A Trip To the Jewish Community in Ghana (this post is long)

For Easter break, we got off school Friday and Monday. I traveled far, far West, near the Ivory Coast border, to Sefwi Wiasco (pronunciation completely unknown) to engage in a Passover Seder at the only Jewish Community known in Ghana. My friend, Rachel, found out about it online when she googled, “Jews in Ghana”, or something like that. On Thursday, after class I wished my course mate a happy Easter. She replied with a straight face, “Thanks, you too. And I hope that one day you learn to believe in his resurrection.”

The day before, I ran into two Chabad Rabbi’s waiting outside my hostel searching for Jews to invite to their Sedar. You can tell the are trained to spot out Jews it’s kind of cool. It’s like they have a 6th sense that when they saw me walking they knew I was Jewish. Usually, eye contact means they’re right. And…they were.

They greeted me and handed me a box of Matzah. Turns out one of them is cousins with the wife of the Chabad Rabbi at the University of Wisconsin! Being in Ghana had made me forget about Jewography. These two said they were sent from Israel to seek out Jews, give them food, and invite them for a Seder. Chabad rabbis were stationed all over the world to do so. Pretty neat. As I spoke with one of them, Ghanaian’s driving by stopped and yelled out their window, “Hey! Are you Jew!?”

On the way to Ghanaian Jewtopia, I stopped in Kumasi and spent a night there, enjoying one of the greatest experiences of hospitality of my life. So much so that it deserves an entire post to itself. (Coming soon to an American’s African blog near you!)

In Kumasi, I visited a palace where the chiefs use to live, went to the Zoo, and saw a sacred . The zoo was kind of sad. The animals did not have the best living conditions. My Ghanaian friends’ were excited about animals such as squirrels and turtles. I found that the lizards, donkeys, and beautiful roaming around the zoo with no cage were the coolest animals there.

We visited a sword that has been stuck in the ground for over 600 years. The legend is told that the man who put the sword there stated that when the sword is removed, the entire Ashanti kingdom would no longer be unified. He also had a vision that there would be a hospital built in the area of where the sword was placed. For a long time, the sword was just stuck there, and no one knew the real meaning. A Colonist built a hospital in that area, not knowing that an Ashanti member had envisioned a hospital’s construction hundreds of years before.

Now, there’s an exhibit surrounding the sword. But, before the exhibit existed, Muhammed Ali and other boxers had made attempts to pull the sword out. They all failed. (DUH! otherwise I wouldn’t have gone to see it) I asked if I could try….but supposedly if I were to fail, then the chief would punish me however he wanted. I didn’t want to take that risk…I promised my mother I’d do my best to make it back to the States in one piece.

I met up with my obruni friends and barely made it on the last bus to the Ghanaian Jewtopia. I had been warned by people when I told them I was going there, “Oh be careful! They sacrifice people’s heads there!” We only made it onto the bus because we gave the conductor a “Gift” of 1 sedi to let us budge the line. Fair?! Absolutely not. But, we had to do what we had to do to get there before sundown. Even if it meant a bribe.

We arrived after dark, (even though my friends left Univ. campus at 5 AM!) and found our way there. Joseph, our liaison (who we later found out had two wives and ten kids!), met us, we later met another group that came for Passover. They were a group of 6 obruni’s who were spending a gap year in Ghana in a program through Princeton University. We put our bags down in a room, and then waited.

We waited. And waited. Then, waited. After about an hour or so, we finally asked someone what was going on. They said they were cooking for us so we could have full stomachs before the Passover Seder/Shabbat service began. They served us rice (which is not necessarily kosher for Passover), and then we walked to the Synagogue around 9pm.

What was the Synagogue like?!

Ah! I thought you’d never ask! The synagogue kind of resembled an old school courthouse. It seemed to fit a maximum of 100 or so people. The children sat in the first two rows; the women sat on one side, and the men on the other. The synagogue was at the bottom of the hill, at one of the lowest point in the Jewish quarter. At the front, there were two on each side, a table filled with what appeared to be food for the Seder, and a “”. About 60 people showed up, all dressed in Ghanaian attire. At Saturday’s service, someone was rocking a bright pink tallis. SWAG! I was excited to wear my keepah, since it had been sitting in my closet lonely all this time I’ve been in Ghana and I finally had a chance to wear it! I ended up trading it Saturday night for one made in Ghana.

