Jews in Africa Part II - Ancient Black African Relations

Fact Paper 19-II

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

Four members of the Ganda tribe of Uganda, a typical central African musical company. Some African instruments evidence the peaceful penetration deep into Africa by Judaic tradesmen and artisans long before the European invasion. The first musician plays a kihembe ngoma, a percussion instrument common to all cultures. The third musician is playing a kissar, a plucked lyre (Hebrew kinnor - King David's instrument). The lyre was introduced into Africa from the Near East [FP 8: Jews and Music]. The bowed lyres, tube fiddles, played by the second and fourth musicians are also of Near Eastern origin. Trumpets made of animal horns are likewise African instruments reminiscent of the Judaic shofar, used in Judaic religious rites. Photo from the International Library of African Music

Judaic Presence in Darkest Africa

Mr. George E Lichtblau, while on duty as labor attache and political officer at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, came across intriguing references to the Judaic presence in ancient Black Africa. Piqued by titillating allusions to an undocumented aspect of Judaic history, Lichtblau gathered information about this hidden history while carrying out assignments as a Foreign Service Officer for the U. S. Department of State to francophone West Africa. During his travels and meetings with African dignitaries privy to surviving evidence and credible folk-lore of the region, he gathered much information, lectured on the subject, and submitted the information he had gathered to the HHF.

Albeit the tribal memories Lichtblau culled from a variety of sources are not definitive, they are consistent enough to manifest that a significant Judaic involvement took place in Black Africa at a time when Europeans were ignorant of the vast continent beyond the Mediterranean shore. Documentation of Judaic pioneering in the "Dark Continent" is sparse but supportive of the existence of substantial intercourse.

Mr. Lichtblau refers first to the two northern African areas where a Judaic communal presence on the continent is acknowledged as part of Judaic history and experience. He refers to the relatively well-known history in the Maghreb extending from Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria to Libya past Cyrenaica, Namibia, Egypt, the Kingdom of Kush as well as in the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia (Discussed in Fact Paper 19-1).

There are biblical references to Judaic sojourns in Egypt and in the Kingdom of Kush in the Book of Exodus. Also, as far back as the 10th century BCE, in alliance with the sea-faring Canaanites of Tyre and Sidon, kings David and Solomon sought to expand Judaic trade throughout the Mediterranean including North Africa, Egypt, the Arab Peninsula and the Horn of Africa as well as Persia.

The Judaic association with the Toureg tribes who dominated the trade routes across the Sahara, led to contacts with black tribes to the south and down the West African coast. Documentation of this penetration is found in Judaic, Arab, and Christian accounts. They describe Jewish rulers of certain tribal groups and clans who identi-fy themselves as Jews scattered throughout Mauritania, Senegal, the Western Soudan, Nigeria and Ghana.

Evidence of Judaic presence extends as far as an association with the Bantu tribes of southern Africa. Mr. Lichtblau found that some 40,000 members of the Lemba tribe still claim Judaic roots! The association of Jews with such tribes is evident from the names of old Judaic communities south of the Atlas mountains in documents recovered from the Geniza of the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Fustat (Cairo). The names of many of these ancient Judaic communities survived through the Renaissance.

There are other Judaic, Arab and Christian accounts citing the existence of Judaic rulers of certain tribal groups identifying themselves as Jews scattered throughout Mauritania, Senegal and Western Soudan.

For example, among the notable Arab chroniclers citing the existence of these Judaic communities is the 12th century geographer al-Idrisi. Born in Ceuta, Spain, he wrote about Jewish Negroes in the western Sudan.

There was also the 13th century Ibn Khaldun, a respected historian of the Berber tribes. He refers to the Judaic association with the Touregs for trade beyond the Sahara, a commerce facilitated by the Touregs.

Then there was the early 16th century historian and traveler Leon Africanus, a Moslem from Spain, who was raised by a Jewish woman working in his father's household. She taught him Hebrew, and migrated with the family to Marakesh, Morocco, in 1492. Africanus thereafter converted to Catholicism, but remained interested in and reported on the Judaic communities he encountered throughout his travels in West Africa.

Mr. Lichtblau met Bubu Hama while performing his job as an American Foreign Service Officer. Mr. Hama, then president of the national assembly in Niger, was also a prolific writer on African history. Hama affirmed that the Touregs had a Jewish queen in early medieval times; he was undoubtedly referring to Kahena, queen and military commander of the Berbers, tribes that converted to Judaism in the seventh century.

Hama stated that some Judaic Toureg groups preserved their adherence to their faith in defiance of both Islamic and Christian pressures until the 18th century. A fascinating facet of his account is that the Touregs claim to have originated in Yemen, and that the Judaic communities among them likewise originated from the Arabian peninsula. The genealogies of Jewish Toureg rulers, as well as those of the Hausa kingdom, are cited in several of Mr. Hama's books.

In 1976 or 1977, Shimon Peres, leader of the Israeli Labor party and a former Prime Minister, told Mr. Lichtblau about surviving memories of Jewish roots in Black Africa. Peres had just returned from a meeting of the Socialist International during which he met with President Leopold Senghor of Senegal about the normalization of relations between the two countries, Senghor told him that he too had Jewish ancestors!

Indeed, Mr. Lichtblau found records of small Senegalese Judaic kingdoms and tribal groups known as the Beni Israel. They were part of the Wolof and Mandige communities of Senegal until forced to convert to Islam in the 18th century. Members of these groups claim to have been descendants of the tribe of Dan, i.e., the tribe of artisans in gold and other metals. They were still carrying on that ancient, traditionally Judaic occupation. Curiously, the sophisticated jewelry produced by Beni Israel artisans strikingly resemble the exquisite Yemenite products.

