When Ghanaians are leaving your presence and want to inform you that they will be right back, they say "I'm coming" as they walk away in the opposite direction. To the foreigner, this is counter-intuitive, as it appears they are not "coming" they are indeed "going."
Well, I wanted to tell readers of my blog that "I'm coming."
I have been working like crazy on funding applications for the documentary I wish to do with the Sefwi Wiawso Jewish community. The deadline for these funding proposals are Nov 9 and Nov 15 so my blog entries will remain slow until then. However, I do plan on doing a special little post tomorrow to mark my 100th day in Ghana! I don't know exactly when it was but it was sometime this week.
In the meantime, if anyone knows of organizations or people that could support my effort to do a documentary about the Jewish community in Sefwi Wiawso, please do contact me! The project would go into production next fall, in time for the high holidays.
Thanks and see you soon!
Thursday, October 14, 2010
A major focus of development efforts here in West Africa is peace-building and security. The West African sub-region has been plagued with a number of violent civil wars including those in Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia and Guinea. Though Ghana has witnessed four major military coups since its independence in 1957, when compared to the conflicts of its neighbouring countries, Ghana’s post-independence coups appear quite localized and brief with few civilian casualties.
Indeed, Ghana prides itself on a reputation of peace, steady growth and security - a reputation that shines brightly against the backdrop of an historically unstable West Africa. Ghana is the child in the family who made it through adolescence unscathed, earning scholastic praise form teachers and coaches while its rebellious siblings were stuck in the principal’s office every other week for smoking pot in the schoolyard. Ok - this is an exaggeration but to my credit, much of Ghana’s tourism branding does label it the “golden child of Africa.” (However, if you google the term “the golden child of Africa” apparently the title is generously handed out to nearly every county on the continent).
Because of its peaceful reputation, Ghana has become the home to many West African refugees who are forced out of their native countries because of violence and corruption. As such, Ghana plays a huge role in peace-building efforts and post-conflict rehabilitation even within its own borders. This is evident by the significant number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) here who include peace-building amongst their organizations’ core activities.
Though these organizations should be lauded for their efforts to help refugees and contribute to peace-building processes, I have found that, at times, it is difficult to identify the precise activities that can be considered “peace-building.” This can be a problem with humanitarian organizations around the globe - their missions and mandates are noble but extremely broad, leaving those outside the organization a little confused as to what strategy the organization is using, if any, to “fight AIDS” or “end child poverty” or “end world hunger.” The problem is not necessarily to do with strategy (though I’m sure in some cases it is) as much as communication.
Given the breadth of work involved in peace-building and indeed, the broad interpretation of the term “peace-building”, I have found myself becoming increasingly critical of the missions and mandates of NGOs and CSOs that identify peace-building as an area of focus but can’t seem to really articulate how they are carrying out peace-building efforts. At times, it seems like peace-building efforts only manifest themselves within the walls of conferences, forums and academic institutions. Where is the ground work? How are these conversations translating into action?
Well, recently I was introduced to a strategy in peace-building that took me by surprise.
ABANTU for Development, the organization I work for here in Ghana, recently made a presentation at an NGO Fair for students enrolled in Trent University’s “Trent-in-Ghana” program offered through the University’s Department of International Development Studies. From what I understand, the program is jointly run by Trent and the University of Ghana and enrolls students from both these institutions.
I was invited to help ABANTU with their presentation, an offer which I accepted wholeheartedly. I couldn’t very well pass on the opportunity to mingle with fellow Canadians! Why we could talk incessantly about everything Canadian like ... I don’t know... Stephen Harper? Bagels? The Alberta tar sands? VIA Rail? Tim Horton’s? I guess it’s not that exciting. Based on previous experience, conversations with fellow Canadian expats are always super refreshing until the person brings up sports and then I gradually liquify into a puddle of boredom and disinterest. But I digress...
So we arrive at the NGO Fair and ABANTU makes its presentation, discussing its thematic areas - gender and governance, climate change and, you guessed it, peace-building and security. Now this of course wasn’t a surprise for me as I have been working at the organization for nearly three months now. But I never really investigated what activities fall under ABANTU’s peace-building theme. I know they attend a ton of conferences on the topic and have recently published a research booklet on the subject of women and peace-building. But I was beginning to worry that I actually had no idea what kind of ground work was being done on the issue.