The service was quite interesting. I sat next to a convert who grew up in Accra but had just spent 4 years in Israeli studying at a Yeshiva. His wife was a born Jew, with Indian/Afghanistan/Polish heritage. I wonder what race their kid is going to choose when he grows up. We chatted about the differences that we experienced.

The sidurs (spelling) seemed normal. They were from America, and the service was read mostly in English, but a fair amount of Twi, or the local dialect of Twi. The rabbi was just not a rabbi, rather a “community leader”. He told the story of Passover in a tone that resembled the way pastors preaches.

Instead of making Matzah that I was use to, they prepared some sort of thick dough from plantains, ginger, and other stuff that actually tasted much better than Matzah. When’s the last time you’ve been to a Seder where they made their own Matzah? They had Matzah and Manishevitz wine, which I believe was delivered to them two weeks prior by some random Jews who like to give away free food. The community leader told the story of Pesach (he pronounced it…”Pee Za”, kind of sounded like a Korean trying to pronounced Pizza. I know that because my cousin and brother have taught English in S. Korea. #randomfacts) Instead of everyone sitting down and eating food on their plate, the ‘‘ presented each food and then gave it to a woman who went around served everyone one by one.

We first said the blessing over the wine, and then wine was served to us one by one. The children did not get grape juice. Rather, they received coca-cola.

After the Rabbi explained the story of Matzah and how if “you are Jew”, you don’t eat bread during Pee-Zah, we ate the food as it was brought to us. The evenings menu:

real , Ghanaian Matzah (pounded plantain dough-like with ginger and gd knows what…but it was TASTY!) , spicy sauce (I think instead of horseradish), (which they said represented manna from gd), (representing sweetness and I think replacing haroset), and some bitter that tasted like seaweed straight out of a polluted ocean. Everything was on one plate and was shared by everyone. The honey was a huge plate that went around and everyone dipped their dirty right hands in and licked their fingers afterwards. Germs are over rated.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Sedar plate, it consists of different foods that all has a representation from the story of Passover. I wish I knew more about it and could explain it…but they didn’t explain it in Prince of Egypt, (or if they did, I forgot) and I don’t want to spread false information. But, here’s my attempt: there is a shank bone on the Passover plate that represents the lambs of the Jews who smeared blood on their doorsteps the night before the 10th plague struck the Pharaoh and the Egyptians. That night in Egypt, holy spirits passed through town, killing the first born child of every family (including the Pharaoh’s son), while PASSING OVER the Jewish homes that had doors with blood smeared on them (Moses had previously advised them to do so). Hence, the name, Passover.

In all of my past Passover Seders, there has been a dry bone on a plate to represent the lamb blood. And nobody ever ate it (I‘m pretty sure). In Ghana, rather than a bone, they had slaughtered an entire goat earlier that day, and they passed out its to the congregation to eat the goat meat that represented the lamb’s blood. The meat was delicious, except I didn’t want to know which part of the goat I was eating, since the girls from Princeton trip explained that they witnessed the slaughtering earlier, and that they were surprised at how little of the goat was thrown aside and NOT cooked. They came around a few times and I ate some random parts that impressed the Ghanaian sitting next to me enough to comment. “Nice job finishing all the meat”. I think he really meant, “I’m surprised a white man like you ate the entire piece of intestine and kidney”.

The eldest men were served first, then the eldest females, then the young boys, and then the young girls. When it was time to look for the afikomen, the community leader presented Elijah’s cup and explained that the child who finds the afikomen gets to drink from the cup. The cup was filled pretty high….I remember thinking how hung-over that child would be the next morning if he downed the glass of Manishevitz. The children were called up one by one to search for the Afikomen, and after about 10-15 seconds of failing to find it, each one became embarrassed and sat back down. I was curious to where this thing was hidden. There wasn’t a lot of hiding places in the synagogue. Finally someone found it and was rewarded with a Coca-Cola, and appeared disappointed he didn’t get to get drunk. How’s that for a coke add!? Some 10 year old Ghanaian Jew finds the Afikomen and are rewarded by a refreshing bottle of Coca-Cola! I should patent that idea. Along with an add ensuring the existence of Black Jews with a picture of Ghanaians eating Matzah.

