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Rabbi Nathan Obiekwe at Bethel Messianic on Yom Kippur

#TheGodProject: Nigerian Jews in Joburg

There is a congregation of Nigerian Jews in Joburg. Who knew?

Rabbi Nathan Obiekwe at Bethel Messianic on Yom KippurRabbi Nathan Obiekwe of the Bethel Messianic Assembly in Yeoville.

I first visited the Bethel Messianic Assembly in October, to take photos for my friend Marie-Lais’ “Other Side of the City” column in the Citizen. Marie-Lais and I showed up unannounced, but fortunately the door was open.

“What religion are you?” asked the man at the door.

“I’m Jewish,” I said proudly, figuring my religious heritage would give us a foot in the door. The man led Marie-Lais and me inside and introduced us to the rabbi, Nathan Obiekwe. Rabbi Nathan greeted us warmly and we sat down for a chat. On our way through the outdoor passage that led to Rabbi Nathan’s lounge, I noticed a large room filled with people, all lying on the floor.

Rabbi Nathan in his loungeRabbi Nathan in the lounge of his home. The house doubles as the Bethel Messianic synagogue. Note that the rabbi is holding a bible in his hand — this congregation reads frequently from both the old and new testaments.

“Why are there so many people here on a Wednesday morning?” I asked the rabbi after a few minutes of small talk.

Rabbi Nathan looked at me curiously. “Today is Yom Kippur,” he said, half smiling.

Busted. I’m technically Jewish but I’ve never practiced. I’m so ignorant of the religion of my birth that I didn’t realize we happened to visit Bethel Messianic on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

Mocha Egbo, one of several leaders in the synagogueMoshea Egbo, one of several leaders in the Bethel Messianic congregation, reads from the Torah during Yom Kippur. The congregation usually sits on chairs during prayers, but on Yom Kippur they sit or lie on the floor.

Fortunately Rabbi Nathan didn’t judge me. (Or if he did, he kept those thoughts to himself.) He was extremely welcoming to Marie-Lais and me, and then welcomed me back a few months later when I returned with my blogger friend Ang to do a story about Bethel Messianic for #TheGodProject.

Inside the Bethel Messianic Assembly

I’m not going to give away too much about the Nigerian Jews of Joburg in this post. If you’ve read my God Project posts before, then you know Ang writes an in-depth post about the experience on her blog, and I mainly just share photos on mine. I’ve got lots (and lots) of photos to share.

Rabbi Nathan during Shabbat prayersRabbi Nathan addresses his congregation during Shabbat Prayers — the religious service that happens every week on the Sabbath (between nightfall on Friday and nightfall on Saturday).

Nigerian Jews at Bethel MessianicSinging and dancing during Shabbat prayers.

Band at Bethel MessianicThe service includes a full band with drums, trumpet, vocals, and an electric guitar. This was the best religious music I’ve ever heard, by a long shot.

Rabbi's wife and childThe rabbi’s wife and son dance at the back of the congregation during Shabbat prayers. The women and children stick to the back row.

Rabbi Nathan's daughterRabbi Nathan’s daughter.

I thought nothing could beat the last religious service Ang and I visited for #TheGodProject — a wedding ceremony at the Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Church. But Shabbat prayers at Bethel Messianic blew my mind even further.

Moshea Egbo at ShabbatMoshea Egbo again.

Mocha Egbo, trainee at Bethel Messianic
This guy knows how to pray.

Sonny with bell during ShabbatPrince, aka Sonny, another leader of the synagogue who also happens to be my neighbor in Melville.

Woman outside the synagogueWomen on their periods are not allowed inside the synagogue, and I’m assuming that’s why this woman and her child were outside. But that didn’t stop her from singing, dancing, and enjoying the service, despite the fact that rain was bucketing down.

Rabbi Nathan leading the serviceRabbi Nathan has quite a presence.

I don’t agree with everything I saw and heard at Bethel Messianic — the gender inequality, for example, and the anti-Islamic sentiment and the unexpected outpouring of praise for Donald Trump. But I was fascinated by the story of Nigeria’s Igbo Jews and the Messianic interpretation of Judaism. I was completely charmed by Rabbi Nathan and his determination to journey thousands of miles from home to build a congregation in South Africa, against stiff odds and a lack of acceptance and respect among mainstream Jews.

