Ghana’s deep spirituality points some, joyfully, back to Judaism
It’s Shabbat afternoon in the outskirts of Sefwi Wiaso, a small town in the southwest corner of Ghana. The sun is so hot that all people can do is find a spot in the shade and wait for it to cool down. Six members of Ghana’s Jewish community sit on the porch of the guesthouse, prayer books open on their laps.
They’ve been debating for the past three hours what Judaism says about someone who lives too far away from the synagogue to walk. Is it better to take a taxi, thus violating the Sabbath, in order to attend synagogue? Or is it better to observe eschew motorized transportation on Shabbat, in keeping with the strictures of Jewish law, but miss celebrating the day as a community?
Ghana’s Jewish community currently numbers about 60 members, all Ghanaians from the Sefwi tribe. Some scholars believe that the Sefwi tribe descended from Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 and made their way to Morocco. From Morocco, many Jews were involved in the trans-Sahara trade, and there have been archaeological discoveries of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues in countries like Mali and Gambia. The Sefwi believe that their ancestors were Jewish. Though through the centuries of assimilation they lost the name “Judaism,” but they have maintained many traditions that mirror those of Judaism.
The House of Israel congregation in Ghana started in 1977, when a local man in Sefwi Wiaso named Aaron Ahotre Toakyirafa had a vision that he was Jewish, part of the lost tribe of Israel. Toakyirafa slowly gathered a small community of followers who tried to follow Judaism as closely as they could, relying on the Old Testament. In the 1990s, the community began to reach out to the wider Jewish world through organizations like Kulanu, which supports isolated Jewish communities and later, Be’chol Lashon, which promotes a diverse spectrum of Judaism.
Kofi Kwartengy, who has been a leader in the community since 1992, highlights old Sefwi traditions such as celebrating the Sabbath on Saturday rather than Sunday, and prohibiting all forms of work during the Sabbath. Sefwis also observe circumcision at eight days, menstrual purity laws, and coming of age ceremonies at 13.
Ghana is a very religious and spiritual place. According to a 2009 Gallup Poll, 95% of Ghanaians said religion was an “important part of daily life,” compared with 65% of Americans and 27% of people in the United Kingdom. Approximately 70% of Ghanaians are Christian, while 18% are Muslim and 5% hold traditional or animist beliefs. The south is majority Christian, while the sparsely populated north is majority Muslim.
The constant search for religious meaning is woven deeply into the fabric of the country, which had traditional animist religions until Christian and Muslim missionaries traveled throughout the area.
This spiritual urging is what brought most of the Jewish community to the one-room synagogue in Sefwi Wiaso. Once they join the Jewish community, they say, they feel they have returned to the religion of their ancestors.
“I asked my grandparents about our history, and they told me that hundreds of years back, we also observed Shabbat, from Friday to Saturday, nobody was allowed to work on a command issued by the [Sefwi] king himself,” said Angel Wilberforce Tetteh, 29, who works at an herbal clinic in the town. “Most of the people in Ghana feared the Sefwi [tribe], because whenever they went to battle, there was always fire, great smoke, thunder and lightning that led them.”
Tetteh joined the Jewish community a year ago after a 15-year spiritual journey the led him from Seventh Day Adventist to Hinduism to Buddhism to Hare Krishna and finally to Judaism.
“I found that God is one, God is indispensable, and that I need to search for one God,” said Tetteh. He tried out various religions, and was attracted to Judaism after reading the Old Testament and finding that his grandparents’ description of their traditions dovetailed with Jewish traditions.
Community leader Kofi Kwartengy turned Tetteh away three times, as is customary to do with people wanting to convert to Judaism. But Tetteh was persistent, finally coming for Shabbat, and then Passover services. “I became so excited to be part of the community, to join hands with them,” said Tetteh.
A path littered with obstacles
Although there is freedom of worship in Ghana, the spiritual journeys that led individuals to want to join Judaism have also been met with a lot of suspicion and outright discrimination.
“I was a Seventh Day Adventist, but I wanted to find out things like, who is the Creator? Why do we worship like this?” said Richard Owuse Ansah, 32, who is the acting community secretary of the Jewish community. “When I asked questions in Church, it was hard for them to give me answers.” A period of deep research into the Bible led Ansah to identify with the Jewish people because it closely followed his desire to have a direct connection with God, and he decided to join the community.
