BY MAKWATO SIGANGA
At the corner of Nairobi’s Harry Thuku Road and University Way there is an eight-foot wall. There are no sign boards or posters to inform passers-by of what lies beyond.. But few are curious, and most just ignore the fenced-off piece of land and go about their business.
Every Friday evening and Saturday morning, about 15 to 20 adults congregate behind that wall in a synagogue for a weekly prayer service. They are members of the Kenyan Jewish community that has silently but diligently been part of the country for more than 100 years, from the nation’s days as a crown colony through its emergence as a proud independent state to present-day Kenya.
The Kenyan Jewish community describes itself as coming from a people proud of its history, origins and traditions. Wherever they go, they hold on to their culture, do good by their hosts and ultimately by their homeland Israel. Theirs is a long and colourful journey from their original and diverse origins in the Middle East to Europe, North Africa, North and South America and Australia to a sprinkling of destinations throughout sub-Saharan Africa and eventually to the promised land of Israel.
Between 1895-96 representatives from the day’s superpowers sat around a table in Berlin and carved what was then known as the ‘dark continent’ amongst themselves. The size of the territories allocated to Great Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain depended on their clout in the international community at that time.
There were two colonisers in East Africa: Germany and Britain, whose citizens settled in some of the best parts of the region.. Around 1899 a Mr J Marcus, a Jew described by some of his peers in their memoirs as ‘a man of fire’, fled from trouble brewing in Eastern Europe and found a home on the East African coast.
At the time he had no idea that he would be the pioneer in a minority population that would remain in the country for decades to come. His solitude was short-lived.
Soon after, in 1901, , the Jewish population in Kenya grew by 100 per cent. No one had foreseen such an event, and there were some fears among the resident communities that there would be a strain on the existing resources. In the middle of that year, Michael Harrtz arrived in Nairobi. The known Jewish population stood at two individuals.
Two years later, the boom showed no sign of relenting. In 1903 nine more Jews arrived in Kenya by ship to join the others who were still trying to eke out a living. Most of them turned to farming, others business and some were downright adventurers.
In Glimpses of the Jews in Kenya, Cynthia Salvadori documents the arrival in July of the same year of seven more Jews in Mombasa from South Africa. Two left for other parts of the world; five stayed behind. The book documents 100 years of Jewish history in Kenya, from 1904 to 2004.
Among those who stayed was another pioneer, Abraham Block. In his unpublished memoirs he writes of his early experiences:
“Their experiences were not at all rosy. For a brief period in time, the Jews formed a part of a poor white minority, and those who were fortunate enough to own farms worked their bones off,” write Ms Salvadori.
The Jewish community is proud of its history. And with the history come tales about their courage and luck. In his unpublished memoirs, Mr Block alludes to some of the hard work and luck that existed at that time:
“One morning I walked 17 miles to town and met Lord Delamere at Mr Marcus’ office. I had not a single rupee to my name. I was dirty and dusty. Lord Delamere took a pitiful look at me and asked Marcus why I looked so sad. I narrated my plight to him, that I had recently come to own a farm but did not have much to work with. He took another casual look at me, looked around to Mr Marcus then said:
“Get in touch with one of my farm managers and make arrangements for Mr Block to get 12 oxen, a few dairy cows and put him on a retainer of 100 rupees per month. Charge your services to my account.
Through that act of kindness, Mr Block was set up in his farming business that later grew into an empire, part of which was the Block Hotels chain that included the legendary Norfolk Hotel.
As Jewish immigrants continued to trickle in, the world’s superpowers and the Jewish community at large were trying to come up with a way to deal with rising anti- semitism in Europe. Since early 1900, a temporary home for European Jews displaced by pogroms was being sought. Then the British came up with the Uganda Plan.
Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain first offered 13,000 km2 of the Mau Plateau, which back then included areas around Nairobi, Nakuru, and Eldama Ravine, in response to the violent outbursts against the Jewish minority in Russia. It was hoped that the chosen area would provide a final refuge from persecution for the Jewish people as they fought to establish their own homeland.
In making his case, the colonial secretary argued:
“A vacant part of Maasai land, the Uasin Gishu plateaus, should be handed over to a group of particularly persecuted Russian Jews as a temporary homeland. This is to be a stepping stone for them to the promised land,” he said.
The offer was tabled at the Sixth Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1903. But a fierce debate ensued. Some factions were thinking of taking up the offer, but another felt that accepting the offer would make it more difficult to establish a Jewish state in the then Ottoman Palestine. Plus, the protagonists argued, the Jewish nation would not be able to claim itself as native to the East African highlands because there were no historic or cultural ties between Hebrews and Africans.
Away from the snow-covered mountains of Switzerland, the debate was taking a different direction in Kenya.