I also love the message Rabbi Nathan sent me via whatsapp, the evening after our visit: “May Elohim bless and keep you, oh daughter of Jacob.”

I’m not sure why, but I like the idea of being a daughter of Jacob. If I ever decided to become Jewish for real, I’d be tempted to do it at Bethel Messianic Assembly.

Rabbi Nathan outside Bethel Messianic AssemblyRabbi Nathan outside the synagogue on Yom Kippur.

Read all of my #TheGodProject posts. And read Ang’s post here.

The Bethel Messianic Assembly is at 105 Regent Street in Yeoville. 

My Favorite Joburg People: James Ike

I recently announced a storytelling project I’m working on called My Favorite Joburg People. I chose four people in Joburg, each of whom has an amazing story to tell, and interviewed them and shot their portraits. I’ll be presenting the stories and portraits at an upcoming event called Translating Joburg – Storytellers, and also publishing them on my blog. This is the second of the four stories.

These stories are longer than my normal blog posts.

James Ike

Story portrait - James IkeJames on the street near his home in Yeoville, May 2016.

I’ve played a lot of sports and I’ve had a lot of coaches. I know what a great coach is made of.

Great coaches motivate us without crushing our spirits. Great coaches push us to go farther than we can go alone. Great coaches have an ego; they want us to achieve so that they can achieve themselves. Great coaches want to be the best and they want the best for their athletes.

Great coaches make us feel like no matter how good we are, that we can always be better. And we do get better, because we want to make our coaches proud.

James Ike is a great coach.

In 2012 I started training at the Hillbrow Boxing Club (HBC), where James was a trainer along with Coach George Khosi. From the moment I arrived at the gym, I yearned for James’ approval. “DON’T MISS MY TARGET!” he barked during one of our first padwork sessions. From then on, I rarely missed the target. James started to trust me and to teach me boxing in earnest.

Nowadays, the guys lifting weights sometimes stop and stare at James and me as we dance across the floor. James whacks the side of my head when I let my guard down. I dodge his swings and try to knock him over with my left cross. The guys laugh and applaud. James pretends to ignore them, but he loves it. He’s proud of me and all the other people he coaches.

James and Heather at the Hillbrow Boxing ClubJames and I training at the Hillbrow Boxing Club, March 2013. (Photo: Tenney Mason)

James shuns the limelight at the HBC, avoiding the stream of photographers, filmmakers, and journalists who frequent the gym. George is the face of the HBC – everyone knows George. But very few know James. This is my chance to change that.

On the day of our interview, I sit in a chair in James’ one-room apartment, watching him prepare his dinner between afternoon and evening training sessions. T.B. Joshua, a Nigerian television evangelist, performs miracles in the background. I ask James to turn down the volume.

James has a lilting, lyrical way of speaking and he arranges his words in unexpected ways. When I ask him questions, his answers float in slow circles, nipping at the spot in the center where the real truth lies. Sometimes I have to read between the lines, venture guesses.

I’ll do my best to tell his story as I understand it.

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James, whose Igbo name is Emeka, was born in Nigeria in 1966. He was the first of seven children and the family’s business was in northern Nigeria, in a city called Kaduna. But James’ parents fled from Kaduna to their home village in the southeast, Old Umuahia, just before James’ birth.

“During the time I was born, there was civil war,” says James. “So that was the main reason why I was born in my village, because my parents were living in Kaduna before the war. They fled because of the violence.”

James’ family is Igbo – the ethnic group based in southeastern Nigeria that attempted to secede from the country during the Nigerian Civil War (also called the Biafran War). The Igbo living in northern Nigeria were badly persecuted during this time, which is why James’ parents left.

Despite the brutality of this war, which James has little memory of, his family survived intact. They moved back to Kaduna as soon as the war ended, when James was four years old.

Things were ok,” James says. “My dad was a printer by profession. My mom was a teacher. Life was cool, it was good then.”

James’ family moved around to several different states in northern Nigeria, which was (and still is) dominated by an Islamic people called the Hausa. Today, many of these states are affected by the terrorist group Boko Haram.