“I had a shop where people bought things, but when I declared that I’m leaving my former church, people called me names and stopped buying from my shop,” said Ansah. “They don’t like other religions, especially Jews, because the Jews killed Jesus, they are evil, they planned bad things. They thought I’d bring juju [bad luck].”
After Ansah affixed a mezuzah to the door of his room, his landlord asked him to leave. Ansah eventually had to close the shop and now works as a hotel receptionist, though he will soon travel to the Gulf for a temporary job.
“In Ghana, we have freedom of worship, we don’t have problems with our neighbors, and no one interrupts our festivals,” said Kwartengy, the community leader. “We say no to Jesus, which causes conflict, because it’s not often done here in Ghana.”
Michael Owu Amsah (no relation to Ansah), a nurse at the local government hospital who will be the community secretary after Ansah leaves for the Gulf, said the decision to join the Jewish community can often cause rifts within families. He recalled a family event where his relatives, who are all Seventh Day Adventists, sat around discussing the Bible. “When I tried to join in, my father told me to go away,” Amsah recalled. “You don’t even know what you’re talking about!” his father yelled. “They think we have gone astray, because they have been taught about Jesus Christ. They think we’re off the track, that we don’t belong in the world.”
Selina Addae was a Catholic until Tetteh, her boyfriend, introduced her to Judaism last year. “In Christianity, Jesus tells you to pray to God, but here I see they are praying to God directly and not through Jesus, and I’m very happy about that,” she said. “I feel what we are doing here is similar to our ancestors.”
Her family, however, was less enthusiastic. “At first, they weren’t agreeing with me that I should come and worship [Judaism],” she said. “They told me if I want to worship with the Jewish community, they would not take care of me anymore. I didn’t mind them, because I told them we have freedom of worship in Ghana, and I came anyway. All of our family members are Catholic, so they didn’t want me to be out of the Catholic worship, that’s why they were angry.”
In the past few months, Addae said her relationship with her parents has improved and she still lives at home.
A time to grow
Kwartengy, who is one of the longest-serving leaders of the Jewish community, is also concentrating on ways to build up his community. A main challenge is its isolation, both physically and spiritually, from international Jewish communities. He longs for a local Jewish school, so the community’s children can stop attending Christian and government schools. He also wants to promote vocational and higher education, and improved access to technology like solar panels and computers. “Our community members need more work to do, basic problems to lift us out of poverty,” he said.
They’ve already found one fundraising method: traditional Ghanaian fabric challah covers, hand-tailored by community member Ben Baidoo and sold abroad online. Sales from the challah covers helped build the synagogue and guesthouse.
Among some emerging African Jewish communities, such as Kenya and Uganda, there is a strong desire to convert through internationally accepted Orthodox or Conservative Rabbinical Courts. But many of the Ghanaian Jews feel ambivalent about a formal conversion ceremony. Currently, if someone wants to join the Jewish community, they are usually turned away three times, the traditional process for a convert. But a prospective member who persists can join the congregation with no official ceremony. “If you believe and want to worship with us, then you can,” said Ansah.
Ansah added that the community wasn’t really sure what a conversion ceremony entailed, though it hopes to find a rabbi somewhere in the world that can act as a spiritual adviser and help provide guidance for their hours-long spiritual discussions over halacha, or Jewish law.
There is also ambivalence about “proving” that their ancestors were Jewish to the wider Jewish world. Janice Ruth Levi, a history PhD candidate at UCLA, said that when she had mentioned African Jewish scholar Prof. Tudor Parfitt’s DNA testing, which determined that the Lemba tribe of Zimbabwe is “genetically Jewish,” members of the Sefwi Jewish community were uninterested. Their Jewish identity is “faith-based,” said Levi. “Blood testing couldn’t tell you if you ate pork or didn’t rest on Saturday,” she said.
The whole world is a narrow bridge
The Sefwi Wiaso community has also captured the hearts of Diaspora Jewry. Because Ghana is such a popular tourism destination due to its political stability and status as a middle-income country, many Jewish tourists have found their way to the Sefwi Wiaso synagogue over the years. They have a full set of the Conservative Movement’s Sim Shalom prayer books donated by the Tifereth Israel Synagogue in Iowa. Bookshelves in the synagogue library are crammed with donated books for adults and children about Jewish holidays and traditions.