After all the NGOs made their presentations, we broke out into groups where students, in search of organizations for their volunteer placements, were afforded the opportunity to discuss the NGOs’ work in greater depth.
Eventually the question came to ABANTU, “what sort of work does your organization do under its peace-building theme?” My colleague Gertrude responded that ABANTU is involved with peace-building initiatives on two fronts: through advocacy and on the ground with the women in the Budaburam Liberian Refugee Camp located in Accra. Their advocacy work focuses on implementing UN Resolutions 1325 and 1820 which call for greater inclusion of women in peace-building and security efforts in post-conflict areas (ABANTU does this through policy influencing, research and awareness campaigns). On the ground, ABANTU is involved with capacity-building projects for women in the Budaburam camp. Some of these capacity-building initiatives focus on providing women with the skills and seed money to engage in small businesses, while other initiatives focus on building women’s leadership capacity so they can organize themselves as a political body.
But then my colleague mentioned a third project that really took me aback. She casually added “we also provide sanitary towels for women in the camps.” Confusion took hold of the group. “Like for times when they are menstruating?” Yes, we understood that part... but the part about sanitary pads as a peace-building tool was a little... confusing.
The response was like a blow to the head for me. It had never occurred to me that something so simple, so practical and yet so necessary, could fall under “peace-building efforts.” Until that point, my focus was stuck on the larger picture. Peace-building to me was about finding ways to rebuild nations ravaged by violence to become secure and democratic. It was about finding ways to bring war criminals, terrorists and corrupt politicians to justice. It was about rebuilding infrastructure and social welfare. It was about rehabilitating child soldiers and healing the damaged psyche of a nation. Never had it even crossed my mind that the distribution of sanitary napkins could contribute to peace-building and security.
And yet, somehow I innately understood how this initiative was a peace-building effort. Here I had been problem-solving from a top-down approach - thinking of what it would take to implement and maintain peaceful democracy. But the donation of such a basic sanitary item represented a truly bottom-up approach. The initiative focused on the basic need for human dignity and wellbeing, the need for comfort and control.
I noticed goosebumps on my arms after Gertrude made mention of this initiative. Though a seemingly small step in an overwhelmingly large post-war strategy, thinking about the donation of sanitary pads to women in the camps dragged me from the theoretical to the personal. From the cerebral to the emotional. Of course peace-building necessitates the political and physical rebuilding of a nation, but this begins with the rebuilding of people. I realized that the women in the Budaburum camp were not only victims of violence and subsequent displacement, they have also been stripped of their basic right to human dignity and wellbeing. Their ability to live a healthy and self-sufficient life was taken from them and no policy or legislation alone could ever return these basic needs. Efforts can be made to develop a nation’s democracy and promote good governance, but at the end of the day, if your people are unable to take care of their basic needs, progress will fall flat.
I guess it is fair to say that this was one of many “ah ha” moments I have experienced while working in Ghana, particularly in the area of international development. It is very difficult to grasp the complexities of the issues facing developing countries until you witness them manifesting in the lives of people right in front of you. I should add that it is just as difficult to fully grasp the issues facing “developed” countries. In fact, in developed countries it can be even more difficult to grasp ugly realities because we seem to have become experts at hiding them.
For example, Canada has been at war for nearly a decade now and had a camera been documenting my life or the lives of those close to me since 2002, nowhere would you find evidence of a country at war (save for a few protests or class presentations). And yet, when the camera shifts to the life of a fallen soldier Canada experiences its own “ah ha” moment. Suddenly, the goosebumps emerge as the political manifests itself as the personal, shinning light on a harsh reality that was comfortably hidden overseas.
I guess we have to take these epiphanic moments as reminders that action is urgently needed. But in doing so, we should be mindful that all we can do for now is take the first step, however small that step may be.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Just days after describing Ghanaian funerals in my last post, I happened to be invited to one myself!
Earlier last week, my lovely coworker, Mr. Folley, asked if I would be interested in joining a group of ABANTU staff in attending the funeral of Obaapanin Maame Akua Yeboaa (“Stacey” for short) - Dr. Rose’s mother-in-law (Dr. Rose is the Director for ABANTU’s West African Regional Office... and I was kidding about the Stacey nickname btw). The funeral was to take place on Saturday, a few hours outside of Accra. ABANTU would be arranging transportation for our staff members.
