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Kenyan Branch

In a Kenyan village 100 miles north of Nairobi, a small group of homesteaders and subsistence farmers have adopted Judaism as their faith

Jacob Silverman
March 31, 2011
Jacob Silverman
Yosef Njogu, Avraham Ndungu, and other Gathundia Jews in front of their beit midrash and synagogue.Jacob Silverman
Jacob Silverman
Yosef Njogu, Avraham Ndungu, and other Gathundia Jews in front of their beit midrash and synagogue.Jacob Silverman

When Yosef Njogu texted me that a “rider” should be waiting for us in Kasuku, a small trading post a 30-minute drive south of Nyahururu, Kenya, I thought it was a typo or an affectation of the Kenyan English idiom. “He is there,” said Njogu, the man I was going to meet. “He is wearing a kippa.”

Immediately, a slim young man appeared on a motorcycle—the rider—wearing a dark blue, Sephardic-style, knit kippa. I was looking for a Jew; doubtless this was the only one in this patch of rural Kenya. The man smiled and introduced himself as James. He told me to get on the back of his motorcycle, or pikipiki. James put on his helmet. He eased the bike through the trading post’s pitted dirt then merged onto the well-paved main road, going south. The wind blasted our hair and set our mouths into Joker grins.

After a 15-minute breakneck ride, we turned onto a bumpy dirt track. James suddenly hit the brakes to avoid smashing into a goat scampering across our path. On both sides, small shambas, Kenyan farms, grew maize, bananas, and mangos, and raised goats, cows, and chickens. Children, unused to seeing wazungu, or foreigners,in this area, stared as we went by. James parked the bike outside a low wooden gate into a shamba that began at the crest of a low rise and flowed gently downhill. A gaggle of sheep and chickens grazed nearby. This was Gathundia, a tiny village in what Kenyans sometimes call “the interior”—a place away from paved roads and the general stream of commerce, a place where municipal services are rare. Trailed by several children, his wife, and an elderly man, Njogu, wearing a black knit kippa like that worn by James, approached and thanked us for coming. He then introduced us to the people with him, including Avraham Ndungu, the elderly man who I had been told was the chairman of Gathundia’s small Jewish community.

With limited resources—they store water in old cooking-oil jugs distributed by a government food-assistance program—Gathundia’s Jews are carving out their own Jewish identity, inspired by a reverence for an ancient tradition but inflected with local customs. Educating themselves and one another, many of them have become adept at Hebrew and live devoutly Jewish lives while continuing to work as subsistence farmers. They are also one of a number of small but growing Jewish communities in sub-Saharan Africa that look to Mbale, Uganda, home to the Abayudaya, as both a model and a site of pilgrimage, religious guidance, education, and even youth conventions.

A slim man with a lively demeanor and ready smile, Yosef Njogu comes from Eldoret, in western Kenya’s Rift Valley Province. An ethnically mixed town with a population of almost 200,000, Eldoret remains a flashpoint for Kenya’s periodic bouts of ethnic violence. (In the 2007 post-election maelstrom, a mob set fire to an Eldoret church in which people had sought refuge; as many as 50 people died.) In 1994, fleeing violence, Njogu, who is 47 and a Kikuyu, left the town with his wife, Ruth, along with their children and some livestock. They went east, wandering through the Rift Valley and crossing into Central Province; in Gathundia, they met Avraham Ndungu, a 76-year-old veteran of the Mau Mau rebellion, who let Njogu and his family settle on his land.

In Eldoret, Njogu belonged to the Seventh Day of God Adventist Church, where members had been haphazardly engaging with Jewish beliefs and customs. After a visit from some black Kenyans who had been practicing Judaism in Nairobi, Njogu and several other members of his church decided that Christianity was a distraction. With its worship of Jesus, Christianity began to seem polytheistic in Njogu’s eyes, so he decided to commit himself completely to Judaism. “We were after a real Judaism, in our hearts,” Njogu said. As part of a branch of the Eldoret church, Ndungu had been exploring Judaism and later found common cause with Njogu’s vision of an unalloyed Jewish community.

It’s unclear how many black Kenyans practice Judaism. In Njogu’s congregation, which includes a few families in the surrounding area, there are about 50 people. Some of Ndungu’s 13 adult children dabble in the religion; all of Njogu’s 13 children, younger than Ndungu’s, are being raised strictly Jewish. They make some allowances for Kikuyu tradition, like naming firstborn children after their paternal grandparents.