The community is the subject of an upcoming documentary film by Gabrielle Zilka, a book about emerging Jewish communities in Africa by Nathan Devir, and PhD dissertation about the historical journey of Jews throughout West Africa to Ghana by Levi at UCLA.
Dozens of tourists visit the community every year, tasting the traditional fufu maize dish and joining the community for Shabbat prayers.
“We’ve had a lot of visitors from the US, UK, Italy, and Israel,” said Ansah, who is responsible for coordinating visits as the community secretary. “People like to see what we do, so it’s not that strange that people want to come and see us. People want to find out if we’re truly Jewish. It’s up to them to decide what they think, but for us, we believe that we are.”
During the services, community members recite the weekly Torah portion in Twi. Twi is the lingua franca in Ghana, although each tribe speaks a local language. The Twi translation of the Old Testament is more accessible to the community, although it does have a Hebrew-language Bible written on a donated scroll made of teh traditional animal-skin parchment. They read many of the prayers in English from the Sim Shalom prayer book.
“Some of the prayers we change into Sefwi, we pray in Sefwi and sing them in local languages,” said Kwatengy. “We worship by praising God, giving thanks to the Creator, giving glory to the Creator.”
Two Jews, four opinions
Sefwi Wiaso used to be the only place in Ghana with a synagogue, but that’s no longer the case.
Until 2015, Alex (Aharon) Armah, 37, was the spiritual leader of the Sefwi Wiaso community. He studied in Uganda with Abayudaya Rabbi Gershom Sizoumu for four years, with sponsorship from B’chol Lashon and Kulanu. He returned to Ghana two years ago. About a year ago, Armah left Sefwi Wiaso to guide a new community called “HaMelekh HaKodosh Temple,” led by Moshiack Avinger, whose father is Israeli and whose mother is Ghanaian.
Avinger has tapped into a growing spiritual curiosity in Ghana about Judaism. According to Armah, there are already more than 200 members of his new community. Armah said they are not part of the Sefwi tribe, so although they don’t have the ancestral connections, they feel a deep spiritual connection to Judaism.
“For the festivals, they have read about it in the Bible, but they haven’t celebrated it before,” he said. At first, Armah said there was some tension between the Sefwi Wiaso community and his new community, which is located near Nsawam, about an hour north of Accra. Sefwi Wiaso is approximately an eight-hour journey northwest of Accra.
Armah hopes to study for an additional three years with Sizoumu for rabbinical ordination so that he can become Ghana’s first rabbi.
How do you say Shabbat Shalom in Sefwi?
In Sefwi Wiaso, many of the stores in the village next to the synagogue are shuttered on Saturday, as most of the surrounding community is Seventh Day Adventist and does not work on Saturday. The rural silence is only punctured by sporadic noise from roosters, or goats, or children playing. A feeling of Shabbat rest settles across the village, as the group on the porch flips through various books, trying to find an answer to their question.
What about cooking, in a village where people cook over the fire and there are few refrigerators? How can you ensure that food cooked prior to the Sabbath is still safe to eat on Saturday afternoon, if you can’t reheat it over the fire as is normally done with leftovers?
It doesn’t placate them to know that Jews across the Diaspora have been struggling with this same issue for decades. Which is more important for Shabbat – to celebrate together, as a community, or to refrain from motorized transportation? How much to assimilate, how much to be part of the world — and how much to isolate in order to observe the ritual laws?
As the sun sets in Sefwi Wiaso, the community gathers for a Havdalah service marking the end of Shabbat. Esther, Kwatengy’s daughter, wins the competition among the kids to hold the candle aloft. They sing Debbie Friedman’s Havdalah song, a tune familiar to many US Jews, swaying in time to the music.
On Sunday, the community comes back together for morning prayers, where they take turns wrapping tefillin. Tetteh tries putting on tefillin, his third time ever, with the assistance of Kwartengy, who looks on like a proud father.
“When I put on the kippah and tallit and tefillin, it draws me close to God,” Tetteh said, who added that he finally feels like he is home after a 15-year spiritual search. “When I recite the Shema, I feel so excited inside myself. I am so happy that I’m so close to God, and God will hear me directly.”