I apologized, explaining that I had already committed myself that day. I didn’t think too much of it. I have never met Dr. Rose’s family, let alone her in-laws from out of town. And my relationship with Dr. Rose isn’t quite as close as my relationship with other staff members as her work often requires her to travel.
“Next time, though! I promise!”
And then came the realization that I was speaking about a funeral.
“When it comes to these events, we don’t usually want there to be a next time!” Folley laughed.
A day or two passes and my coworkers inquire with increasing frequency whether I will be attending the funeral on Saturday. I pick up on the subtle hint. My response evolves from “oh, no unfortunately, I have plans that day!” to “Well I had plans but I think I might cancel them” and eventually settles on “what time are we meeting?”
I felt a little silly. Here I had just finished writing about the unrivaled cultural significance of Ghanaian funerals and yet I declined the invitation in a matter of seconds. It wasn’t until I realized that I was literally the ONLY coworker not attending the funeral that I clued in to the fact that my attendance was quite important. Not because I’m important, (though my mother promises me that I am) but because the act of demonstrating your support is important. And although this is the case in Canada too, it’s not practiced quite to the same extent as Ghana. Can you imagine the look on your boss’s face if you drove four hours out of town on a weekend to attend her mother-in-law’s funeral after working at your job for two months? Exactly.
As directed, I showed up at Accra Mall for 6am. I knew it was ridiculously naive of me to show up on time (we left about an hour and fifteen minutes later) but I didn’t want to take any chances.
I was expecting that staff would pile into two or three cars. Instead, Folley (who was also on time) directed me to a bus that the family had hired to bring Accra friends and family to and from the funeral. Yeesh, This is a big deal.
I sat with two coworkers, National Service Students doing their one-year placement at ABANTU. They laughed at me for bringing a thermos of coffee for the trip - confirming that I cannot go one day without my morning coffee (even if it is instant).
After a long and bumpy 3.5 hour journey, we parked in front of the Methodist Church in Awisa - a small village in the Eastern Region. The three-story chapel was packed so additional seating was provided for the near-250 people outside. Even then, the size of the crowd was such that not everyone had a seat (there happen to be three funerals taking place that day). Pamphlets and booklets were passed around containing short biographies and photos of the deceased and their families.
The site was quite beautiful. Hundreds of guests both inside and outside the church created a sea of black and red - the traditional mourning colours. The elder men would wear their fabric wrapped around their torso and thrown over one shoulder, baring half their chest. It seemed customary for the elder women to wear a black or red headpiece.
Dr. Rose greeted us warmly, giving each one of us an enthusiastic hug. She genuinely looked happy and grateful that we came! Which reminds me, one of the things I noticed about the funeral is that no one appeared particularly sad. In fact, if it weren’t for the characteristic mourning colours, you really wouldn’t have any idea that people were gathered for a death. I am told this is likely because the family has plenty of time to grieve between the time of the death and the execution of the funeral.
I think the age of the deceased can impact the overall tone of the funeral, as well. When it comes to the ones we love, there is never really a right age to die. But Obaapanin Maame Akua Yeboaa reached the age of 87 in country where the life expectancy is 56. I get the impression that mourning focuses on the celebration of a long rather than the mourning of a death. For instance, whenever I put on my “funeral face” to shake hands with the family members, I would look them in the eyes and say that I was so sorry for their loss. And this was met with either a laugh or a look of confusion.
“You’re sorry? Why? Did you do something wrong?”
This reaction could be chalked up to my obroni status, which by its very nature provokes laughter in many Ghanaians, even those at funerals. But I’m not so sure... I have a feeling Ghanaians have a way of dealing with death that’s a lot healthier than many of us back home.
And while we’re on the subject - my obroni status, my “obronihood” - Ah! How it colours (or uncolours) all my experiences! I was actually concerned about being the only obroni at the ceremony, I didn’t want to give off the impression that I took to funerals as a tourist activity. Luckily, I was greeted really warmly! Like really warmly. People even asked me to take photos of them which is unheard of in Ghana except from swarms of children (seriously, the kids here are total camera hogs).
|My biggest fan that day!|
As I’ve mentioned before, obronihood is a double-sided coin - at times it attracts the type of attention you don’t want, other times it grants you the positive reinforcement you need to feel comfortable and welcome. I did indeed attract a lot of attention, particularly from a crowd of older women, but it was friendly and harmless attention, flattering even. Sometimes people are just really excited to see something out of the ordinary - be it a cute puppy, an ugly hairdo, a hot air balloon, a snowsuit or a white person. I’m quite happy to be a conversation piece.
|Videographers distracted by the entrance of a politician!|
Only one person was able to steal the limelight of my loyal fan club of old women. I was just in the middle of entertaining them with my Twi, when suddenly the entire congregation jumped to their feet and started waving their hands and handkerchiefs in the air! Crying out for someone!
