Jews in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Overview

When discussing religions in sub-Saharan Africa, it is easy to think about Christians, Muslims, or those who follow indigenous pagan beliefs, but almost no one thinks about the Jewish communities scattered across the continent. However, these communities have been thriving for many years – some since the 17th and 18th Centuries, and possibly before that. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Jewish communities in Africa were far larger than they are now.

East Africa:

Perhaps the most well-known of the Africa Jewish communities is Beta Israel, the Jewish community in Ethiopia. While most have since emigrated to (permanently settled in) Israel, some remain, practising a mixture of their own Jewish traditions (called Haymanot Judaism) and traditional Jewish traditions taught to them by foreign Rabbis (Jewish religious teachers). The history of Jews in Ethiopia dates back thousands of years, with Menelik I, a famous Ethiopian ruler in the 10th-Century BCE alleged to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The Beta Israel community believe they are descended from the Tribe of Dan, one of the 12 Tribes of Israel. Now, few remain, mostly around Gondar and surrounding villages, as most were brought to Israel during the 1984 famine in Ethiopia.

Although not as well-known as the Ethiopian community, there are also Jews in Kenya. The Nairobi Hebrew Congregation was founded in the early 20th Century for Jews moving there from other countries, such as Lithuania and Russia, though there are Kenyan-born Jews worshipping there today. Perhaps more interestingly, a group of subsistence farmers near Nyahururu formed the Kasuku Gathundia Jewish community. Led by Yosef Njogu, the community was formed having realised that what they were practicing beforehand was Messianic Judaism and not what most would consider traditional Judaism.

Southern Africa:

In South Africa, Jews first arrived as Dutch settlers in the 1820s. Facing many periods of persecution throughout South Africa’s history, they are now largely accepted and supported. The Gardens Shul synagogue was built in 1863 and is still standing, but there are many other synagogues in the country today, supporting around 70,000 Jewish people. The Jewish presence in South Africa has also helped Israel and South Africa maintain very close diplomatic and military ties.

Although small, the Jewish community in Eswatini should still be discussed. In Eswatini, there are around 50 Jews. For example, Rabbi Natan Gamedze, was a descendant of the Gamedze clan of the Kingdom of Eswatini, but later converted to Judaism from Christianity. He now lectures Jewish audiences all around the world.

Central Africa:

There are 320 Jews in In the Democratic Republic of Congo today. Most live in the south-eastern city of Lubumbashi, which is served by a rabbi and has a synagogue. Interestingly, this community speaks Ladino, a Spanish-Jewish language spoken by Sephardi Jews. There are also some Jews in the capital, Kinshasa.

In Uganda, there is a community called the Abayudaya who practice Judaism. The group originated with the Muganda military leader Kakungulu, who was converted to Christianity by the British in 1880. However, he later declared that he was Jewish in 1919 after reading the Old Testament. Currently, there are multiple synagogues that serve this flourishing community (estimated at 2,000), and the people enjoy pleasant relations with the Muslim and Christian inhabitants of neighbouring towns and villages.

West Africa:

In Ghana, there is a small Jewish community in the town of Sefwi Wiawso, of about 200 believers. The community was founded after Toakyirafa, a community leader, had a vision about returning his people to the beliefs of traditional Judaism in 1976. David Ahenkorah currently runs the community and the local synagogue, having himself had a vision. 

There are also many people of Nigerian Igbo nationality who believe that they are descended from some of the 12 tribes of Israel who fled to Africa, not wanting to participate in the civil war between Judah and Israel at around 900BCE. There are many synagogues in Igboland, and some do follow Jewish rules and holy days, but they have not yet received official recognition from the Israeli government.

Joshua Kirkhope-Arkley


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