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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 September 2005, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
Healthy lives bear fruit for African Hebrews
By Kwaku Sakyi-Addo
BBC, Israel

Sar Bakooriah is 68, and a sprinter. He runs 100 metres in under 12 seconds, while his big grey Afro-style hair sweeps against the Negev Desert wind.

Sar
At 68, Sar remains a good athlete
Mr Bakooriah is one of 3,000 African Hebrew Israelites living at Dimona, at the foot of the Judean Hills in southern Israel, where miraculous health stories abound.

Men in their seventies lift weights in the gym and grandmothers, like Aturah Havenah, 60, run 8km every morning.

The African Hebrews who settled in Dimona 37 years ago, maintain a strict organic vegetarian diet that excludes dairy products and includes plenty of exercise.

Men sport Afros and women don't put chemicals in their hair.

"If you feed your children cow's milk, you shouldn't be surprised when they become obese just like the cow. The milk of a cow is meant for calves to weigh three tonnes when they grow up," says Prince Asiel Ben Israel, 65, himself lean and fit as a boy despite his age.

'Reconnect'

Mr Israel was one of 400 African-Americans who left the United States in 1967, rejecting what they saw as a life of decadence and death.

Under the leadership of Ben Ammi, then only 30, they stopped over in Liberia for two-and-a-half years.

There are too many funerals in Africa. There are never enough hospitals. We have to stop and ask why
Ben Ammi
There, they lived off the land in the interior forests, "to reconnect with nature," according to Edem Adzogenu, a Ghanaian doctor in his 30s and one of scores of Africans from the continent who have recently joined the community.

Nearly 300 members of the community returned to the United States during that transition.

Those who were left settled in Dimona with Israeli citizenship. The Israeli authorities accepted their claim for citizenship as they traced their ancestry to indigenous black people who fled from the Romans in Israel in 70 AD, and migrated to East, Central and West Africa.

The strict vegetarian diet of the African Hebrews has borne fruit.

Afro-centric

Since they settled in Dimona, no more than five of their members have died; and among those born in Israel, not one has died of natural causes.

Member of the African Hebrew Israelites
Community members do not put chemicals in their hair
Infant, child and maternal mortality are zero, a fact confirmed by health authorities in Dimona.

"If the cow is eating greens, and the cow is healthy enough for us to eat its flesh, then why don't we go directly to what the cow is eating?" Ahmadiel Ben-Yehuda, curator of the community's historical museum asks rhetorically.

"There are too many funerals in Africa. There are never enough hospitals. We have to stop and ask why," says Ben Ammi.

"It's because we've turned our backs on the simpler but richer gifts from God - all those fruits and vegetables that grow effortlessly around us.

"Africans are eating polished white rice from America instead of locally grown brown rice because we've been fooled into thinking that anything white is good and everything brown is inferior, that's the problem," says Ben Ammi.

The community also has a strong Afro-centric bent, which outwardly manifests itself in their long colourful gowns, sixties-style Afros and chemical-free braids.

They maintain a communal structure where all children are everyone's responsibility and teenagers stop to say "Shalom" to passing grown-ups.

The African Hebrews have sent some of their members to Africa to work with communities in hopes of encouraging lifestyle changes.

In Benin, they have established an organic farm and an agriculture and nutrition school.

In Ghana there is a soya products factory, a vegetarian food outlet and a local-rice mill.

In South Africa, they have a nutrition project for people living with HIV.

But with massive imports of cheap processed foods to the continent, and US-style fast food joints spreading in urban Africa, it could be an uphill task to convince people that a fresh orange from their backyard is healthier than what's inside the colourfully-labelled can on the shelf.


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