Startled, I look towards the entrance of the chapel and who was there? Why none other than the leader of the opposition position party and former presidential candidate, Nana Afufo-Addo! It was like seeing Michael Ignatieff! Kinda... or McCain...
|Nana Akufo-Addo (the one with glasses), NPP Presidential Candidate|
Services were longer than usual since there were three funerals taking place. After a few hours it became a little difficult for those of us standing outside in the beating sun - hungry, hot, dehydrated, tired... okay maybe that was just me.
|Why wouldn't you include a marching band in a funeral procession?|
After the services, we were treated to a large buffet-style lunch, which proved to be an opportune time to collect donations from attendees. Afterwards, we went to another area of the village where music and dancing were taking place. A few chiefs made appearances as well.
The families in mourning were seated along the periphery of the “dance floor” (I feel funny calling it that but that’s kind of what it was) and guests would line up to shake their hands and give their condolences.
We boarded the bus about 3:45 and after getting lost a few times, we made it back to Accra around 8:15pm.
In the end, I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to attend this funeral, especially in the company of ABANTU staff who always look out for their obroni sister. Though I wasn’t thrilled about waking up at 4:30am on a Saturday, the remote location in a small village enhanced the experience for me, allowing me to bear witness to a moving display of community support. Though I would feel a bit morbid saying “Can’t wait for the next funeral!” if one happens to pop up, I may just cancel my plans once again.
|People line up to give their condolences to the families|
|Drummers playing music at the funeral|
Friday, October 1, 2010
Part 3: The History of the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso Continued...
Though the community’s legitimacy and acceptance increased with the passing of time, it was still difficult for Jews in Sefwi Wiawso to follow their religion in a deeply Christian culture. This difficulty culminated in an unfortunate event in Joseph’s life.
In 2002, after years of rebuilding the relationship with his parents, Joseph got the news that his mother had passed away. To make matters worse, Joseph was informed that the burial would take place on a Saturday, the sabbath - the one day that Jews cannot attend burials.
I’m going to pause the story here to provide a little bit of contextual background on Ghanaian funerals. Funerals in Ghana hold tremendous cultural importance. The size and grandeur of the funeral is seen as a reflection of the loss suffered by the community. The larger and more elaborate the funeral, the more profound the loss to the community. As you can imagine, organizing large events can cost a lot of money. It can be particularly taxing in a country with an average annual income estimated between US$450 and US$670 (GNI per capita). So the size of the funeral is not just a reflection of the love and admiration for the deceased person. It’s contingent on what kind of resources the family in mourning has access to for the funeral.
I was under the impression that the main event generally takes place over the course of a weekend but a coworker has just informed me that in some tribes (she cited the Akan as an example) funeral celebrations can last up to 40 days!
Like any major event, funerals are advertised in the public forum for the weeks leading up the main function (if you’re curious how people “plan” such an event in advance: the body is usually kept in a mortuary until the family can raise enough money to properly organize an event. This might take weeks but generally seems to take months). Skimming through the pages of the newspaper you will often see the professionally-designed funeral notices advertising one’s “Call to Glory.” The same notices can be found on street posters, fliers and even on billboards off the highway!
To the foreigner’s eye, funerals hold the appearance of a giant party. It isn’t all that rare to be woken up at 5am on a Saturday by the sounds of people dancing down the street, playing instruments and singing. I was under the impression that these people just happen to be finishing off a GREAT Friday night... until I learned that it was actually a funeral procession.
For the main event, the family of the deceased provides venue, rentals, entertainment, food and drink for guests. Depending on the person, attendance can range from a small group of twenty or thirty all the way into the hundreds. Guests often leave the ceremony with all sorts of kitsch paraphernalia branded with the image of the person who has passed away like silkscreen t-shirts or African-print fabric with a picture embedded in the material.
