After completing her fifth prayer at the mosque one Friday evening this September, Fatimata Diallo made her way to Kol Yehuda, Ivory Coast’s first synagogue, where she recited her blessings in Hebrew during Shabbat services.
Born and raised a Muslim, the 70-year-old’s life took a profound turn 10 years ago when she first heard about the Torah. She not only learned Hebrew but also adopted Orthodox Jewish practices, embracing Judaism alongside her Islamic faith.
In Cote d’Ivoire, Judaism is fairly new, dating back to less than half a century. Yet in the heart of Abidjan, the economic capital of the West African country, other Ivorians, like Diallo are joining a small, emerging Jewish community.
With the financial support of Kulanu, a New York-based organisation that seeks to bring Jews from isolated and emerging places together, Yehouda Firmin, leader of the Ivorian community, has been teaching the readings of the Torah and Jewish practices since 2001. There are now at least four different independent Jewish communities in Abidjan, each with their respective synagogues.
Today, sub-Saharan Africa is still the region with the lowest Jewish population in the world and most have not been recognised by Israel. Like in most African nations, it is hard to quantify the Jewish community. Firmin estimates that there are about 300 people who attend the religious services at the Kol Yehuda Synagogue and the other three Jewish communities estimate between 30 and 230 members each.
In Cote d’Ivoire, nearly 43 percent of the population are Muslims while Christians account for about 40 percent of the population. This has played a significant role in the political landscape centred on a rivalry between current President Alassane Ouattara, largely supported by Muslims in the north, and his predecessor and rival Laurent Gbagbo, supported by Christians in the south.
Like Diallo, many other Ivorians with a Christian or Muslim background who are interested in Judaism have integrated both sets of practices into their lives. Kulanu representatives say one reason for this is the difficulty of fully incorporating all Jewish traditions and practices in Africa. Another is that these new converts face potential isolation by those in their community who, due to their unfamiliarity with Judaism, erroneously associate the religion with witchcraft.
Kulanu co-founder Bonita Sussman explains that the internet has helped in spreading the teachings of the Old Testament across sub-Saharan Africa, where some see the expansion of Judaism as a way to dissociate faith from imperialism.
“They google Judaism and they, too, find it interesting,” Sussman said, referencing her conversation with multiple newly converted Jews across the region. “They admire Israel and they admire that the Jewish people were able to build their own state after the Holocaust. After their colonial experience, they could learn from it, and build their own country.”
Since 2012, Kulanu has been sending Torahs and books about Judaism to the synagogue. The organisation also brought a rabbinical court to perform 40 conversions and participated in Cote d’Ivoire’s first Jewish wedding ceremonies, marrying six couples. “We’re not there to change their practice,” Sussman said. “We’re here to put them on the map.”