Into Africa

Regathering the family of God: Imagine a global Judaism that transcends differences in geography and ethnicity. Discussions about “who is truly Jewish” will be replaced with celebrations of the rich, multi-dimensional character of Semitic people around the world!

In order to bring restoration to the Lost Tribes of Isreal, they must first be identified. We have covered the Semitic communities in Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Far East. Now, lets take a look at Semitic communities in Africa.

Isaiah 18:1

“Ah, land in the deep shadow of wings, Beyond the rivers of Nubia!”

The African Hebrew Diaspora, has received relatively little scholarly attention. Yet their is historical and cultural evidence that many exiled Israelites fled to Africa and even sub-Sahara Africa.

The African story parallels that of other Semitic groups throughout the Diaspora. In Africa, as in other places around the world, there are long-standing communities with greater or lesser degrees of continuous Semitic practices. Whether ancient or new, a distinctive trait of African communities results from isolation from rabbinic Judaism. Their Judaism has either been passed on through oral tradition or is practiced as pre-Talmudic Torah-based Judaism. Many of these Semetic communities seek to be recognized by world Judaism.


North Africa: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, & Tunisia – North African, or “Maghrebi” Jews of Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen maintained their faith for more than two thousand years, in some instances surviving violence, political and geographic segregation, and legal status as second-class citizens. After the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, most North African Jews were expelled from their places of birth, along with other “Mizrahi Jews” from Arab states in the Middle East. Some countries still have an active, albeit small contingent of Jews who still practice a unique form of distinctly North African Judaism.

Algeria – Jews have a long history in Algeria. In the 14th century, with the deterioration of conditions in Spain, many Spanish Jews moved to Algeria. After the French occupation of the country in 1830, Jews gradually adopted French culture and were granted French citizenship in 1870.

Bilad el-Sudan –  According to the 17th century Tarikh al-Fattash and the Tarikh al-Sudan, several Semetic communities existed as parts of the Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Sudan, and later Songhai empires. Today, the descendants of exiled Hebrew settlers live in nations such as Sierra LeoneLiberia, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, The Congo, and many other areas.

One such community was formed by a group of Egyptian Jews, who allegedly traveled by way of the Sahel corridor through Chad into Mali. Manuscript C of the Tarikh al-Fattash described a community called the Bani Israel (children of Israel); “in 1402, they {hebrews} lived in Tindirma, possessed 333 wells, and had seven princes as well as an army.”

Another such community was that of the Zuwa ruler of Koukiya (located at the Niger River). His name was known only as Zuwa Alyaman, meaning “He comes from Yemen.” According to an isolated local legend, Zuwa Alyaman was a member of one of the Jewish communities transported from Yemen by Abyssinians in the 6th century CE after the defeat of Dhu Nuwas. Zuwa Alyaman was said to have traveled into West Africa along with his brother. They established a community in Kukiya (an ancient city) at the banks of the Niger River downstream from Gao.

According to the Tarikh al-Sudan, after Zuwa Alyaman, there were 14 Semitic Zuwa rulers of Gao before the rise of Islam in the second half of the eleventh century.

The 16th century historian and traveler Leon Africanus, was a Hebrew-speaking Jewish convert to Islam, raised in a Jewish household by Jewish parents of Moroccan descent. Leon Africanus travelled extensively in Africa south of the Sahara where he encountered innumerable Black African Jewish communities.

There are historical records of small Jewish kingdoms and tribal groups known as Bani Israel that were part of the Wolof and Mandinge communities. These existed in Senegal from the early Middle Ages up to the 18th century, when they were forced to convert to Islam. Some of these claimed to be descendants of the tribe of Dan. Also see Eldad the Danite

Egypt – During British rule and under King Fuad, Egypt was somewhat more friendly towards its Jewish population. Although they were not allowed to claim Egyptian nationality, Jews played important roles in the economy. Of the 100,000 Jews who lived in Egypt before 1948, only a hundred or so remain today. Many Egyptian Jews fled to Israel, with the rest going to Brazil, France, the United States and Argentina.

Morocco – The Jewish community of Morocco had a peak population of 300,000 Jews before 1948. In the midst of the first Arab-Israeli war, riots against Jews broke out, and they began leaving for Israel.

Tunisia – Tunisia has had a Jewish minority since Roman times. The Jewish community of Tunisia received successive waves of immigration over time, mostly from Spain and Portugal at the times of the Inquisition and then from Italy. In 1948 the Jewish population was an estimated 105,000, but by 1967 most Tunisian Jews had left the country for France and Israel, and the population had shrunk to 20,000. As of 2004, an estimated 1,500 remained, particularly on the island of Djerba, noted for its ancient synagogues.

