Ghana's Few Jews Nurture their Western Ties
Once treated like misfits, these rural villagers are local celebrities now
SEFWI WIAWSO, Ghana — A five-year-old was the first to reach me. He tugged on my pants to get my attention, then looked up and said in the sweetest voice, “Shabbat Shalom.” This African child knew no Hebrew, yet was using a phrase known to all Jews. It was the last greeting I expected to receive here.
Sefwi Wiawso is an isolated rural village of 1,500 in the mountains of western Ghana. Living here are 50 people from seven families who are Ghana’s only known Jews.
During Saturday service, most of the children (and a few adults) peeked up from their prayer books to sneak a look at me. Their synagogue was beautiful and impressive. I went to sit on the men’s side, and was handed a prayer shawl—fluorescent yellow with a local African design.
Beyond the tiny glow of a candle were the Armahs. Alex Armah is the community leader—he knows the most about Judaism, and so leads the services and teaches.
The Sefwi Wiawso Jews could be a newly-converted community, or an ancient one — nobody knows for sure. Like Jews in Ethiopia and Uganda, they believe they are descendents of one of the Ten Lost Tribes driven from Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC. Local oral histories suggest the Serwi Wiawso Jews have lived in Ghana for 150 years, and before that in Ivory Coast and Timbuktu.
“The Christians used to beat us, and told our ancestors to stop celebrating Shabbat,” Armah said. According to community lore, a chief, seeing how strong Christianity had become, had advised all to convert to it. And the Sefwi Wiawso Jews did.
But strains of Jewish practice persisted, with a few residents continuing to treat Saturday as a day of observance and rest, and to celebrate some form of Passover.
At the Saturday service, Alex’s brother Joseph walked up and down the aisle, leading congregants in song in the local language, Twi. There were similarities with services in the United States: the same prayer books and Hebrew (though the congregants read aloud in English), and prayers read in order from the Bible. The portion of the week was read from a Torah scroll, which Alex translated into Twi.
Judaism reappeared here in 1976, when a local Ghanaian Muslim had a vision in which he was called to re-convert the people of Sefwi Wiawso to Judaism. The man, Aaron Ahomtre-Toakyurufah, claimed to be of Jewish heritage.
But until the mid-1990s, the villagers had no contact with Western Jews. Then Ahomtre-Toakyurufah made contact with two Jews in the United States. Today, the community has ties to Kulanu, a Washington-based organization that finds and supports isolated Jewish communities. Kulanu has identified dozens of groups in such places as Kashmir, Afghanistan, China, Tibet, Somalia, Nigeria and Senegal.
Jews from around the world have donated books, presents, prayer books and a Torah scroll. Recently Kulanu sent a rabbinical student as a teacher.
At first, Christian and Muslims were suspicious of neighbors they saw reviving an archaic and apparently defunct religion. In fact, village schools still require recitation of Christian prayers, and those who refuse to join in can be punished. But all the foreign attention has raised the tiny Jewish community’s standing. After all, it’s not every day that foreigners visit such places — though recently more have come here.
Now the Sefwi Wiawso Jews raise money and awareness for their community by making prayer shawls, bookmarks and covers for Challah bread, which Kulanu then sells on their behalf in the United States.
As they learn more about Judaism, the Sefwi Wiawso Jews are assuming a fuller Jewish identity. “It is my goal to one day to be an Orthodox Jew,” said one of the older boys, “with a long white beard.”