Njogu said that there were a few Jewish families near Nakuru, the capital city of the Rift Valley 30 miles to the west, and they tried to get together with them for major holidays. (Njogu’s family celebrates all Jewish holidays.) In Nairobi, black Kenyans occasionally attend services at the Orthodox synagogue that caters to a mostly expat community (it’s 80 percent Israeli), but members of the Gathundia community had at times felt unwelcome. Harriet Bograd, who runs Kulanu, an organization that works with isolated or emerging Jewish communities, told me that Njogu’s son Samson had been turned away from the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation. When, via email, I asked Charles Szlapak, the unofficial leader of the Nairobi congregation, if he had heard of Gathundia’s Jews, he responded, “To my knowledge, the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation is the only recognized Jewish community between Zambia and Ethiopia. I am also aware that there are places in Kenya where groups of people have decided to call themselves Jewish and even to place a signboard outside a building, calling it a synagogue.”

Later I met with Maggie Jonsson, the Nairobi congregation’s community coordinator, who said that some black Kenyans prayed at the synagogue—and were welcome—but she prevaricated when I asked about the congregation’s attitude toward facilitating black Kenyans’ conversion to Judaism: She cited the congregation’s lack of resources (they have no permanent rabbi), questioned the motives of those wishing to convert, said that potential converts should study in Israel or the United States, and later declared that just as people can’t choose their family members, they should not be allowed to choose their religion. At one point, she allowed that the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation might have to revisit its attitude toward converts if the congregation hopes to survive.

For Njogu, it has not been a problem being Jewish in a devoutly Christian area, where neighbors are friendly. “This is a peaceful place,” he said. Notably, the area is predominantly Kikuyu, Njogu and Ndungu’s ethnic group, and it lacks the persistent ethnic tension of Eldoret.

In the past, particularly during colonial times, there have been other informal Jewish movements among black Kenyans. According to the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation’s official history, Glimpses of the Jews of Kenya, the town of Ol Kalou, which is near Gathundia, contains the remnants of “Mt. Zion Synagogue,” established by a black community in the pre-independence era. As with many African ethnic groups, particularly in East Africa, the “lost tribe” label sometimes gets tossed around by scholars and even politicians; the Kalenjin and Meru have both been cited as such, the former by Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin who was Kenya’s second president. The Meru are a Bantu tribe and, like some other Bantu peoples, the Meru have a bit of folklore that describes their escape from bondage under a brown-skinned people and a subsequent flight across a parted body of water referred to as a Red Sea. In Customs and Traditions of the Meru, Daniel Nyaga, a Kenyan scholar, says that he heard the story from multiple people who had had no contact with the Bible.

When we entered Ndungu’s homestead, it was late in the afternoon on a Friday in early February. The sun hadn’t yet begun to set, but I was anxious to begin taking photographs in case the community’s observance of Shabbat included a prohibition on the use of electricity. (I soon learned that the homestead lacked electricity and running water, although the nearest shamba had both.) We were about 30 miles from Nyahururu, which, at more than 7,500 feet, is Kenya’s highest city, and the air was cool here in the highlands despite our proximity to the equator. The wind blew in occasional gusts, and Ndungu’s 23 acres stretched to the east, toward the verdant Aberdare Range.

Ndungu’s homestead is dotted with small wooden or concrete buildings with corrugated tin roofs; most are clustered together in the main compound. Many of Njogu and Ndungu’s relatives are scattered among these buildings, some of which also are used for grain storage and cooking.

Njogu pointed with evident pride to a structure standing about one hundred feet from the gate. At first I thought that this building—with its spindly wooden posts, semi-transparent, white plastic tarpaulins for roof and walls, and dried palm fronds laid above—might be a sukkah. Instead, I soon learned that it was the community’s beit midrash and synagogue, words that were also daubed in blue paint on either side of its entrance, along with two menorahs. Bottle caps had been used as washers, which, along with nails, kept the tarps bound to the posts.

Inside the synagogue, several wooden benches sat on either side of a center aisle. At the front of the room stood a wooden podium covered with a red fabric. What appeared to be an old vinyl seat cover had been painted with a Star of David and tacked to one of the building’s posts. A soft diffuse light filtered through the tarp-walls, and the dried palm fronds overhead resembled a thin layer of dirt scattered across the roof.