At the end of the service, everyone welcomed us, and the Rabbi offered anyone the chance to say something to the congregation. I stood up and explained that I was happy to be there, and I was glad to finally have visual proof to tell my friends back at home that Black Jews do exist. I requested the possibility of an arrange marriage, recited to link to my blog, then took my seat.

The next morning services started an hour late, and were mostly in English and Twi. There were 2 or three prayers said in Hebrew, and it was done so by the children. I think it was the Shma, Viahafta, and another prayer that I didn’t even recognize (awkward). The rabbi/leader didn’t know a few prayers, and since the service book didn’t have an English translation, asked the audience if anyone knew it. The service concluded after about 3 hours, and the leader told us to return at 3 pm for an afternoon service/seder.

After the service, we ate a delicious lunch that was kosher for Passover, and went back to the synagogue at 4pm for the afternoon service. When we got there, it was empty. We then learned that it was cancelled because they were busy and had to slaughter the goat so they could serve it at the evening seder that night. So, we opted to stick around and witness the “kosher” ! I took a lot of , but look at your own risk:don’t want to gross anyone out. It was not always pretty. I will say, these Ghanaians did not waste much of the body parts, as about 90% of the goat (minus his head) seemed to be edible. and was roasted. I thought back to the piece of goat that I ate the night before that was not attached to a bone. After watching all of the insides that they cooked, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know what I had ate.

Was is slaughtered in a Kosher manner?

Good question. Even though “I am Jew”, I’m not sure what the exact process is supposed to be according to the Torah, so don’t think so. It was sliced at the neck, only hit once. I thought it was suppose to die instantly, but this goat died a pretty painful death as its blood was drained into a 2-inch hold right next to the synagogue. It took about 7 minutes for the goat to finally stop moving, and then they took it over the fire and began the process with the help of two young Ghanaian boys. These boys definitely knew what they were doing too. It was clear they’d done it before. They definitely can grow up quick in Ghana.

That night at the service I asked the guy sitting next to me if I could make a special request and eat the goat’s testicle. He explained that they save it and give it to the chairmen of the community. Was he sh*#ting me?

We ended up meeting two more Jewish Americans who came just for Saturday night. It was a father who was visiting his son, Eli Evnen, who goes to NYU and is studying abroad in Ghana just like us, but is stationed in Accra and not on campus. I soon learned that Eli and I had several close mutual friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve shown up on each other’s Facebook homepages as “People you may know”. Those piss me off. Unless it happens to be someone I know. He went to camp with my roommate (BOB!!!!) from Madison growing up, is cousins with someone in my fraternity (Caleb Sherman: wusup), has a sister that goes to UW-Madison (Sadie) that I’ve met before, and has the same major as my friend from camp who goes to NYU (Gouncher hope you are reading this!). Jew-ography. Wow. Small world, huh?!

The next morning we “picked” a taxi at 5 am, and after a long day of travel which included a 45-minute Easter sermon in the loudest spoken Twi I’ve ever heard on one of our busses, we arrived back on campus around 4 pm. Great success!

 

So wait, Jeremy-Kwabena?! Are these Ghanaians really Jewish? Where did they come from? How long have they been there? You never told us the story!

 

Oops. Forgot to mention that. On Saturday afternoon, we learned about the history of the community. But, this post is long enough as it is…..

Guess you’ll just have to wait ‘til next time!!

-Yeremyahoo Moshe

PS follow my on Twitter: @Jeremyginsburg

5 thoughts on “A Trip To the Jewish Community in Ghana (this post is long)

  1. Thanks for another wonderful post. Last year we spent our vacation in Miami. It was Passover and the small Surfside hotel we stayed at was filled with a Jewish family celebrating–it was wonderful to watch the festivities at the edge of the beach. The synagogue was just a block away. It’s so interesting to hear and see how religious holidays are celebrated throughout the world. I appreciate all your wonderful posts. – Maureen Devlin (Ryan’s mom)

  2. You are an excellent educator…and a brave soul to ask for goat testicles! You could join Andrew Zimmern on Bizarre Foods (Travel Channel). Keep the stories coming.

  3. Jeremiah, I am so glad you are having such an adventuous time and LOVE LOVE LOVE your commentary! xoxo

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