Travel – The Jews of Zambiaby Sharon Rosen Leib September 29, 2010
How do you meet the Jews of Zambia? Turns out you do a little research on the Internet, read about the community’s most renowned member in Zambia’s opposition newspaper The Post, find his number in the Zambia phone directory and ring him up. My intrepid husband accomplished all of this on our third day in this landlocked country in Southern Africa.
That’s how we found ourselves having tea in Cynthia and Simon Zukas’ lovely book-lined, art-filled home in the capital city of Lusaka. At 85, Simon — a self-described atheist — is the eminence grise of Zambia’s Jewish community. His personal story reflects Zambia’s metamorphosis from the British colony known as Northern Rhodesia to independent nationhood.
Simon’s parents emigrated from Lithuania to Northern Rhodesia in 1938 when he was 12 years old. He grew up in a society based on minority white rule. The colonial government applied what Simon described as “an unofficial social color bar” that was not legally codified like South Africa’s apartheid system.
“Segregation was understood. Blacks were relegated to third and fourth class on the nation’s trains and everywhere else,” Simon said.
While studying engineering at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Simon became a Marxist and supported African nationalism. His anti-colonial politics ran afoul of Britain’s attempt to maintain minority rule. In 1952 the North Rhodesian colonial government ordered his deportation for “disturbing law and order.” The government imprisoned him in the Livingston jail on Zambia’s southern border for eight months while he awaited deportation.
Zambia’s Jewish community didn’t rally to Zukas’ defense. “They weren’t of much help because they were mainly merchants who supported the status quo,” he said. He spent 11 years exiled in England. While there he met Cynthia, a Cape Town native studying art in London. He regarded Cynthia as a kindred spirit, as she’d been active in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Their politics earned them spots on South Africa’s banned list — they were prohibited from entering South Africa for 25 years.
When Zambia became an independent nation in 1964, the country’s Jewish community, which numbered approximately 700 families supporting seven shuls, dwindled to 100 families supporting one shul in Lusaka. Most of the Jews immigrated to South Africa, England, Israel and the United States. Simon and Cynthia bucked the trend, returning to Zambia in 1965.
Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, leader of Zambia’s majority party, became independent Zambia’s first president. At the time of Zambia’s independence, Kaunda was one of only a dozen native Zambians with a college degree. The country had a lot of catching up to do to educate its populace and become an economically viable nation. Simon provided advice and counsel to Kaunda’s new government. He later became the first white to serve in a Zambian cabinet (first as minister of agriculture and then as minister of public works) when Frederick Chiluba became president in the 1990s. Simon takes pride in the fact that he supported African justice and independence from the 1950s to the present.
Cynthia, an accomplished fine artist, also took part in Zambia’s nation-building by serving on the board of the National Museum and the National Arts Trust. She chairs the Lechwe Trust, which provides grants and scholarships to Zambian artists, enabling them to create at home and study abroad.
Cynthia said she feels that living in Zambia gave her the opportunity to accomplish more than she could have in London. “I was determined to do what I could to help here,” Cynthia said. “One can’t give up just because of the poverty. You can’t put money in one man’s pocket to affect change. Simon and I tried to look at the bigger picture, he in politics and I in the art world.”
Simon and Cynthia represent one of the seven Jewish families still living in Zambia. When we expressed interest in seeing Zambia’s only remaining synagogue, Simon and Cynthia referred us to Dr. Michael Bush. We rang him up and within half an hour, he came to meet us at the Mint Café, a suburban bistro populated by European and American tourists and relief workers. Dr. Bush — a charming, urbane, 71-year-old agnostic Jew — acts as de facto spiritual leader of Zambia’s Jewish community “because I went to Hebrew school in London and can read the prayers.”
Dr. Bush came to Zambia on a one-year contract in 1972. Enamored with the country, he extended his contract and set up a medical clinic in downtown Lusaka. He was chairman of the Medical Council of Zambia from 1993-1997 and is chairman and founder of Zambia’s Hospice Association. “I’m not a rich doctor, but I’m a satisfied doctor,” Bush said. In 2004, Queen Elizabeth II named Dr. Bush to the Order of the British Empire for his services to Zambia’s HIV/AIDS victims and their families.
From the Mint Café, Dr. Bush squeezed us into his car and navigated through 20 minutes of anarchic Lusaka traffic to Zambia’s sole remaining synagogue located on Cha Cha Cha Street. The simple stone building sits on a busy corner near a bustling market and bus stop. The Council on Zambian Jewry decided to maintain the rarely used downtown sanctuary as a testament to Zambia’s Jewish heritage.
Over the past four decades, the Council sold off Zambian synagogue properties to Catholic relief groups and donated the money to funding hospice programs and HIV/AIDS treatment facilities. The Council plans to “free lease” the Lusaka synagogue grounds and rabbi’s house to be used as a pediatric HIV/AIDS hospital and treatment facility funded by Zambia’s small but philanthropic Jewish community.
“Part of the Jewish ethos is to help those in need. Zambian children born with HIV or AIDS are in dire need,” Dr. Bush said.
At the conclusion of our visit to the shul, Dr. Bush invited us to his home for tea. So that’s how we met the Jews of Zambia. Simon and Cynthia Zukas and Dr. Michael Bush left indelible impressions on our family. Their gracious warmth, hospitality and dedication to the people of their adopted Zambian homeland will not be forgotten.