Sunday, 13 May 2012

Ol Kalou jewish community near Mt Kenya

This account of my visit to the jewish community of Ol Kalou is long and will appear over the next few days. I will be posting pictures but first need to sort out some technical problems.


Getting to this tiny jewish community situated near Mt Kenya took not a little effort and time, not least thanks to KLM which landed late at Schipo airport and then refused my boarding the connection to Nairobi. With KLM there's often some problem or other, but at least I was put up in a pleasant hotel after all the formalities. Of course there were a group of Israelis also staying in the hotel. Whenever travelling I usually manage to find an Israeli to pass the time of day in  hebrew with. And that's one of the reasons that people think that Israel is a massive country. It's so easy to meet young Israelis wherever you travel (there's a tradition in Israel that upon finishing army service an extended world trip is undertaken).

So after a night's rest the 10 hours or so flight to Nairobi was uneventful. With my super slow walking pace I managed to reach the very end of the queue for the police desk, which meant another hour getting into Kenya. Now they take your fingerprints which slows the process down further. The more you know about the country you arrive in the better as each third world country visited can otherwise involve a painful learning curve.

After making a trip to the very well guarded, and hopefully safe Israeli embassy in Nairobi, to get some books, pamphlets and maps (Thank you to both the UK and Nairobi embassies) and having walked around the capital I feel I now know the place better. Having walked much of the center of Nairobi during the day and in the evening, I believe it isn't half as dangerous as those pundits posting on the different travel forums would have you believe as long as you keep your wits about you. With a bit of common sense such as not going into unlit areas at night, finding out the lay of the land from locals, and keeping to the main streets, the people to fear are the aggressive beggars and those cunning people who sidle up to you and find some chat up line to hook you into a conversation, who stick like glue and can indeed make your life miserable. One fellow's chat up line was about how bad racism was in the UK. Managed to eventually slough him off especially as I believe the laws in the UK aren't too bad on that score, and they are enforced unlike in african countries where a little bit of ethnic cleansing and the killing of hundreds at election time doesn't go amiss.

 'Downtown' Nairobi is in the feared River Rd/Latema Rd area. During the day when walking there I didn't see any other 'Mzungu' or 'whiteys'. They keep solidly to the 'CBD', the 'Central Business Disctrict'. Wherever you walk in this area and indeed in Kenya and Uganda you will hear this appellation for white skinned people. It's usually not badly meant,  just a greeting, although one man while was writing this was very upset to see a mzungu walking around with a black lady. People in the restaurant were smiling, so the man's distress does not seem to be shared by many people.You don't want to visit the downtown area beyond River Rd after dark however as then it really is dangerous. Walking around there I saw no white faces during the day either.

I thought i'd seen it all until I was chased part way up the street in the downtown Latema Rd area during the day by a half crazed woman carrying a baby! My offence had been not to donate to her cause. The sad fact is that it is impossible to give everyone who asks, and the street beggars are especially difficult as care needs to be taken when giving so as not to be overwhelmed by a crush of those who pile on to receive their share. A crowd can materialise out of nowhere when one of them receives a donation.

Once a group of expectant kids suddenly mobbed me at which I threw all the coins I had in the air behind the throng. The throng evaporated in a flash and became instead a feeding frenzy, allowing a (somewhat) quick get away. Being mobbed in a third world country is not pleasant especially when knowing that there could be pickpockets in the crowd. And a group of pickpockets going in for the kill is something difficult to emerge financially unscathed from.

Luckily the most one especially professional group of kids got off me a few years ago was a bottle of water out of my back pocket. Although they beckoned me back to retrieve it as I receded from their sight I felt little compulsion to take up their kind offer. The group didn't try very hard to follow me partly as they were territorial, working just the particular part of the street around my hotel, and partly because I had become a different kettle of fish since the last time I met them. I hope they didn't fight too much over their share of my tiny bottle.

I had learned a technique how to deal with the pickpockets after they almost succeeded the last time I emerged from my hotel. Now you ask why, if there is a group of villains who never move and who always work the same nice hotel, one of an international chain, do the police not come and sweep them all up? Welcome to the third world. I must admit that most people in the hotel would not encounter the group as they wisely took the hotel staff's own taxis that charged three times the going rate. I like to see where I end up rather than be delivered up the street from one air conditioned door to the next. Anyway, now go back and answer the question.

So after this long digression, let's get back to the subject of the blog (Please forgive me if I digress now and again but people who come after me will most likely not only visit the jewish communities but will also wish to visit the country around. I hope such people will find the information that I have gained of some use).

Please note that I and my friends in Africa will be happy to guide you around and keep you safe. As well as covering expenses you will make a donation or fund a project in a jewish community. The jewish communities in Africa are in great need and there is much scope to tailor your donation to your particular wishes and interests. As far as possible the wider gentile community is also to be included in charitable projects. 

On the way from Nairobi to Kasuku

Getting to the Ol Kalou community takes about four hours in a minibus 'matatu' that goes from somewhere in downtown Nairobi norhtwards to the trading center of Kasuku .

Still on the way to Kasuku Trading Centre

Kasuku Trading Center - not beautiful, just a way station

From Kasuku you take a 15 minute motorbike taxi ride (and your life in your hands, especially if its raining).
You learn the meaning of 'bumpy' and drive up to the railway tracks and over them without the driver so much as glancing from one side to the other, or slowing down.

But that is of no matter as it is many years since a train passed this way.