All this is to say that funerals are a huge ordeal, ipso facto so is not attending a funeral. But Joseph couldn’t attend - not if he was going to remain faithful to his religious beliefs.
Much to his family’s disapproval, Joseph missed the burial portion of his mother’s funeral. However, thanks to his popularity in the community, many of Joseph’s friends attended the ceremony in his honour - making donations in his name. Joseph was able to attend the “Thanksgiving” portion of the funeral on the Sunday, but the event itself marked an important moment in his life and likewise to his community - both the Jewish community and the larger community. This “being jewish” thing was a reality - a reality that both the Jews and the non-Jews were going to have to accept.
It’s a Small World After All
Gradually, the Jewish community grew though not necessarily through conversion. It seems as though there was a period marked by a surge in births. As a result, a significant portion of the community appears to be under the age of 12. But again, I have only visited the community for several days so I’ll reassess upon my next visit. In fact, Ghana is in the midst of conducting its national census, so maybe I’ll piggy-back on their door-knocking trips and collect my very own statistics.
In today’s “global village”, it was only a matter of time before the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso encountered the Jews of the Rest of the World-o. But how did this small village in western Ghana reach... *opens the donated prayer book to see the stamp on the inside cover* ... Des Moines, Iowa?? There are Jews in Iowa?
‘Tis a sheltered life I do live. All this time... Jews in Ghana, Jews in Iowa.
I got two different versions of the story of how the Sefwis connected to outside Jewish communities - one from Joseph and one from Patrick. I have attempted to braid their stories together, hoping to find points where the two plot lines intersect. But this proved impossible. The stories reveal two separate accounts of interacting with the outside world. They likely occurred parallel to one another. Upon my next visit, I will seek clarification on how exactly these events unfolded.
Let’s begin with Patrick’s historical account.
Patrick dates the first contact with foreign life around 1995 and it starts with a Ghanaian named Bedern living abroad in California. As it turns out, the neighbourhood in which Bedern lived was overwhelmingly Jewish. After several years of living amongst this community, he converted to Judaism.
Bedern makes a trip home to Ghana to visit family. Shock and awe ensue as the family learns that Bedern, once a Christian, has now converted to Judaism. What the heck does that mean? Why would you become a Jew? You don’t believe in Jesus? What is that small hat on your head? What do you mean you’re not going to eat the food we prepared??
Once the protesting of his conversion calmed down, Bedern’s Grandmother took notice of the rituals and practices he was displaying: praying to Gd instead of Jesus Christ, not eating shellfish, he’s wearing that silly little hat... And then it clicked.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. My excitement about this “small world after all” portion of the tale is so high that I am going to switch from prose to dialogue.
INT. GRANDMA'S KITCHEN - EVENING
Bedern is seen sulking, staring at a delicious seafood stew. He picks at a lone ball of plain fufu. Grandma smiles contemptuously.
Grandma: What’s the matter Bedern? Afraid the Lord will strike you dead if you eat one of these??
Grandma plops a crab into her mouth.
(Please note: I’m paraphrasing).
Bedern: Oh grandma. The plight of the Jews is so great that I am no longer affected by foolish ridicule from the likes of people like you.
Grandma: Yes, yes forty days and forty nights in the desert yadda yadda... you’ve said it a million times. Come now, I am only joking. Tomorrow we will be sure to get you some Jew food.
Bedern: Kosher, Grandma! It’s called KOSHER. JESUS!
Grandma: Hey! Watch your language.
Bedern: Sorry, sorry.
Grandma: Say, Bedern, have you heard of a town called Sefwi Wiawso?
Bedern: Why I believe I have Grandma. [looks out at audience and with added enthusiasm...] WHY DO YOU ASK?
Grandma: Well, some of these funny things you’re doing, like not praying to Jesus and saying some things in a weird language and quoting a television show called “Seinfeld” and refusing to work on Saturday and... I’ve seen others doing the very same thing.
Bedern: Are you sure?
Grandma: Yes I’m sure.
Bedern: They really quote Seinfeld?
Grandma: No, that part they don’t do.
Bedern: We can work on that.
Grandma: And I haven’t seen them wear that darling little hat that rests so effortlessly on the crown of your head. I hope you show them that too.
Bedern: Where are they, grandma? Where did you see them?
Grandma: They all gather in Sefwi Wiawso on Friday nights and Saturdays.
Bedern: That is the shabbat!
