By: Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, Jr.
On Friday and Saturday, August 30th and 31st of 2002 a historic event took place on the small island of St. Simons, Georgia which is located about seventy miles south of Savannah. A Chicago based group of Nigerians, who are from the Ibo tribe, called together Nigerians and all others from Canada to Haiti and all points in between, to come to the place on St. Simons Island known as Ibo Landing.
The Chicago based group of Nigerian, Ibo have an organization called "Ekwe Nche", which is in the Ibo tongue "A Clarion Call" organized this historic event on St. Simons Island, the event was called to mark the sanctification of the place where thirteen Ibo men cast themselves into the sea rather than live as slaves. It is said that these thirteen men locked arms together and jumped into the sea, to the great surprise and dismay of their captors.
The Ibo Landing event was held to acknowledge the heroism of these thirteen brave men and to give their spirits a proper and fitting memorial through an ecumenical service that was attended by several religious groups. Among the groups represented were, Okpala Eze Nri Chukwuemeka I. Onyesoh, who represented the High Priest and ultimate spiritual leader in Ibo Land. Okechukwu Ikejiani, M.D., a retired physician and professor from Canada, Mr. Bruce Dan Carey from Gary, Indiana and his wife Chief Dele Jane Asawe, who is of the Ibo tribe, Moreh Elisha Israel from Cincinnati, Ohio and Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, Jr. spiritual leader of Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, in Chicago, Illinois.
On Friday morning all guest attended an opening ceremony, which was the breaking of the Kola Nut, an event by which all Ibo functions are begun which represents the cultural unity of the Ibo people. A tribal elder offered prayer, and everyone present washed their hands, then partook in eating the Kola nut, which was dipped in a mixture of peanut butter, honey and red pepper grounded into a powder. Dr. Justine Aujerize, of Chicago gave the welcome address and explained the purpose of the event.
The speech by elder statesman, Okechukwu Ikejiani, M. D., who is 85 years old, was very moving and insightful. Dr. Ikejiani was moved to tears as he appealed to the Ibos and African Americans present to united and develop the organizations necessary to work to better the lives of the Ibos who are still in Nigeria. Dr. Ikejiani has traveled extensively and he promotes Ibo culture, history and heritage in his lectures.
At 3:30 p.m. Mr. Bruce Dan Judah Carey, presented a paper on the history of the Ibo, Ndi, Igbo and the Hebrew people. Bruce's paper was both insightful and scholarly as he showed the connection between the Ibo people and their ancient Hebrew ancestors. Bruce detailed the various customs of the Ibo that are strikingly similar to the customs of the ancient Hebrews. Which include circumcision of their males on the eighth day after birth, abstention from pork and shellfish, the concept of rest from labor on the seventh day and observance of a day called Yomora Kippura, which comes in early fall, among the Ibo people and Yomora Kippura has all of the customs attached to it that a Jew finds in the laws concerning Yom Kippur.
Okpala Eze Nri Chukwuemeka I. Onyesoh, who represented the High Priest of Ibo Land, gave a powerful lecture on the conditions of the Ibo people under the current government of Nigeria, and he also spoke on the significance of the Kola Nut, in Ibo culture. Eze Nri Onyesoh, wore a red kipah with an eagle feather and a tallith, with 613 fringes, which is the garment worn by all Ibo priest when they officiate at a cultural ceremony. I found the attire of Eze Nri striking, because, I was wearing a Kipah and I wore my tallith, the only difference was that the Eze Nri wore his tallith, vertically, while we Jews wear our tallith horizontally.
Moreh Elisha Israel, spoke about the differences that he saw between the Hebrews and the customs of the Ibo people. Moreh Israel did not understand that the customs of the Ibo people were actually Hebraic in their content and structure.
I was invited to speak and I could only compare what I was witnessing to a true awakening of Ibo people to their Hebraic cultural roots. As I thought about why we were in St. Simons Island, Georgia, my mind returned to an episode in Jewish history concerning the Jews at Massadah, who in 73 a.c.e. cast themselves from the walls of their fortress rather come under the control of the Roman Empire. I was inspired by the history of the thirteen Ibo men, who were led by a chief of the Ibo nation, to revolt and become martyrs rather than slaves. My mind and spirit were led to the song by James Weldon Johnson "Lift Every Voice and Sing", in which the writer says in the last verse "Let us be true to our G-d, and true to our native land".
These thirteen men were in fact true to their G-d and true to their native land, and they followed one of their chiefs into martyrdom, when they refused to bow to their captors and become slaves.
Saturday August 31, 2002 was a momentous and awe stirring event, after the breaking of the Kola Nut and prayer, we all proceeded to the site of the IBO Landing. The owners of the property have maintained the actual site of the Ibo Landing for nearly 200 years. I was awe struck as the elderly white woman invited the group of 150 to come onto her property and conduct our services.
The "Ruach Kodesh" (holy spirit) overwhelmed me, as several of our group went out onto the actual landing site, and we prayed in the Ibo tongue and in the Hebrew tongue, for the spirits of those men that gave their lives for freedom. The pier has been preserved in its original condition; everything in that space was as it was nearly 200 years ago. It is a local legend that fishermen refuse to approach the site of the Ibo Landing, because it is said that you can hear the voices of those brave souls that became martyrs for freedom. The event was powerful, spiritual, awe inspiring and uplifting as we connected in a way that words cannot express with the souls of the departed.
The final part of our services was the sharing of the Kola Nut. An Ibo elder led us in prayer for the departed souls that engulfed the entire group with a singular thought. We became one people, with one G-d, one aim and one destiny.
The Ibo group Ekwe Nche has made a commitment to find other Ibo Landing sites up and down the east coast and to reclaim and redeem the souls of our lost brothers and sisters. The Ibo people are connected to the Gullah speaking people of Haiti, the Caribbean and Florida. The Ibo people are also found among the Geeche speaking people of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Mississippi. I am from South Carolina, I am a Geeche, I am an Ibo, and I am a Jew. Kol Israel Haraybim! (All Israel is responsible for each other).