Bani Israel, Senegal — He will welcome you into his earthen-floor home, introduce you to his three wives, and let you sample their cooking. But Dougoutigo Fadiga does not want foreigners to come near the sacred tree of his village deep in the Senegalese bush.
“The tree is holy grounds,” says Fadiga, president of this remote settlement of 4,000 souls. “Our Jewish ancestor, Jacob, planted it when his people first settled here 1,000 years ago.”
The lush kapok tree towers over the parched shrubbery at the edge of Bani Israel, a dusty community in eastern Senegal near the border with Mali. The residents, all Muslims, are members of a tribe whose name means “sons of Israel,” and they trace their lineage to two clans — Sylla and Drame — they say are descended from Egyptian Jews.
“We are all practicing Muslims and we don’t want to become Jewish,” Fadiga says. “In fact, we don’t like to talk too much about our Jewish background, but we don’t hide it either. We know our people came from Egypt to Somalia, and from there to Nigeria, where they split about 1,000 years ago. One branch of the two families went to Mali, another to Guinea, and we settled here.”
The truth of such claims is difficult to establish, but West Africa has had a documented Jewish presence since at least the 14th century, when several Jewish merchants set up shop in Timbuktu, in western Mali. Jews kept trickling in from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition of the 15th and 16th centuries, and later from Morocco.
Gideon Behar, Israel’s former ambassador to Senegal, says Jews maintained a constant presence in the area until 1943, when the last Jewish settlement was uprooted from Guinea-Bissau, Senegal’s southern neighbor, then a Portuguese colony under the rule of pro-fascist dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.
“Bani Israel is a striking example because of its name, but there are many, many other ways in which this area’s little-known but rich Jewish presence has influenced it,” says Behar, one of the few Westerners to have visited Bani Israel.
Behar believes the historic presence is responsible for some of the faint Jewish traces still visible in the region. West African musicians often decorate the traditional, 21-string bridge-harp known as kora with Jewish symbols, including the Star of David. And some words in Wolof, a widely spoken language in Senegal, bear more resemblance to Hebrew pronunciation than Arabic, which is spoken in neighboring countries.