Grandma: Sure, whatever. We’re not far from Sefwi Wiawso, you know. Perhaps we should plan a visit next week? Surely if they are members of your precious Jewish tribe, they will welcome you.
Bedern: I most certainly hope so. But I must say, Grandma. I’m wary of this Sefwi Wiawso group. I can’t possible imagine a group of Jews living in Ghana! Could it be? Could it be?
Grandma: Well, it can’t hurt to find out.
Bedern: You’re right. Let us leave at once!
INT. A CLASSROOM IN SEFWI WIAWSO - THE FOLLOWING WEEK - LATE AFTERNOON
A dozen men are gathered on one side of the classroom, greeting each other, shaking hands. On the other side of the classroom, women and children are doing the same. The men are wearing traditional African fabric over one shoulder, baring half their chests. The women are wearing colourful headscarves with matching dresses.
Bedern and Grandma enter the room - timid, cautious.
Aran, the leader of the group, notices the entry of the two strangers and walks over to them.
Aran: You are welcome.
Bedern and Grandma: Thank you.
Bedern: My name is Bedern, this is Grandma.
Aran: Pleasure, I am Aran.
Bedern: My grandmother here tells me that we share a lot in common.
Aran: How do you mean?
Bedern: Well, I-
Grandma: [interrupting] Don’t believe in Jesus Christ.
Bedern: I believe he EXISTED Grandma I just don’t believe he is our saviour.
Aran: Us too!
Bedern: Really? Are you by any chance-
Bedern: Yes! Me too!
Aran: What? That can’t be possible. There aren’t any other Jews.
Bedern: No! You’re wrong! There’s tons of them. Why I found a whole lot of them in California.
Aran: Get out!
Bedern: Look Grandma, he’s quoting Seinfeld!!
Aran: Who’s Seinfeld?
Bedern: Nevermind. This is incredible! The white people are never going to believe this. Jews in Africa. Can you believe?
Aran: Um, yes.
Bedern: Jews in Ghana. In MY native country! Oh Grandma, Gd works in mysterious ways.
Aran: Please, join us for our shabbat service and afterwards we will discuss more about the discovery of our brotherhood!
Okay, back to prose. Otherwise, I fear my imagination will distort the story to the point of no return. That being said, I suppose I should admit that I made up the bit about quoting Seinfeld. However, lot’s of the other quirky nuances were given to me by Patrick.
The beautiful part about this connection is that both parties were equally amazed at the existence of the other. The community was shocked to hear that there were Jews all around the world and Bedern was in disbelief over the existence of Ghanaian Jews.
Over the weekend, Bedern and the community discussed their beliefs, their practice and what led them to become Jewish. I am unsure as to whether or not Bedern tried to teach them more ways of following the religion. I am also curious to know whether the community would receive such teachings with appreciation or whether they would prefer to keep the traditions most familiar to them.
Bedern eventually returns to the US after promising the Sefwis that he will enlighten the Jews back home on their existence. Bedern kept his promise, shared his experience with his Rabbi and was met with utter disbelief (noticing a pattern here?).
In an effort to confirm the existence of this Ghanaian Jewish community, Bedern’s Rabbi sent two other members of the Temple to accompany Bedern on his next trip to Ghana. (In Patrick words, “The Rabbi couldn’t believe it, so he sent two white people with Bedern to confirm the truth”). The group arrives in Sefwi Wiawso in time for Shabbat. They witness the service. Their jaws eventually close. Sunday rolls around and they call the Rabbi to confirm that there are indeed Jews in Sefwi Wiawso.
The news exploded and within days, the entire congregation of this particular Temple in California was asking their Rabbi when they would get the chance to visit the community in Sefwi Wiawso.
Since the word first got out, Patrick says, the community has received batches of American visitors. Eventually visitors started showing up from other countries - Canada, France, Australia, Germany. And with the visitors came an influx of donations, new practices, new teachings, new holidays and new rituals. All the prayer books, tallit, study guides, menorahs, chamsas, mezuzas are donations from eager visitors. Most of the rituals that would be familiar to Jews outside of Ghana, were taught to the community by volunteers and visitors.
Now, grab a snack (I’ll do the same), because it’s time to hear Joseph’s story.