James and his family, as Igbo Christians, were in the minority. I ask James if he ever experienced violence because of his ethnic heritage. He doesn’t answer directly.

“In Nigeria, we had these differences due to religion. These northern people …You don’t feel free with them. You don’t live there in freedom, you always live in crisis. They [the Muslim extremists] are fighting non-Muslims, but sometimes also their own community members. It affects whoever. It’s no new thing for me. I’ve been into that system.”

I take this to mean that James can relate to the news coming out of northern Nigeria today – of bombings and shootings and young girls abducted from school. “I escaped a lot,” James says. “To me, I can just imagine, because I’ve seen similar things, during my school years.”

James lived with his parents until he was 14, when he left for boarding school in Plateau State. Things went well at first, but then tragedy struck.

“In my second year [of secondary school] I lost my mom. And I was left – me and my dad and the younger ones. Life continues.”

I ask James how his mother died. He takes a deep breath.

“One of the holidays I came back, and they said Mom is dead already. She died in an accident. It was so painful because I didn’t see her corpse. It happened in a remote area – she was on a business tour.”

James’ mother was riding in a car that collided with a herd of cattle.

“They couldn’t get medical attention. According to stories, she took time and then she gave up. She was buried already before the police were able to locate her real identity.”

The death of James’ mother, whose name was Chidi, was a turning point.

“Life wasn’t sweet with me again, because she was my pillar. My mom was my champion. I am her first born, she wants me to be the first and she wants me to get the best. She took me to a faraway school, an expensive school, so I can get the best of knowledge.

“So when I lost her, it’s like, something went off my life. To be frank, up to today, I have never recovered from the shock of her death. It affected me everywhere. Because I would have gained a lot, I would have been so far in life if she was alive. But that’s life.”

The family could no longer afford boarding school so James returned to his father’s home in Yola, in Adamawa State. Things were never the same again. “But,” James says, “I was not doing bad. When the issue of boxing came, my dad supported me.”

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Soon after returning to Yola James met his first boxing coach – a man called Chico. “He lived a little way from my home. I saw him passing by with gloves, and I helped him to carry gloves. I used to time him – each time he was passing, I helped him.” Soon, James was boxing.

“I started boxing with [Chico] and I became the best. Before you know it, within six months, I started attending competitions and I was doing pretty well.”

James was only 16 but he was fighting against adults, many of whom were Nigerian soldiers, in the bantamweight class. “I was winning, all my fights were knock-outs, so I made history in the papers. I started traveling to national competitions. I became famous through boxing.”

James finished high school and got a job at the sports council in Benue State, working as a performing athlete and an assistant coach. James has always excelled at teaching others how to box.

James moved through the amateur ranks as a boxer. But looking back, he realizes something was missing.

“My aim was to go as far as the Olympics. But I was lacking something, even though I was so good. There was no pillar, there was no sponsor. There was no godfather behind me.”

Boxing is about money and politics, as much as athletic achievement. The decision on who wins a fight is often subjective – decided by judges who may or may not be biased.

“The state I was representing, they were not too strong, not too forward in the game of boxing. No matter how strong I made it, I hardly won – not at the finals.”

James had big dreams, and he wanted to remain an amateur boxer until he knew he could make it big as a professional. “I didn’t want to do professional in Nigeria because of the quality. I wanted to go to America to do professional boxing.”

So he bided his time. In 1992, James was the number-one-ranked amateur boxer in the country. But he couldn’t find the right moment to make his move.

Eventually though, James’ work contract ran out and he had to leave Benue State. “There was no way out,” James said, “if not through professional boxing.” He moved to Lagos, hoping to find his way.

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“In Lagos, it wasn’t easy for me. It’s like Johannesburg. I had to take a lot of pains, I had to do some club jobs, and combined with training, sleeping at friends’ places.”

James had to start from scratch in Lagos. But he eventually hooked up with a respected boxing coach called White Horse.

“We started working hand in hand – I started assisting him.” Together with White Horse, James trained Bash Ali, a former World Boxing Council International Cruiserweight champion. James, who by this time was known as Kodo, or “the General”, began to establish himself in Lagos.

