Where did the Igbo people come from?

The Jewish Igbo in Nigeria Where Judaism grows

"Now let's go to the synagogue. At the door of the synagogue we have the mezuzah. You kiss her before you enter."

Hagadol Ephraim Uba enters the small, simple synagogue. As an Orthodox Jew, he kisses the mezuzah, a written capsule attached to the door post. It is supposed to place the residents under divine protection. Then the man with the white beard leads through the synagogue.

Large pieces of fabric in different colors hang from the ceiling. There is space for a good 50 visitors on white plastic chairs. The windows are wide open so that some wind blows through the small room. In Owerri, the capital of the state of Imo in southeastern Nigeria, it is oppressively hot for most of the year. But it is precisely in this region that more and more synagogues and Jewish communities have emerged in recent decades. Hagadol Ephraim Uba also grew up here. Once he was a preacher in a church. He converted to Judaism more than 30 years ago and is now chairman of the Association of the Jewish Faith.

The Jewish community of Owerri in their synagogue (Deutschlandradio / Katrin Gänsler)

"We belong to the lost tribe of Israel and are waiting for the promise of Moses. He should lead us to the promised land so that we are no longer persecuted. Israel is hated by the whole world. The same hatred affects us."

"We Igbo are the Jews of Africa"

In Nigeria there are no numbers of how many people profess Judaism. The congregation in Owerri claims to have more than 100 members, children and young people not counting. Here, however, Judaism is closely linked to one ethnic group: the Igbo. Between 30 and 40 million people are Igbo. A good 200 million people live in all of Nigeria. Obiora Ike explains how the connection between Judaism and the Igbo came about. Ike is a major Catholic theologian and priest in Nigeria.

"It is a fact that the culture and way of life of the Igbo and Jews are connected. Therefore we assume: Judaism came to Africa via one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe of Gad. We Igbo are the Jews of Africa."

Proponents of this theory have numerous examples ready, explains Obiora Ike - including many prejudices:

"Jews are considered clever by many people, the Igbo too. Like the Igbo, Jews have a great awareness of their culture. Both are good business people. Religion is important for both. Because of these apparent parallels, many Igbo see themselves as Jews. However, it is missing on scientific work on it. "

When entering the synagogue, a parishioner kisses the mezuzah, a written capsule attached to the door post (Deutschlandradio / Katrin Gänsler)

To this day, many Igbo also see themselves as a people without a country of their own. That should be fought for more than 50 years ago. But the War of Independence for Biafra - as southeast Nigeria is also called - ended with up to two million deaths and the victory of the Nigerian army. To this day, many people in the Southeast complain of discrimination and repression, and there are independence movements such as the IPOB - Indigenous People for Biafra. The Igbo also draw parallels to Judaism to reinforce the image of oppression. Prince Emmanuel Kanu, who belongs to the now banned movement IPOB, does the same.

Demand for the independent state of Biafra

"That's where we come from and who we are: We are the Jews from Africa. You can see it in the way we pray, honor God, the way we dress. We care so much about Judaism. We believe in it . And we'll keep doing it until God comes. "

The fact that some Igbo convert to Judaism is often closely linked to the demand for an independent state of Biafra. The 34-year-old Avraham Ben Avraham, on the other hand, is less interested in such a state. The journalist lives in Lagos and works as a "Jewish blogger", as he calls himself. To do this, he visits synagogues across the country. Avraham Ben Avraham converted to Judaism three years ago.

"I was born into an Adventist congregation. My father wanted everyone in the family to belong to the same church. After his death, some became Catholics, others became members of Pentecostal churches. I tried that too. But later I returned to Judaism. "

Not yet recognized by Israel

When they have returned - this is how many people see it: The former Igbo Judaism was ousted by the Christian missionaries during the colonial period. Now it is coming back to life. The Israeli embassy in Nigeria is obviously skeptical. She did not respond to the request for comment. That is probably because the Igbo in Nigeria are not Jews from the point of view of the State of Israel. Only Beta Israel from Ethiopia are recognized as Jews by Israel and the international Jewish community. It's a sensitive point. Because there are various African groups scattered across the continent who feel they belong to the Jewish people. And unlike the Igbo, many want to emigrate. In Israel, on the other hand, the law of return applies. It has allowed people of Jewish origin or faith and their spouses to immigrate to Israel since 1950. And so skeptical Jews ask themselves: How and with whom did these African Jews become Jews?

However, there is also Jewish support for the Igbo in Nigeria - for example from Jewish US organizations such as Kulanu, based in New York. She has been building an international network since 1994 to support small communities around the world. Avraham Ben Avraham is also in regular contact with the organization. Otherwise there is often a lack of support for Nigerian Jews, he criticizes:

"One thing we Igbo Jews lack: recognition by the Israeli government. We are always asked to show a certificate of our conversion. We are Jewish, we have Jewish names, we pray in Hebrew."

"Igbo traditions are not in contradiction to Judaism"

In the synagogue in Owerri it sometimes sounds different. There are not only Jewish prayers there, but also old Igbo traditions. For example, sharing a kola nut. The bitter tasting nut is flatter and smaller than a table tennis ball. Hagadol Ephraim Uba takes some from a basket.

Sharing a kola nut is one of the Igbo traditions (Deutschlandradio / Katrin Gänsler)

"With this nut we welcome someone here in Igbo country. It is a symbol of unity. If you don't offer guests a kola, then you have not greeted them respectfully."

For blogger Avraham Ben Avraham, who is eagerly learning Hebrew and would like to travel to Israel soon, the Igbo traditions are no contradiction to Judaism, even if it looks like it at first. Rather, it is a unity of religion and tradition.

"If we stand up for Judaism, we do the same with the most important Igbo traditions. This includes the power of the kola nut. So when it becomes part of the worship service, it makes a lot of sense. We do not forget our roots. We are Israel, we are the Igbo, we are Jews. "