Ethiopian Jews likewise trace their ancestry to the tribe of Dan. Some of these transmigrants established communities in such renowned places as Gao, Timbuktu, where UNESCO maintains notable archives. They contain records of the city's ancient Judaic community as well as of the Jews in Banako, Agades, and Ibadan, "a few" commented Lichtblau|, of numerous villages and towns throughout the area which retain some record of Judaic presence. Notable also among the tribes converting to Judaism were not only the Toureg, but tribes from the Peuhl and Ibadya groups. It can be assumed that the metalworking arts were transmitted south and west by the Jewish artisan/traders from Ethiopia as well as by those who had traversed North Africa from Arabia and Judah.

Gold also figures in historical accounts that report that Jewish travelers from Persia had organized exchanges of silk fabrics for gold in the kingdom of Ghana. The tradition of the production of "Kenti" cloth by the Ashantis of Ghana appears to trace back to this intercourse. "To this day," comments Lichtblau, "it is said that the Ashanti words for numbers relate to those in Farsi, a language employed by the Judaic/Persian traders."

"Kenti" cloth designs have much in common with the Persian/Chinese designs on silk. The information garnered by Lichtblau dovetails with the observation made by HHF member Lois Rose Rose of Los Angeles. She reported on the curious use of the "Seal of Solomon" as a standard pattern in ancient fabrics woven in West Africa.

The impact of Judaic influence led to the conversion to Judaism by a number of ruling families in Ghana, notably among the Peuhl, Foulani, Mossi, Fanti and Soughay tribes. Similar conversions had taken place among several Nigerian Yoruba and Hausa groups. No studies of these con versions are extant, yet it is a matter of record that the kingdom of Ghana was ruled by Judaic kings for nearly two hundred years!

Senegalese goldsmiths, jewelers and smiths likewise carry on in a powerful tradition introduced by Judaic artisans. The name of an old Senegalese province is still "Juddala." The Judaic seminal influence on Black Africa is confirmed by surviving accounts of Portuguese and other European visitors who first came to the area in the 14th and 15th centuries; they found that Judaic merchants and artisans had long preceded them. These accounts confirm what was reported centuries earlier by North African and Arab historical records.

"Most of these communities disappeared," notes Lichtblau. "Having existed largely in isolation there was a good deal of intermarriage which for a while reinforced their influence.... As a result they were increasingly viewed as a threat by Muslim rulers... [they] were either forced to convert to Islam or were massacred, with those remaining fleeing to North Africa, Egypt or the Sudan and a few also to Cameroon and even Southern Africa."

A significant factor in the spread of Judaism is the influence of Karaite Jews. A substantial community of Karaites settled in Egypt, and some of their precepts appear to have filtered through Africa. The Karaites rejected adherence to the rulings of the hierarchical orthodox authorities. They played a significant role in the expansion of Judaism and as advocates of a greater religious role for women, factors that became evident in surviving religious customs of the Judeo-Berber communities and among the West African tribes who still claim some ties to Judaism.

The first maps which included large segments of Black Africa were made by Abraham Cresques of Majorka in the 13th century. The Cresque family derived their information from Jewish traders visiting the strategically placed Mediterranean island. These maps, and the tales filtering down from the traders themselves spurred the Portuguese, Spanish, and other European regimes to search for new countries to plunder and enslave in Black Africa.

Mr. Lichtblau came upon intriguing references to "glassmakers in Niger who claim Jewish ancestry and trace their roots back to Hebron." In fact, such craftsmen were found by Rene Gardi, and reported on in his book African Crafts and Craftsmen, which was translated from the French and published by Litton Educational Publishing Co., NY, 1969.

The book contains dramatic color photographs of an African boy selling necklaces composed of vari-colored beads and bracelets executed in fairly sophisticated patterns by his father. "One does not usually expect to read about glassmakers in conjunction with Africa," the author notes, "but in the Nigerian city of Bida the art of transforming miserable beer or medicine bottles into brightly colored bracelets and beads is still practiced."

Bida is the capital of the old kingdom of the Nupe, now a Muslim people. The author visited the glassmakers in an outlying quarter of the city, where "live a few families bound together in a strict guild, that of the glassmakers, who even now know how to guard their trade secrets well... [They] say that they come from the East and are not Nupe. Way-stations in their wanderings were the Bornuland in Chad, and lastly Kano, before they settled down with the Nupe in Bida... The glassmakers are regarded as strangers among the Nupe."

Gardi refers to the research of Leo Frobenius, a German ethnologist, who visited the Bida glassmakers in 1911, an earlier period in which the community's traditions were less distorted by the Islamic and Christian prejudices of more recent times. Frobenius found the glassmakers originally of the Jewish religion. The author also refers to an article by Manfred Korfman, who observed that the workers of a Hebron glass factory (no longer in existence), "produce their bracelets in the same fashion as the people of Bida."

The glassmakers were formed into an autonomous commune. About twelve "huts" [families] were still in operation.. When Gardi was there, the chief was named Daniyalu, "a man who commanded enormous respect." Note that the name appears to be a combination of Daniel and Yahu, transcribed into Yalu. It is a peculiarly Judaic name and construction!

The titillating references to a dimly apparent, symbiotic relationship of Jews with black African tribes indicate that a rich mine of both Judaic and African history remains to be researched.