There are some who believe that an ancient Jewish presence may have at one time existed in Cameroon via merchants who arrived from Egypt for trade. According to these accounts, the early communities in Cameroon observed rituals such as separation of dairy and meat products, as well as wearing tefillin.
There are also claims that Jews migrated into Cameroon much later, after being forced southward due to the Islamic conquests of North Africa.
The main claims of a Jewish presence in Cameroon are made by Rabbi Yisrael Oriel, formerly known as Bodol Ngimbus-Ngimbus. He was born into the Ba-Saa tribe; the word “Ba-Saa,” he says, is from the Hebrew for “on a journey.” Oriel also claims to be a Levite descended from Moses.
According to Oriel 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 admitted that these tribes had not been accepted according to Jewish law, although he claimed that he could still prove their Jewish status from medieval rabbinic sources.
A website called “Jewish Cameroon” provides more details. Oriel describes the period between 1920 and 1962 as “a ‘spiritual Shoah.’ Because of intense missionary activity, it was like the Soviet Union where Jews had no permission for Jewish education, no batei din (Jewish courts), synagogues or sifrei (books of the) Torah. Everything was taught by oral tradition, Oriel says.”
Oriel’s father, the website continues, Hassid Peniel Moshe Shlomo (Ngimbus Nemb Yemba) was a textile manufacturer, scribe, mohel (ritual circumciser) and tribal leader. Oriel says his father was imprisoned 50 times for teaching his traditional Jewish beliefs. In 1932 he ran away from a Catholic school because they had wanted him to train for the priesthood.
Oriel’s grandfather reportedly built a synagogue in Cameroon, but that it is now in ruins. Oriel’s grandfather is said to have been the last gabbai of the synagogue.
Oriel’s mother, who he calls Orah Leah (her given name was Ngo Ngog Lum), had a large kitchen in which milk and meat were separated – by six meters, he says. Shortly before his mother died in 1957, she told him: “My beloved child, one day you will go to ‘Yesulmi’.” It was not till 1980 that he realized that she must have meant Jerusalem.
Oriel left Cameroon in the early 1960s after the country received independence. He studied law and international relations in France.
Oriel formally converted to Judaism some 20 years and was ordained as a rabbi in Israel, to which he made aliyah and where he lived briefly. He now resides in London and prays at the Persian Hebrew congregation and the Moroccan “Hida” Synagogue and Bekt Midrash on East Bank, Stamford Hill, London. You can see a photo of Oriel here.
Oriel remains active in trying to bring Judaism to Cameroon, as well as neighboring Nigeria, and to bring what he claims are “the 10 lost tribes” back to the fold. There is much more about Oriel on the Jewish Cameroon site, including some more outlandish claims and grievances Oriel has against the established Jewish community.
Other reported Jewish tribes in Cameroon are said to include Haussa, descended from the tribe of Issachar, who were forced to convert to Islam in the eighth and ninth centuries, and the Bamileke who are largely Christian today. Nchinda Gideon claims that these early immigrants built synagogues but there are no records of them in Cameroon today.
American actor Yaphet Kotto, whose parents emigrated from Cameroon to the United States, claims Jewish descent. Kotto, who died in 2008, had a starring role in the television series Homicide: Life on the Street and also appeared in films such as Alien and the James Bond movie Live and Let Die.
In his autobiography entitled Royalty, Kotto writes that his father was “the crown prince of Cameroon” and that he was an observant Jew who spoke Hebrew. Kotto’s mother reportedly converted to Judaism before marrying his father. Kotto also says that his great-grandfather, King Alexander Bell, ruled the Douala region of Cameroon in the late 19th century and was also a practicing Jew.
Kotto says that his paternal family originated from Israel and migrated to Egypt and then Cameroon, and have been African Jews for many generations. Kotto writes that being black and Jewish gave other children even more reason to pick on him growing up in New York City. He says that he went to synagogue and occasionally wore a yarmulke when he was younger.
A very tenuous, primarily linguistic connection between Cameroon and ancient Israel can be found through another tribe known as the Bankon who live in the Littoral region of Cameroon. The word “Ban” – also pronounced “Kon” – means “son of prince” in Assyrian, an Aramaic dialect. In her work The Negro-African Languages, a French scholar, Lilias Homburger, points out that the Bankon’s language is “Kum” which may derive from the Hebrew for “arise” or “get up!” Further, the Assyrians called the House of Israel by the name of Kumri.
More recent Jewish presence in Cameroon
Twelve years ago, 1,000 Evangelical Christians in Cameroon decided they no longer wanted to practice Christianity and turned instead to Judaism, embracing practices from the bible. Their informal conversion to Judaism is similar to Uganda’s Abuyadaya Jewish community which, in 1919, also moved towards Judaism even though, in both cases, they had never met any Jews and had no in-person guidance or mentoring in developing their Jewish identity. The Cameroon community calls itself Beth Yeshourun and is very small, with only 60 members in total.
Much of what the community has learned has been via the Internet, including downloading prayers and songs. Some of the community has taught itself Hebrew; others pray in a mixture of French and transliterated Hebrew.
Rabbis Bonita and Gerald Sussman visited the community in 2010. Their description is presented in detail on the Kulanu website. Here are a few highlights from that trip.
- The Sussmans chose to trust the community’s level of kashrut, eating primarily fish and vegetables.
- Community members washed their hands ritually before eating bread and a meal.
- The community was fairly knowledgeable about Jewish tradition and asked the Sussman’s many questions about Jewish law, such as what to eat at a family event that is not kosher, when do you pray the Mincha afternoon service when you are traveling, and must you stand during the Amidah prayers if you are sick?
- The Shabbat service, held in the Beth Yeshourun synagogue, was remarkable similar to today’s mainstream Orthodox Judaism, including the full Kabbalat Shabbat, the singing of Lecha Dodi and even the closing Yigdal prayer.
- On Shabbat day, the community sang a mixture of songs in the local language as well as modern Israeli songs such as Jerusalem of Gold.
- The community prays three times a day and holds Torah study sessions twice a week, using material gleaned from the web.
- The community has created its own siddur (prayer book) of 150 pages, also by downloading content from the Internet.