Somalia – The Yibir are a tribe that lives in Somalia, eastern EthiopiaDjibouti, and northern Kenya. Though they have been Muslim for centuries, some of them assert they are descendants of Hebrews who arrived in the Horn of Africa long before the arrival of Somali nomads. These individuals assert that Yibir means “Hebrew” in their language.

Ethiopia – The Ethiopian Israelite presence is said by many to stretch back to the times of King Solomon, well before the Tribes of Israel were sent into exile. Their presence in Ethiopia may have been due to multiple reasons including business dealings and/or political strategy.

Although there are no scriptural references, legends say that King Solomon married the Queen of Sheba, ruler of Ethiopia and had a son called Menelek.  What we do know however, is that King Solomon gave her many gifts in the form of Biblical wisdom and laws which had an everlasting effect on the people of Ethiopia. It is believed that King Solomon sent Israel’s nobles and scholars to accompany the Queen of Sheba back to Ethiopia and Ethiopian Jewry are their descendants.

Esther 1:1

“NOW IT came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus—this is Ahasuerus who reigned, from India to Ethiopia, over a hundred and seven and twenty provinces.”

The trailer below shows incredible footage of the remaining Israelites still in Ethiopia.  They live in hiding and fear of religious persecution.

Bani Israel: The Semitic Presence in West Africa

It is well documented that the most ancient communities of African Hebrews are the Ethiopian, Maghrebi, Mizrahi, and Yemenite Jews of North Africa and the Horn of Africa. However, there is cultural evidence that exiled Isrealites continued to migrate southward into sub-Sahara Africa.

There is a large body of Bani Israel in west Africa that were well recorded by Muslim historians and chroniclers. According to the Tarikh al sudan and the Tarikh al fatash there was a great many Bani Israel in west Africa. Historians state that Bani Israel migrated south into Africa after the Roman Judaen occupation of 70 AD and that many Judaen communities who lived in Egypt and Libya migrated deeper into the interior of Africa. Let’s take a closer look.

The Igbo Tribe – The Igbo Tribe are no small nation. Numbering around 40 million within Nigeria, the Igbo claim they are from the House of Israel. Their story emerges from the Babylonian exile period when the Judeans fled into Egypt. 

The Igbo are one of Nigeria's largest ethnic groups. Among them is a minority of practicing Jews who believe they are descended from the "lost tribes" of Israel. (Courtesy: Chika Oduah.)

The Igbo are one of the larger ethnic groups in modern Nigeria, a nation of 170 million people and over 250 such ethnic configurations.

For much of the region’s history, they have been referred to as “the Jews of Nigeria,” a band of over-achievers who are the source of much of the brainpower of the country and a subject of much persecution.

In the late 1960s, when the Igbo attempted to form a separate nation called Biafra. The resulting civil war had dire consequences for the Igbo but, for a moment, they were on the world’s mind, if only as the victims of an attempted genocide.

The Igbo Jews of Nigeria, who call themselves the “Benei-Yisrael,” are part of the larger Igbo ethnic group. Most of the Igbo Jews live in an area which straddles the River Niger, near the Anambra states.

The Igbo Jews are said to have migrated from Syria, Portugal and Libya into West Africa around 740 C.E. It is claimed that the initial immigrants were from the biblical tribes of Gad, Asher, Dan, and Naphtali. Later, they were joined by more Jewish immigrants from Portugal and Libya in 1484 and 1667 respectively.

Some of the Igbo Jews claim that the river Sambation (beyond which the ten lost tribes were dispersed by the Assyrians) is in Africa.

Possible Migration Routes of Jews into Africa

In a paper distributed by the “Igbo Benei-Yisrael Association of Nigeria,” three possible migration routes of Jews into Africa are proposed:

  1. Through migrations west from the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, and the Sudan.
  2. Through trade and travel of North African Jews within the West African Kingdoms of Mali, Songhai, and Kanem-Bornu. According to accounts from explorers of the region, several of the rulers of the Songhai Empire were said to be of Jewish origin.
  3. Through Jews traveling with Kel Tamasheq (Tuareg) trade caravans from various parts of Northeast Africa into West Africa.

Another possibility described by a 9th century Jewish traveler named Eldad ben-Mahli (also known as Eldad the Danite) is that his tribe, Dan, migrated from the land of Israel so as not to take part in the civil war at the time of Yeroboam’s secession, and were residing in the land of Havilah beyond the rivers of Ethiopia. According to Eldad, exiles from three other tribes in addition to Dan – Naphtali, Gad and Asher, as mentioned above – were with them; these had joined in the times of Sennacherib.

Eldad wrote that the Igbo Jews in Africa had an entire body of scriptures, except for the books of Esther and Lamentations. They knew nothing of the Mishna nor the Talmud; but they had a Talmud of their own. Eldad described a specific law dealing with the rules pertaining to the killing of animals for food.