Eventually James was invited to fight on Bash Ali’s undercard, and he agreed. After 17 years of fighting amateur, James turned pro in 1999.

“I went to pro, and I started shining in pro. I fought many fights. I didn’t lose a fight until the last days of my career. I lost only four out of 21 fights.”

James fought as a professional in Nigeria and he did well, traveling throughout Africa and winning. But he never made it across the ocean to the glitzy arenas of Las Vegas, as some of his teammates did.

“The fights I lost were all big fights. I began to feel this was happening because there was no godfather, no one behind me. I am doing the coaching work, I am sponsoring myself…That was the reason why I didn’t reach the limit I dreamt of in the game.”

James visited South Africa a few times during his professional fighting days; his final loss was in South Africa in 2006. A couple of years later, while still working for White Horse, James returned to South Africa accompanying another Nigerian fighter. After the fight, James stayed in Johannesburg and he has never gone back.

James on Pretoria Street in HillbrowJames on Pretoria Street in Hillbrow, May 2016.

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“I just wanted to…Even if boxing didn’t work, I felt that I could do business with the little money I got, and make money. I saw [Johannesburg] as a place where I can invest some little thing and I’ll get something. Because I’ve been planning, planning, planning to go places.”

I’m trying to understand what prompted James, who had lived his entire life in Nigeria, to suddenly relocate to the other end of the continent. (I suppose it should have been easy for me to understand, as I did basically the same thing. But I digress.) James is trying to explain.

“We Nigerians, we don’t believe in staying in one place, especially home. We want to go out…Home is not a big deal. You don’t try to be the least, you must try to be among the best, to be among the recognized ones.

“I was planning, if I should go back, I would go back in a big way, in a different way.”

James was 40 years old and hadn’t achieved what he wanted in Nigeria. He wanted to “go out”: to make his fortune so he could return home as one of “the recognized ones”.

In 2009, after a few previous visits as a professional boxer, James wanted to give life a try in Johannesburg. He had retired from professional boxing and wanted to pursue other business. “I decided, let me try some deals here. I tried, I tried, I tried. I did some trading, I traded on clothes, I traded on food. I started going to flea markets, I tried all those kinds of businesses…It didn’t work.

“Joburg, the problem here…Sorry to say this, but it’s very hard to make it genuinely if you’re not into some crooked things.”

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James and I have been talking for quite a while now, and I realize something is missing.

“What was happening in your personal life all this time?” I ask James. “Did you ever get married? Have kids?”

James smiles.

“It’s a thing of nature,” he begins. “I was with my lady from 2000. In 2006, I started movement. I was moving all the time. A lot of complicated things began to happen. Is it from my own side, or from her own side?”

James stops for a moment, thinking.

“She was planning to travel outside the country, because her sister was staying in Italy…And I said you must not go to Italy…But that was in her.”

The lady’s name was Philomena. Philomena didn’t go to Italy in the end, but she did leave Nigeria.

“She went to Spain. I wasn’t around by then, I was on a trip to Ghana. She sent me a message that she’s on her way to Spain. And I said, ok, what is the plan?”

James considered following Philomena to Spain, and later he tried to convince her to join him in South Africa. But neither happened. James eventually broke off communication with Philomena. I ask him if he thinks he’ll ever see her again.

“I still have that number. I still have it,” James says. “Life is like that. Maybe we can meet again…You know life? Life is like that sometimes.”

Yes. Life is like that sometimes.

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James had known George Khosi, a legendary boxer in his own right, since one of his first visits to South Africa as a hotshot professional in the early 2000s. James was well known in Johannesburg’s boxing circles at that time.

“Here, they gave me honor,” James said of his early visits to South Africa. “I had my dreadlocks…I used to live in the hotels.”

In 2010, when James was back in Joburg and his business aspirations weren’t working out, he bumped into George again. “George saw me and he said, ‘Hey, you’re here! Let’s do boxing together.’ Finally, I came back to boxing again. I began to see, this is where I belong.”

James joined George at the HBC, an abandoned petrol station in the center of Hillbrow that George had fashioned into a makeshift gym. The HBC is a far cry from the nice Joburg hotels where James used to stay. George lives in the gym’s basement with several other guys, in a dim, cavernous room separated by sheets hung from the ceiling.

