My husband and I have been traveling the world together for over 30 years, ever-attuned to the Jewish story. When we went to Africa, our friends joked: “It will be a challenge for you to find Jewish stories among the wild animals!”
“You’ll see,” I said. “I’ll find a few good ones.”
Story Number One
Africa: A Personal Journey
I grew up surrounded by hundreds of books collected by my parents. The ones I loved most were my father’s books about wild animals. My very favorite was “Serengeti Shall Not Die” by Bernhard and Michael Grzimek. They were father and son, both biologists from Frankfurt, Germany. In the 1950s, they were among the first to work to preserve the Serengeti ecosystem, which they believed to be the last wonder of free nature in the world.
I memorized a passage that my father often quoted: “In the coming decades, men will not travel to view marvels of engineering but they will leave the dusty towns in order to behold the last places on earth where G-d’s creatures are peacefully living. Man-made structures can be rebuilt, but once the wild animals of the Serengeti are exterminated, no power on earth can bring them back.”
Some time ago, while I was studying the Holocaust, I learned that in addition to writing books, Bernard Grzimek had saved Jewish lives during World War II. As a high-level official for the Nazi Food Ministry, he provided stolen food to Jewish families in hiding. When the Gestapo suspected him, he fled underground.
My husband and I arrived in Serengeti, Tanzania, decades later and found the graves of Michael and Bernard Grzimek. Michael had died in a plane crashed in 1959 when he was not even 25 years old. When Bernard passed away in 1987, his ashes were brought from Frankfurt to be buried next to his son.
I told the Grzimeks’ story to our friends who traveled with us to Africa, as we watched zebras cross the road, impalas grazing nearby, and baboons. Then, I place two stones on the Grzimeks’ grave.
Story Number Two
Kenya’s 100 Year Old Shul
My grandmother used to say: “We Jews are everywhere.” So, for the fun of it, I Googled: “synagogue in Kenya” and that’s how my second Jewish story of Africa began.
We are indeed everywhere, including Kenya. The Nairobi Hebrew Congregation celebrated the centennial of its first structure in 2012. The Nairobi Jewish community is diverse: secular and observant, Sephardic and Ashkenazi. Congregants come from India and Russia, Morocco, Poland, South Africa and the United States; some are native-born Kenyan and many are from Israel.
The very first Jew arrived in Kenya in 1900. In 1904 the congregation was established and the first synagogue building was completed in December 1912.
Never numerous, Kenyan Jews, however, were remarkably influential in the development of the country. Jewish farmers, doctors, businessmen and lawyers, all helped to bring Kenya into the 20th century, in spite of open anti-Semitism.
Clubs prohibited Jewish members and many private schools would not accept Jewish students until the tide turned during World War II, when the Nairobi congregation played a decisive role in saving countless lives of European Jews. The Board for Kenya Jewry obtaining visas for, and looked after, the refugees.
Vibrant Jewish life was demonstrated by dozens of organizations and societies created over one hundred-plus years in Nairobi. My grandmother would be proud.
Story Number Three
I found my third Jewish story of Africa in the most unlikely of places: the vast plains of Masai Mara and Serengeti reserves. As we drove there, we saw light-skinned, tall, slender people dressed in red. Most wore red togas and sandals, and were equipped with Roman-style short swords. They were the proud Masai people of East Africa, whose mysterious past is enveloped in legends of being a lost tribe of Israel.
Nomadic and highly suspicious of strangers, the Masai were never fond of Europeans. Yet, in 1904, M. Merker, a German official, learned the language of the Masai, earned their trust and collected their legends. The Masai told Merker that their ancestors were slaves in the land of the Nile and escaped through a parted sea, pursued by a vicious ruler. Merker stated, the Masai knew the tales of Adam and Eve, and of Noah and the Great Flood, though under different names.
In the following hundred years, most researchers concluded that Masai did not have Semitic origins, but Merker’s theory that the Masai are one the lost ten tribes of Israel stubbornly continues to float in popular imagination.
We arranged to visit a Masai village. They greeted us with singing and dancing. A couple of young men spoke enough English to communicate with us. When asked about their beliefs, they explained that the Masai believe in one G-d who they call Engai. Engai, they say, has two faces: the first face is a black color, kind and benevolent, bringing thunder and rain, grass for the cattle, and good life for the Masai; the second face is red and fearsome, bringing lighting and drought, famine and death. Engai made the Masai his chosen people and gave them the land of Africa.
As we went around the village, we were told of the traditions curiously resembling those of the Jews: Masai would never eat meat the same day they drank milk; they consider that to be highly unhealthy. The Masai do not have chiefs. Instead, their lives are governed by the collective of elders chosen for their wisdom and moral qualities. Their assembly is called Sanhedrin and the round hut where they get together is called a Tabernacle. When a highly respected elder dies, every passer-by places a stone on the grave as a sign of respect, and after a while a small hill appears on the landscape.
Story Number Four
Home Away From Home In Nairobi
I collected my fourth Jewish story at the end of our trip, when we visited the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation Synagogue and met congregant Barbara Steenstrup who gave us a detailed tour. I had read about the synagogue, but to step into the beautiful building was entirely different. There was something in the main sanctuary’s colors of warm wood, bright blue, and gold that warmed my heart. I could not believe that we were in a shul in the heart of Africa.
We met the synagogue’s manager, a delightful Kenyan named Aggrey Muchene, two travelers from Cleveland, a Kenyan from a neighboring village, and a lady from Baltimore. We talked about Kenya and our families and I thought about the meaning of Jewish identity: expansive and inclusive—it may stretch far beyond Ashkenazi or Sephardic. What is the Jewish Diaspora? I asked myself. Could it be simply defined as a removal from one’s homeland? There is something in us—no matter where we are, we always create a space of cultural solidarity and expression of community—a home away from home—even in Africa.
Irene Shaland expresses her deepest gratitude to Usha and Raj Ahmed, whose knowledge of the region and organizational and professional talents made all the contacts and connections possible.