Jewish communities throughout Muslim-controlled lands suffered greatly and in many cases were destroyed. The Igbo lost whatever written documents and other written traditions that may have existed. The communities strived to maintain at the least a knowledge of their Israeli origin and practice certain traditions in secret.

An early statement on the history of the Igbo Jews was published in the autobiography of an Igbo man, Olaudah Equiano, a Christian-educated freed slave who remarked in 1789 “the strong analogy which… appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen and those of the Jews, before they reached the Land of Promise, and particularly the patriarchs while they were yet in that pastoral state which is described in Genesis — an analogy, which alone would induce me to think that the one people had sprung from the other.” (See the reference here).

Another historic reference to ancient Semitic Igbos was documented in Texas in 1897. An African man, who could read and write fluent Hebrew claimed that his father was a Rabbi and that he was from a large Semitic community in Africa that practiced Judaism. The African man was taken to a Rabbi and it was confirmed that the language in which he fluently expressed was indeed Hebrew. CLICK HERE

The Igbo Community Today

The Igbo are one of the largest Isrealite communities in the Africa. Some researchers estimate there may be as many as 30,000 Igbos practicing Judaism in Nigeria. Many religious practices of the Igbo Jews correspond with mainstream Jewish practices. These include:

  • Circumcision eight days after the birth of a male child
  • Observance of some kosher dietary laws
  • Separation of men and women during menstruation
  • The celebration of holidays such as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Passover.
  • In recent times, the communities have also adopted holidays such as Hanukkah and Purim, which were instituted only after the tribes of Israel had already dispersed.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sent a team to Nigeria between in 1995 to search for the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.” Western rabbis and educators have since sent books, computers, and religious articles to Nigeria. However, the State of Israel has to date, not officially recognized the Igbo as one of the Lost Tribes.

However, the Igbo Jews are not left without help. Jews from outside Nigeria founded two synagogues in Nigeria, which are attended and maintained by Igbo Jews. In Nigeria, there are currently 26 synagogues of various sizes.

A prayer leader at a synagogue near Abuja reads from the Torah. (Courtesy: Chika Oduah.)

The article below was published by CNN on the connection between the Igbo and Israel, please enjoy.

Nigeria’s Igbo Jews: ‘Lost tribe’ of Israel? – CNN – Click here

The Lemba Tribe

The Lemba (A Bantu speaking tribe) live in South Africa. They identify as being from the The House of Israel from Yemenite Jewish descent. DNA tests by Dr. Goldberg, a Duke Professor, show the Lemba’s to have a high percentage of the ‘Cohen Gene,’ a term used to describe the children of Aaron, brother of Moses, and first Priest of Israel. The Cohanim (Priests) are descendants of Aaron.

The below video details the DNA Cohen Genetic study amongst the Lemba.

The documentary below gives a first hand account on the Lemba story and identity.

Emerging Communities

Below is a video from the Abayudaya community of Uganda who align themselves with the House of Israel, but do not claim heritage amongst the ancient Israelites. They have recently gone through a conversion process to officially become a part of the people of Israel. 

Bantu Hebrews – Now, lets take a look at my tribe. My DNA analysis indicates that I am of Bantu decent, originating from the Congo/Camerooon region.

Long ago, the Bantus controlled west, central, east and Southern Africa. The Bantus resisted the spreading of Islam in their region. The Arabs were the first to enslave Africans. The Tarikh al-Fattash describes encounters with Bantu people who practiced Semetic customs. Since the ancient times the Bantus call themselves Yahounds. (yehud-Aramaic Hebrew) meaning ‘Judah’ which is the same name of the capital of Cameroon (Yahounde).

The language in the area is closely related to Hebrew. For instance, the word  “Kongolo” (ancient ‘koungelo) is derived from two Hebrew words; “kun” meaning established and “gelo” or “golo” means exile, today It is called CONGO.

Cameroon – Rabbi Yisrael Oriel, was born into the Ba-Saa tribe in Cameroon. He says there were historically Jews in the area and that the word “Ba-Saa” is from the Hebrew for ”on a journey” and means “blessing.” Rabbi Oriel claims to be a Levite and reportedly made aliya in 1988. He was later ordained as a rabbi by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi and appointed Rabbi to Nigerian Jews.

Rabbi Oriel claims that in 1920 there were 400,000 ‘Israelites’ in Cameroon, but by 1962 the number had decreased to 167,000 due to conversions to Christianity and Islam. He said that although these tribes had not been accepted halachically, he believes that he can prove their Jewish status from medieval rabbinic sources. [Click Here]

The father of Yaphet Kotto, an American actor, was a Cameroonian Jew. Kotto identifies as Jewish.