SAME SMALL WORLD, DIFFERENT STORY
Again, I will switch from prose to dialogue, but this time the dialogue is not invented. I happen to have recorded my discussion with Joseph because I am interested in working with the community to document their story. I am looking to take this on as a larger documentary film project. I spoke about this idea with Joseph and Patrick and they seemed positive about the idea but it definitely needs to be discussed further with the community.
Below is the transcript of my “interview” (it really wasn’t all that formal) with Joseph. I have only included the portion that details the story of the community’s contact with foreigners, hence the excessive use of ellipses.
Whenever I detect a passage that is particularly difficult to understand, I will try to clarify with bracketed text. Also, there were times when I didn’t quite understand or hear what Joseph was saying so wherever I was unable to transcribe his words properly, I highlighted a section of the text in red.
This interview took place on a sunny Friday afternoon, sitting on the grass in Joseph’s compound. Rena contributes to the conversation as well. Rena is a friend of mine who I met at the Sefwi Wiawso community during my stay there. She is form Israel but moved to the US some time ago where she raised her family. She is in Ghana working in the gold mining sector. More on Rena in later blog entries...
Joseph: ...Aran got the address of some of the Israelites, a certain man called Yakov Gladstone/Graston. Even that man has not been to this place before. He’s the first white man for him to send for.
Gabrielle: So this was the first foreigner.
Joseph: Yes first foreigner-
Gabrielle: Who found the community?
Joseph: Yes who finds the community. But he had not been here with us before. But right now, even he’s alive.
Gabrielle: How did he find out about it?
Joseph: Aran found the address, he said he found the address on a Graphic paper, a Newspaper, that this man is a Jew and so, from that time Aran started. He got his address, and he started writing letters to him. And [Aran] also respond that, in fact [Aran] said [that] he has [been preaching] to some people here and let some people convert to be a Jew and the man became very happy. So he started writing to us and even through that we have some prayerbooks, and through that too, we [were connected to] Kulanu.
Gabrielle: Oh ok!
Joseph: You heard something about them before?
Joseph: Yes, Kulanu. They have some bulletin and other thing.
Rena: That’s how we learned about you!
Joseph: Yes so that these people have helped us a lot. Brought us some prayer books and other things so we started talking to them or writing to them-
Rena: In the United States.
Joseph: Yes in the United States, so through this Kulanu people they let a certain woman came here, I will say seven years ago, with her daughter. Her daughter came here. She’s called Maggie. She came first. She spent two weeks with us here, and before the three weeks, her [mother] came too, down to visit this place. So these two people here for one and a half months. Before they left. Both of them, the two of them.
Gabrielle: Wow. Now Patrick told me about someone from California. A man of the name Beckin or Beddin?
Joseph: Bedern, yes Bedern.
Gabrielle: Yes can you tell me about him?
Joseph: Yes, Bedernn is a Ghanaian. Bedern is a Ghanaian he’s from Cape Coast. And right now he’s in California as Patrick told you. But you see, Bedern was in - he was in Liberia. When they, when the war started (inaudible), Bedern was in Liberia. So Bedern said [that at] one [point in] time he was there he [met] a white men and they said, they told him “Massa try to come, this is what is [going] to happen in Liberia. [...] So they told Bedern that within a few months a war is coming to happen in Liberia so they don’t want him to be [there], he said he [was] practicing to be a jew so they don’t want him to be in Liberia. They want [him] to go with [them]. Bedern said he would go with them but, you see, the wife said no, [she] won’t. She won’t go. So Bedern left Liberia with his daughter.
So when left, [after] say three weeks the war started. So right now [Bedern] doesn’t know whether his wife has been killed or she’s alive, Bedern doesn’t know anything about that.
So Bedern has been here with us for about say three times.
Rena: The family from United States that came to stay with you for a month and a half, why they stood here a month and a half?
Joseph: Because, they stood here for half month, six weeks, they came here they say they have seen - that lady was called Harriet, even she’s the secretary to the Kulanu,
Gabrielle: She managed the listserve.
Joseph: She said she saw our news and she want to come and see whether it is true that there are Jewish in Africa. So her daughter was coming here to study in Varsity for about three some months and she asked to come here. To stay with us here for that two weeks before her parents came. So after they came when they saw us they were very happy. Like as you are with us here.
Joseph: Even when they were with us here, they teach the adults Jew history. And the children too Maggie tried to teach them about Hebrew alphabet and other things. And for about three, another, for about another six months these Kulanu people help us and they brought us another young two guests - one is called Gabby
Gabrielle: Thats my name!