During this period, Col Richard Meinhertzhagen, a well-connected aristocrat and a trusted officer of the King’s African Rifles, in a telegram to a friend expressed his thoughts on the possibility of a looming Jewish settlement right in the middle of the already established white highlands.
“…Tate tells me there’s a plan a foot to offer Jews a home on the Uasin Gishu plateau. I hope they refuse it for it is just asking for trouble. The Jews’ home is in Palestine, not Africa. The scheme would only add to the existing political confusion, and God knows there will be enough trouble here in 50 years when the natives get educated,” ended the telegram.
On the same matter, the then governor of Kenya Sir Charles Elliot put his foot down and said:
“I cannot see how the suffering of the indigent and persecuted Jews in Eastern Europe would be appreciably alleviated by settling a few hundred of them in the interior of Africa.”
With these sentiments and hostility on both the parts to be settled and their hosts, the plans were quickly scuttled.
Again, in his memoirs Mr Block says:
“At that time, the impact that the presence of a poor white class would have on the colony was being discussed. We were paupers and owned nothing but the rags on our backs. Yet a 6,000-acre stepping stone had been provided for us in Eldama Ravine.”
The propaganda wars were just beginning.
Roughly around this time, a rumour went round that the Jews were put off by the wildness of the area in which they were to be settled. The root of the matter was a chance encounter deep in the forests and shrub lands of Nandi.
It is said that a group including representatives of the Jewish community, the colonial administration office and a few natives were busy surveying sections of the proposed sites. Suddenly they were accosted by a group of Maasai morans in ochre and glistening spears. A standoff ensued, the visitors, too shocked to fire a single shot at the approaching warriors, stood shell-shocked.
“They were crying out…jumping up and down occasionally shaking their bare spears at us. It took the intervention of our porters to calm them down. The warriors walked off but left the fear behind. That night, we lit huge fires around our campsites to keep off the animals, but many were kept awake by the growls of the lions, hyenas and wild dogs that walked free just metres from where our heads lay for the night.”
The Uganda Plan came to an end in 1905 when the Zionist congress declined the British offer. But this did not halt new arrivals from Europe to East Africa. Tensions in Europe meant that new homes for European Jews had to be found, the harsh conditions notwithstanding. And that visa to anywhere in the world, Kenya included, became a passage to life.
The Jews got involved in different trades but mostly went into farming and general business.
When World War II broke out, Kenya was not shielded from the repercussions. Like governments the world over, the King’s representatives in Kenya resorted to classifying its non-native population into two groups: the allied and the non- allied. The non-allied, composed of Nazis, fascists and Jews were taken to detention camps in Makindu.
At the camps, the situation was so bad that one prisoner wrote to the Hebrew council:
Despite the fact that the Jews, just like the local population and the early British settlers willingly or unwillingly joined the military effort in WWII, society was still segregated. Because they claim European heritage, Jews were allowed to participate in several ‘white’s only’ activities. Still in her book, Ms Salvadori gives the example of cricket. She says Jews were allowed to join the best teams in the league and to even participate in tournaments, but that was as far as the interaction went. But after the umpire brought the game to a close and the players shook hands after a tough game, the Jews went home and the whites proceeded to the country club for the after party.
Discrimination continued to be a major problem.
In 2003 interview with the British newspaper The Guardian Stephanie Zweig, a Kenyan Jew, talked of her memories as a settler in East Africa:
“For the previous six months, my 34-year old father had been working as a farm manager trying to forget that in his former life he had been a barrister having studied only Latin and Greek. He neither knew English or anything to do with cattle and crops. We were Jews in our home country in fear of our lives; in Kenya we were bloody refugees. After WWII we became enemy aliens.” She was referring to events circa 1942.
After this period, the Jewish community in Kenya had grown somewhat. There were members in in Kitale and Eldoret in communities founded by Joel Balabanoff. In Kisumu, too, there was a Jewish population.
The second generation was succeeding in businesses, and by the time Kenya became independent in 1963 the Jewish community had interests in real estate, large-scale farming, the hotel industry and the retail business.
Through out their time in Kenya, the Jews have preferred to keep a low profile and to look inward for everything. But despite this introverted nature a member of the Nairobi Hebrew congregation, Mr Israel Somen, was mayor of Nairobi between 1955 and again in 1957. Another, Gustav Kramer was mayor of Nakuru. That was as far as the community was prepared to go in politics.
“The Kenyan Jews being such a tiny minority group always kept a low profile in local politics both before and after independence. However, throughout this period, they always made sure they had access to the corridors of power,” writes Ms Salvadori.
Today, away from the Nairobi synagogue, the early Jewish settler community has become deeply entrenched in Kenyan life, but a a majority of them are expatriates. Of the original settler families like the Somens, and the Blocks, only a few still remain in Kenya.
The Nairobi Synagogue has slightly more than 100 members who can be individuals, families or couples. The high walls shelter the place of worship and a community hall.