That heritage left by the British empire has been well and truly squandered in Kenya as in Uganda. In Kenya there is one line serving Mombasa to the east of Nairobi and  Kampala to the west of it. Yet both countries are criscrossed with railway lines. One motorbike driver was cursing his country's corrupt politicians who pocket the monies intended for the upkeep of the roads and train system. I didn't think it wise to tell him that he was relatively lucky, that in Uganda the main tarmacked roads can be even more dangerous than the unsurfaced country roads, that in Kenya the surfaced roads are in a drivable condition. But then on reflection, the back roads in the hills around Ol Kalou are positively the worst i've ever seen in my life, and a bit worse again. They are a rally driver's dream. Enjoying a bit of motorbiking myself nowadays, when I hired a bike I managed to drive most of the way over the nightmarish parts (at times feeling even my teeth attempting to abandon ship it was so scary, to get to one of the community members who had broken his ribs in a fall). Having traversed the 'bad' bits I relaxed only to have the bike slide out from under us on a smooth stretch which I had thought was certainly safe! The source of my downfall was a sneaky pothole filled with sand. Toda lakel (Thank heavans) we fell onto a grassy verge and luckily had only scrapes not broken bones.

If the road from Kasuku to Gathundia was surfaced the ride would be pleasant with hardly any other traffic and the area being quite scenic.

 But the road isn't surfaced so after three and a half hours bouncing in a transit van the last thing you want is to go on a back crunching ride on a motorbike. But, if you haven't brought four of your own wheels, the motorbike is what's left.

It's just as well there is so little traffic (outside the main cities) as driving standards are not up to those of the west. The truck driver decided to stop in front of us without warning and we stopped just in time. The truck driver had got out to fiddle with his battery quite oblivious of us.  It follows that accidents are not a rare occurrence.

The two founders of the jewish community of Gathundia and their children live cheek by jowl by the end of this rocky portion of road.

Almost there, you can see where the rocky part begins
 Just before you get to Yosef's house the mud path peters out and pure rock begins. Rather than be shaken to bits i'd sometimes get off beforehand and walk the rest of the way. It didn't rain when I was there but it would have been treacherous when wet. Motorbike taxis are not for the faint hearted at the best of times, but in the rain you really need to have said that tephilat  haderekh (prayer for the way).

It doesn't look to bad in the picture, but your back will really 'appreciate' the last stretch of road.

Arrived at Yosef's house!
Three year old Sarah is just the sweetest little girl!

But then all of Yosef's children are lovely and so well behaved. They interact with each other nicely and I saw no bullying or unpleasantness in the week I was with the family.

Some of Yosef's children.
Yosef has thirteen children, as does Avraham.

So let me introduce you to Yosef,  the kitchen and Yosef's lovely and ever so hard working wife Ruth.

Yosef exhorting me to eat. The dish on the left has water melon in it.
Ruth in the kitchen
 The kitchen is the mainstay of the home and as it is so smoky from the charcoal fire is outside the house, lucky for me. I kept my distance as having serious asthma I could easily meet my end in that kitchen. I mainly preferred to wait in the house with Yosef to sample the end products.

 Before I popped my head inside the kitchen I took the deepest breath I could and held it whilst snapping with my camera.
Naomi's in the red hat, as industrious as her mum Ruth

The kids spend most of their time in the kitchen

especially after dark when the sun goes down and the air takes on a chill due to the high altitude near Mt Kenya. The warm kitchen area is the place to be and the kids don't seem to notice the smoke. I wouldn't last more than 5 minutes in there.

The synagogue is found on the land of Abraham Ndungu.

 Abraham and his sons farm some 20 acres of land in their tiny community of aspiring jews whose greatest wish is to be accepted as full jews by the wider jewish community.

The community however lacks anyone trained in the orthodox stream of judaism and when Avraham and Yosef made overtures to the orthodox community in Nairobi they were all but rejected. They were not given the welcome they had hoped for from the community but given a book by the rabbi and all but dismissed. This is standard procedure with converts who are only accepted into the fold after having shown great and persistant commitment to join the jewish faith. The Jews of Ol Kalou have that commitment learning from the book which explained the jewish faith and rituals and passing their knowledge on to their children.

Avraham's grandchildren with Bet Haknesset in background

The Ol Kalou jews also turned towards the Abayudaya community centered in Nabugoya near the town of Mbale in Uganda who are led by their conservative movement ordained rabbi Gershom Suzomu. When rabbi Suzomu visited the Gathundia/Ol Kalou community he was convinced of the sincerity of the community and extended the help of the Abayudayah community that was established in 1924. The rabbi facilitated the converting and educating of the children of Gathundia who make their way to the Abayudaya community in Uganda. 

A number of the younger members of the Gathundia community have now undergone conversion by rabbis belonging to the Conservative movement in America. As the journey to Uganda is long and expensive for community members, it is unlikely that the older members will ever make the trip, or be recognised as jews by any orthodox stream of jewry. Another problem is that a bet din (religious court of three rabbis) to examine candidates for conversion is only convened in Nabugoyah the Abayudaya center every 3-5 years.


  1. There is a soul searing beauty to the overwhelmingly sublime simplicity and purity of purpose these pictures reveal, and which is sadly lost in our highly competitive, multi-tasking, frenetic digital age.

  2. I would love to talk to you more about this. Could you please contact me by e-mail? thank you.

  3. am one of this community i believe with help of Hashem we can be a strong.there we therefore ask you to share with this community your love and also the development for a bright future of both young children and adult .thank you.