Trailer: About Jews in Cameroon

House of Israel (Ghana) –  The House of Israel, centered in the southwestern towns of Sefwi Wiawso and Sefwi Sui, is a relatively new Jewish community, but one that may have ancient roots. In 1976, a Ghanaian man named Aaron Ahomtre Toakyirafa recognized that the traditions of his Sefwi ancestors were similar to traditions of ancient Jews. Their story is typical of many communities in Africa: Before Christian missionaries converted much of Ghana nearly a hundred years ago, the Sefwi people practiced many “unusual” traditions, such as adherence to Saturday as a day of rest, dietary restrictions that forbade them from eating pork, the circumcision in youth of male community members, and the isolation of women in the community during their menstrual cycle.

Toakyirafa, along with his neighbor, David Ahenkorah, and others, researched their community and traced their historical origins from ancient Israel, through Mali, the Ivory Coast, wandering throughout West Africa to escape persecution, to their present home in Ghana. Convinced of their Jewish origins, Toakyirafa began to teach about Judaism. After he died in 1991, many thought that Judaism would disappear from the community, but in 1993 Ahenkorah became community leader. He re-affirmed the community’s Jewish identity, reinstituted open Jewish practice, and built a synagogue.

Tanzania –  The Nyambo are a tribe that lives in Tanzania, northern Tanzania, and Southern Uganda as Ankole. Though they have been Christians for centuries, they assert they are descendants of Hebrews who arrived in the Horn of Africa long before the arrival of Somali nomads.

Timbuktu, Mali – There are several thousand people of Jewish ancestry in Timbuktu, Mali. Egyptian Jews began trading with tribes in the northern part of Mali as long ago as biblical times and pushed further and further into the Sahara throughout the centuries. In the eighth century, the Rhadanites (multi-lingual Jewish traders) settled in Timbuktu and used it as a base from which they could solidify their trade routes through the desert.

According to Prof. Michel Abitbol, at the Center for the Research of Moroccan Jewry in Israel, in the late 19th century Rabbi Mordoche Aby Serour traveled to Timbuktu several times as a not-too-successful trader in ostrich feathers and ivory. 

Ismael Diadie Haidara, a historian from Timbuktu, has found old Hebrew texts among the city’s historical records. He has also researched his own past and discovered that he is descended from the Moroccan Jewish traders of the Abana family. As he interviewed elders in the villages of his relatives, he has discovered that knowledge of the family’s Jewish identity has been preserved in secret.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, Jews fleeing Spanish persecution settled in Timbuktu. In 1492, King Askia Muhammed took power in Timbuktu and threatened Jews with execution who did not convert to Islam. Some Jews fled, some converted, and some remained in Mali, suffering centuries of persecution.

However, Malian Jewry has begun to experience a revival. In 1993, Ismael Diadie Haidara, a historian from Timbuktu, established Zakhor (the Timbuktu Association for Friendship with the Jewish World) for the almost one thousand Malian descendants of Jews who have become interested in exploring their identity.

Cape Verde – In 1496 when the Portuguese expelled the Jews from Portugal and forced others to convert, many Cristãos Novos (“New Christians”) escaped to places like the islands of Cape Verde, the refueling stop on the Atlantic Ocean route to the New World. There Portuguese Jews worked as merchants and in some cases slave traders, hiding their Judaism for generations. Ultimately, they stopped practicing Judaism in any form. Descendants of the Portuguese Cristãos Novos and the Moroccan-Jewish Cape Verdeans founded the Cape Verde-Israel Friendship Society in 1995 in order to revitalize the Jewish community on the island.

Do Black Jews Have Roots In The Olive Tree?

So with all these people claiming to be Jewish, then who is a Jew and who is not a Jew? How do we define Jewish diversity?

I believe that just as European Jews are a mix of many peoples encountered during centuries of wandering throughout the Diaspora. Jews of color also have different backgrounds, different life experiences, and different perspectives on their relationship to Judaism. For instance, some Jews of color prefer to be known as “Hebrews or Israelites,” feeling that “Jewish” refers to European Jewry.

The following is a partial list of the various tribes throughout north, south, east, and west Africa who claim to be descendants of ancient Hebrew Israelite nation and have been following ancient Hebrew practices.

  • Abayudaya – Uganda (converted)
  • Ashanti – Ghana
  • Bantu – The Congo/Cameroon
  • Beta Israel – Ethiopia
  • B’nai Ephraim – Yoruba, Nigeria
  • Ewe – Ghana
  • Ibo- Nigeria….
  • Lam-Lam – Timbuktu
  • Lemba – South Africa
  • Maroons – Jamaica
  • Katsena – Nigeria
  • Rusape – Zimbabwe
  • Sefwi Wiawso – Ghana
  • Tutsi – Rwanda
  • Zafin Ibrahim- Malagasy Republic

Next Module 9 – The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade

Next Module 10 – God’s Global Family

For more information about Jews of Color, please CLICK HERE

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