It wasn’t an ideal home. But James’ options were limited, and he saw potential in the HBC.

“When I came to George, I began to bring light to what they’re doing. I began to make that place into a real boxing place. But the problem there is…George is far away, he’s just content with the level he is.”

I know what James means. I’ve trained at the HBC for years and I care deeply for George, as I would care for a favorite uncle. I love to exercise in that environment – it’s perfect for a boxing hobbyist like me. But the Hillbrow Boxing Club is what it is, and it will never be more. It wasn’t the place for James’ ambition.

“I think I’ve finished my assignment there,” James says of the Hillbrow Boxing Club. He’s on his own again.

In 2013, James began to train athletes independently and saved enough money to rent a room of his own in Yeoville. Today, James does most of his training at the Bronx Gym, a more conventional gym up the road from the HBC. He works three mornings a week at the HBC, but that’s mainly because of me and some other friends of mine who box there. We still like to train at the HBC, and James is a loyal coach.

James at the Bronx Gym, May 2016James at the Bronx Gym, May 2016.

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Johannesburg isn’t an easy place for African immigrants. And Nigerian immigrants – fairly or unfairly – have a particularly bad reputation in Joburg. I want to know how James deals with the discrimination that I suspect he must face on a regular basis.

“I don’t have a problem with South Africans,” James tells me. “Most of them don’t even know I’m a Nigerian. They take me as one of them…I don’t even take myself to that instance, to be discriminated against. I always keep myself on my own level. I don’t try to force myself into them, in order to avoid intimidation or embarrassment or harassment. I always mind my leave.”

James is walking a narrow tightrope – trying to integrate into South African society, but only to a point. Trying to blend in, but also protecting himself by staying on the outskirts of both South African culture and his own.

“It’s not easy,” James says, when I press him about what it’s like to be Nigerian in Joburg. “But number one, I’m doing boxing. I’m doing sports. I’m not into [Nigerian] business. I’m not so much into their social life…I’ve got policy, I’ve got culture. Anything I don’t want, I don’t want. I try to maintain decency. There are things I don’t do, that I don’t even want to see, so that I don’t feel jealous. I just try to mind my way.”

If you’re South African, then you’ll understand what James is getting at. Nigerians in South Africa are stereotyped as criminals: drug lords, pimps, fraudsters. And in some cases it’s true. There are many Nigerian-run crime rings in Joburg, especially in Hillbrow.

I can imagine how hard it must be for James to distance himself from these stereotypes in the eyes of South Africans, without being seen as a traitor to his fellow Nigerians.

“I’ve tried my best to contain all these pressures, so I don’t break down one day. Because everything goes with time. I still believe that my time is coming. Because I’m still fit, and I’ve still got a dream.”

“What is your dream?” I ask James.

“I want to be one of the greats. I want to be influential. I want to be a master, I want to be the best of me. I want to be a giver. I want to change lives.”

I ask James if there is anything in his life that he wishes had gone differently. “Things have not actually gone perfectly, the way I envisioned, the way I desired it to be. I won’t say that things are falling apart, but things have not gone perfectly. I’m still hoping for the best, and that’s the story.

“Let me not speak negative. I know the time is coming. At the soonest time, by the grace of God.”

I also believe that James’ time is coming. He’ll be 50 this year and I doubt there is a healthier 50-year-old in all of South Africa. James’s mind is as strong as his body.

“One of the things that makes me happy is healthiness. When I wake up I don’t feel pain. I am very healthy. It gives me a lot of joy. And psychologically, I am somehow contented. Even though things are not 100% okay, I just try to bring myself to calmness, to realize that the best is yet to come.”

James is training several boxers now – professionals, amateurs, and hobbyists like me. I think he can continue to grow his business and become a “recognized one”. I still think James can make it, and return to Nigeria in the position he wants to be in. He is, after all, a great coach.

James Ike and Henrike at Hillbrow Boxing ClubMy all-time favorite picture of James, training with my friend Henrike in March 2013.

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Thanks to James for telling his story, and for being a great coach. If you’re interested in training with James, you can reach him at 083-982-8785.

Read all of the My Favorite Joburg People posts.