. This was a pure piece of Nazi propaganda with a foreword by Joseph Goebbels. I asked the shop owner about it and he explained to me that he of course knows about the Shoah but that this book was the only one on Hitler he had been able to find.

After an exciting week in the Southeast (traveling to prayer over rutted roads, tasting Igbo foods, and enjoying the cordial hospitality of all the people we met) we went back to Abuja for the remaining days. There I had some last interviews with leaders of the congregations I had visited the week before plus another visit to an “ultra-Orthodox” community.

Many Igbo are waiting for the aid of Western Jewry and are looking for rabbis to come or synagogues to be built. As an anthropologist I had to take a scholarly approach, but in the eyes of many I was also perceived as a delegate from Western Jewry and Israel, which in some ways I also was. My argument then that Western Jewry is probably not too eager to proselytize seemed to be out of place when encountering so many people waiting for more information on Judaism and emphasizing that they are already Jews and wouldn’t need to convert. Considering the economic power of the Christian churches in Nigeria (it is a whole industry where big money can be made) and the reluctance that parts of Western Jewry may show towards accepting the Igbo as brothers and sisters, the struggle of Judaizing Igbo will be a long one. But those people I encountered were very dedicated to a Jewish (re)naissance, and we know of other people who have dedicated their lives to dreams that became reality.

As I was made to understand by Remy, Kulanu has helped a lot, and this could mean that Western Jewry may enter in a big way. These and other thoughts accompanied me as I was brought to the airport by Remy Ilona and his friends — the same people who had picked me up on the first day and who had become so dear to me. In the plane I also made a personal wish to return to Nigeria soon.