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African culture and religious missionaries


Africa is the continent where the most ancient living cultures have survived until the present day. With the advances made in science, history, and anthropology, the larger public is aware of this simple fact. All humans are descendants of African ancestry, and their own cultures contain elements which can be directly traced to different branches of the great African cultural tree.
When it comes to Judaism, the same is true. We find in Africa the living reminder of 3000 years of uninterrupted Jewish history, which has developped its own branches of Judaism, in virtually all parts of the continent.
The Ethiopian Beta Israel, the Igbo and Maghrebi Jews of Nigeria, the Lemba of Zimbabwe and South Africa, are famous examples of this survival through the centuries, along with the North African Jews who remained connected with their ancestral roots, from Egypt to Morocco.
In modern times, starting from the 16th Century, there has been an ever growing attempt to transplant European religious conceptions into the African societal landscape. Through the relentless work of missionaries, often commissioned by their different colonial rulers, Africans have been exposed for centuries to attempts to eradicate their own cultural traditions, under pretexts of adaptation to the European models of spirituality. The contempt with which African traditions have been held by these missionaries is proverbial among Africans.
For African Jewish communities, these attempts of cultural eradication have in some cases been disastrous. Christian missionary work has left deep scars of self denial in many communities.
The tragic results of this cultural self denial can be felt in the lives of individuals, families, and entire communities.
But this missionary activities are not limited to European Christianity. Unfortunately, we are witnessing similar strategies emanating from within Jewish religious organizations as well. Ethiopian Judaism, which is one of the most ancient form of Mosaic culture, is now on the verge of disappearing. The Kessim, or teachers of this tradition, have almost vanished under pressure from identification to the European model. These teachers, who were in the thousands just 20 years ago, are now just a pocketful of elders with virtually no connection to their youth.
Some rabbis, sometimes with their students of African origin, come to our communities like conquistadors with mirrors and salt, to convince our youth that our traditions and cultures are inferior to theirs.
Using our traditions of hospitality, they do to us what we could not imagine doing to them : ask us to "convert" to their forms of Judaism to become acceptable human beings. Some come in the name of orthodoxy, others in the name of conservatism, and others in the name of reform Judaism, thus exporting their fragmentations into our communities. Igbo Jews would never ask Lemba or Ethiopian Jews to conform to their traditions. Likewise, it would not occur to us to tell European Jews that their culture needs to be replaced. This conquering attitude is foreign to our image of spirituality. Our hope is to have harmonious dialogue and exchange to enrich our knowledge, not to change who we are.

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