Njogu gestured to an area just beyond an abandoned greenhouse. He said that he and Ndungu hoped to build a permanent, brick-and-mortar synagogue there. They wanted it to serve as a beacon attracting other Jews in the region, including the families who lived near Nakuru. “We want it to be a place for Jews to rest” and pray, Njogu said.

Before Shabbat services began, a cavalcade of children arrived, ranging in age from about 6 to 18. There were perhaps a dozen of them, but they came and went—as they would throughout the night—with names like Daniel, Naomi, Eliyahu, David, Yitzhak, and Judith. Some were Njogu’s children, others were of unknown provenance, but they were universally excited to see unusual visitors. No white Jews had ever visited Ndungu’s homestead, and it was likely that the children rarely saw white people at all. The boys wore kippot, pants, and collared shirts, the girls long dresses and blouses, their hair plaited.

We assembled in the synagogue—Njogu and Ndungu, their wives, about 10 children, James, and the wife of one of Ndungu’s sons, who works in a faraway village. Although Ndungu was the leader of the community—Njogu often referred to him as “Mzee,” an honorific widely used for older Kenyan men—he sat in the back while Njogu and his 16-year-old son, David, led the service. Njogu and David’s Hebrew was impeccable, although their Kenyan accents caused them to sometimes chop off portions of words, like when they made the throaty “ch” into a hard “k.” The younger children made themselves heard during most prayers. The melodies were all Western. The women’s high voices added an almost keening sound.

At the end of services, we all wished one another Shabbat shalom and filed back to Ndungu’s house. After the Ha Motzi (in lieu of challah, David tore up chapatti and passed it around) and Kiddush and a couple of songs, dinner was served: boiled chicken, cabbage, and chapatti. Someone brought in a bucket of roasted maize. Each child took an ear and began eating. Only Ndungu and a male neighbor who had arrived ate chicken, one piece for each man, and no one else touched the cabbage or the chapatti. The chicken had been one of the dozen or so that Ndungu owns.

On Saturday, after Ndungu’s daughter-in-law served us hot chocolate (they called it “strong tea” and loaded it with sugar) and chapatti, Njogu and Ndungu welcomed arrivals to morning service. They put on two beautiful white tallitot with blue embroidery. We used Conservative prayer books, some stamped with the seal of a synagogue in Swampscott, Mass. When it came time for the Torah portion, Njogu offered a short introduction in English: We would hear Parashat T’rumah, a highly detailed account of how to build and decorate a Tabernacle. Njogu handed me an English-language Tanakh, its cover barely holding on, and I opened it to Exodus 25:1. A man named Paul, who lived nearby, came to the front of the room and read the Torah portion from a Kikuyu-language Christian Bible.

In my conversations with Njogu and others, it became clear that the Jews here were striving to emulate the Abayudaya in Mbale, Uganda. The Abayudaya provide prayer books, kippot, and Hebrew workbooks, as well as conversions. And although some of the Gathundia Jews expressed a desire to visit Israel, Mbale was both more accessible and more relevant to their own lives—the nexus of the East African Jewish world.

Some young men from Gathundia, including two of Njogu’s sons, have received scholarships to the Abayudaya high school, and Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the leader of the Abayudaya and likely the first ordained black African rabbi, is, if not the unofficial leader of the Gathundia Jews, then certainly a hero to them. They call him “my rabbi” and “Rabbi Gershom.” Ndungu presented me a photo of Sizomu posing with his family, and Njogu showed off a scrap of paper with the schedule of Sizomu’s installation ceremony. It is the deeply held hope of many in the community that one of theirs might go on to study at Sizomu’s yeshiva. A woman named Naomi approvingly relayed the story of a Ghanaian Jew who studies at a yeshiva in Mbale and returns to Ghana periodically to instruct his people in what he has learned. The 100-strong community of Ghanaian Jews supports him, paying for his studies and his flights.

“We want to be part of the Jewish commonwealth,” Njogu told me late in my visit. The Gathundians’ path toward Judaism has been quixotic, for some a flight from Christianity and ethnic conflict, and with some missteps and a great deal of self-education. But it has also been faithfully pursued, visible in the Hebrew chalk scrawlings on the wall of Ndungu’s home, their makeshift synagogue, and the Hebrew worksheets that Njogu and others have filled out by lamplight. It has also been a journey—amidst displacement and poverty—toward self-betterment and intellectual inquiry. I asked Njogu which Jewish books he might want, if I were able to send them. His eyes widened, and he answered, “A midrash of Genesis.”

Jacob Silverman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and book critic. He is also a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review.