Joseph: Yes and one is called Nathaniel. They were also here with us for about five months [... I had to stop and start re-recording at this point so I missed a few words] And then they left.
And the third time too [Kulanu] brought another guy called eh, Michael. He was also here with his wife for some weeks and then he also left. So in fact at first we Jewish, we Sefwis here we don’t know that even we were Jewish but we’re practicing the customs of the Jews.
Joseph: ... normally when you are with us here too they used to say that it is because of us that, it is because of us that you have travelled from far away to this place. So we thank Gd. And my belief is that, we pray that Gd should send us to the promise land for us to see that he’s the creator.
Rena: He will.
Rena: He will. Just time now. He will. It’s all going to happen. Just with time.
Joseph: Any questions?
SOME ADDITIONAL NOTES TO THE STORY
Remember when I was surprised that the prayer books came from Des Moines, Iowa? Well those were donated by Michael, one of the visitors that Joseph referred to in the interview. Read Michael’s comments and history of the Sefwi Wiawso community here:
Based on the information on the Kulanu website and emails from the community, Harriet and her daughter Maggie seem to have been instrumental in getting this community connected to the outside world. Kulanu is the main portal for people to learn about this community. This website has leveraged funds and donations for the community, it has ushered in volunteers and visitors. And most importantly, it has helped the community feel less isolated.
Gabby and Nathaniel have also contributed to the literature on the Sefwi Wiawso community. You can find it here:
Flipping through the Armah’s Guest Book, a spiral-bound lined 80-pager containing about 3 years worth of guests, you can see the diversity of foreigners who have made their way to the community. I asked Patrick how he felt about having so many guests coming in and out of the house and in and out of the lives of the people in the community all the time. He said he rather enjoyed it. That it helped to legitimize the community and their beliefs to the larger Sefwi community. He laughed bashfully and admitted that he also enjoyed how popular he looked, always taking white people around the town.
I was also curious about how foreigners people are received when they come to teach the community about Judaism. Both Patrick and Joseph had referred to the time when a Rabbi came to the community “and taught them how to pray properly.” This word, “properly”, worried me. It suggests that some of what they are doing is incorrect or misguided. Back home, we are taught how to practice Judaism from our parents, from the community, from Rabbis. We enter the world with an already-established way of practicing Judaism. Whether we choose to follow it or not is a personal choice.
But in the case of the Sefwis, they weren’t born into a community with an established way of practicing Judaism. In a sense, they had to build Judaism from scratch. So as much as it is still Judaism, it’s their Judaism. It is a Judaism that emerged organically and I think that’s what makes it so incredible.
So my fear about foreigners coming in and standardizing their practices is about what will happen if the community abandon the practices that make sense to them? If they abandon a way of practicing that works for them in pursuit of a “right” way, will the community lose its natural uniqueness? Will they abandon their indigenous cultural practices (some of which would interfere with becoming a religious Jew)?
I tried to broach this subject with Joseph and Patrick and both of them dismissed my concern. As did many other Jewish people I spoke to.
Through my discussion with Joseph and Patrick on this issue, I realized that I might be a bit too much of a romantic and a cultural relativist (my words, not theirs). The community is proud, but their pride is not rooted in their uniqueness. Rather, the impression I’m given is that their uniqueness is simply a product of their isolation from the rest of the Jewish world. I don’t think the unique cultures and customs that I found to be so appealing and characteristic to the community, are things they are looking to protect.
Joseph and Patrick were adamant that they don’t feel like people are imposing their own practices and beliefs on them because they are actively seeking this type of growth. They want the community to evolve, they it to move closer into a larger Jewish tradition - the one that is familiar to Jews around the world. I am aware that Judaism is not practiced the same all around the world but there are tenets of the religion that are undeniably ubiquitous.
So there you have it. One version of the history of the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso. I will aim to clarify some of the uncertainties in the story, and keep people updated.
But fear not! I will be continuing the story of my visit to Sefwi Wiawso and I promise more pictures next time.
Epilogue: But Whatever Happened to Bedern?
Patrick said that contact with Bedern was consistent at first but has since died down. Unfortunately, the community does not have Bedern’s current address which means they have very little way of getting in touch with him.
I may make it a mission to find Bedern. Once I’ve found him, I will stage a reading of the script above.