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Last two Jews remain in Zambia’s Copperbelt

LUANSHYA, Zambia, May 6 (JTA) — Dragging himself into the H. Figov Store on two sticks that serve as crutches, Muli Mulenga, wearing a threadbare Mickey-Mouse T-shirt and torn pants, desperately hopes for a pair of metal crutches.

Owner Dennis Figov, dressed in his trademark safari suit, ducks into his storeroom and emerges seconds later with two used but sturdy crutches, which he gives to the paraplegic for free.

Incidents like this have helped make the Figovs legendary in Luanshya, one of the most depressed mining towns in Zambia, located some 20 miles from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire.

However, the Figovs’ prominence in Luanshya — a place that time and modern technology seem to have forgotten — is cemented by another fact of paramount importance to Zambia’s devout Christians: Maureen and Dennis Figov are the last Jews left in Zambia’s Copperbelt, a region that in the 1960s boasted some 300 Jewish families.

The predominately Christian community is peculiarly attached to Luanshya’s two Jews, whom they consider a “blessed people” both because they are pillars of the community and for their “biblical background.”

The Rev. Moses Tembo, who led the drive to name the town’s central avenue after Figov, calls the Jews “the promised people.”

“You see,” Tembo says, “Jewish skin is not white, it is an exception. This belief is ingrained in the minds of many Zambians.”

Tembo recalls the day that a friend visiting from the nearby city of Ndola drove into Luanshya just to shake Figov’s hand and bless him — “because the Bible says, ‘If you bless a Jew, you will also be blessed,’ ” Tembo says.

Figov’s home and his consignment store off of Denis Figov Avenue are repositories of the region’s history. In operation continuously since Figov’s father opened for business in 1936, the store contains beautifully maintained Singer sewing machines, ancient watches, and new and old furniture.

In Figov’s home, old photographs of his pioneering family, his badge from his stint as Luanshya mayor, community service awards from former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda — and even roadside mileage markers — reflect the past 80 years of the region’s history.

A sprightly and energetic 68, Figov is one of the oldest people in Luanshya — many Zambians do not live past 40 because of disease — and the younger generation respects him as an elder. Even his fellow board members on the Ndola Chamber of Commerce Executive Committee seek Figov’s advice on matters of historical precedence.

Men, women and children crippled by various tropical diseases that flourish in the region’s humidity crawl into Figov’s store, asking for crutches, financial advice and food.

Figov rarely sends them away empty-handed. Countless nongovernmental organizations operate in the Copperbelt, but the Figovs still dole out crutches, wheelchairs and food for free.

Still, the Figovs’ life is not easy .

Heavy rains and a lack of maintenance have destroyed Luanshya’s roads. Thieves often steal the telephone wires — melting them down for copper — and there are constant blackouts. Beggars line city streets and small-time entrepreneurs hawk cheap wares to passersby.

Worse still, Luanshya offers no nightlife for its 250,000 residents — no movie theaters, playhouses or restaurants — and the books were stolen from the town library long ago.

The only forms of entertainment left are shabeens, or unofficial beer stalls — which contribute to the staggering incidence of alcoholism — and sex, which is cheap, readily available and often unprotected, worsening Zambia’s AIDS epidemic.

The dire poverty drives rampant crime. Still, the crime is rarely vicious, according to the Figovs, who like most Luanshya residents with any money have been robbed.

Two years ago, burglars broke into the Figovs’ house and demanded dollars, shattering Figov’s ribs and wrist with a crowbar in the process.

“In South Africa,” Figov says nonchalantly, “they would have killed me. Here, luckily, due to the deep Christian influence, the mentality is largely different. They steal but don’t kill.”

The face of Luanshya has changed drastically since the 1960s, when Figov served four years as mayor and the city was orderly and bustling.

The copper mine, the town’s principal employer, boasted one of the best hospitals in Africa. Now the hospital stocks less than 5 percent of the medicines it needs, and staffs only nurses.

The mine also kept countless merchants and traders in business. Today the vast majority of these businesses are crumbling skeletons of buildings, whose owners have long since emigrated.

Locals blame much of the town’s decline on the Indian company that bought the mine in 1997. Poor management bankrupted the once-thriving concern in less than two years, and left most Luanshyans — who relied on the mine’s prosperity in one way or another — jobless and destitute.

AIDS, malnourishment, tuberculosis and a lack of medical support have taken a toll on those living on Luanshya’s mud-covered streets, as they have on many of Zambia’s 11 million people.

The Jews’ history in the Copperbelt is a story of slow and steady rise, then a quick decline. Jews who had emigrated from Latvia to Cape Town and become incorporated into the British Commonwealth first began moving into the Copperbelt in the 1920s.

Some were pioneers who left South Africa to chase adventure and riches on the frontier, while others simply followed the northward expansion of British influence, earning their living as butchers, merchants or sellers of packaged goods. At its height, the community supported a synagogue, whose prosperity was directly linked to the mine’s.

Problems for the community began after Zambia, formerly known as Northern Rhodesia, became independent from Britain in 1964. Kaunda — Zambia’s new, Marxist-leaning leader — declared that only native Zambians could acquire work permits, forbidding foreigners to work in positions that Zambians could fill.

With memories of the Holocaust fresh in their minds, many Jews feared to exchange the protection of their British passports for Zambian ones.

“Others, who were emigrants from apartheid South Africa, could simply not tolerate living under and paying taxes to a black-dominated government,” Figov says.

Most industries were nationalized in the 1960s, and the few Jews who still stayed were soon driven out by nepotism, corruption and plummeting copper prices.

As the economy declined, Zambians who could not afford to flee or bribe officials suffered through food shortages and starvation. Figov’s wife Maureen, 64, recalls lining up at 2 a.m. to purchase necessities such as soap, toilet paper, bread, butter and sugar.

Another peril came from the northeast, as unpaid Zairean soldiers crossed into Zambia, hijacking cars, robbing stores and pillaging towns.

Crime, poverty and hardship continue to take a toll. Nevertheless, each day Maureen Figov takes her car and braves the spine-cracking potholes to the Da Gama School for the Crippled and the Rotary International School for the Disadvantaged, which she and Dennis support with funds, food and school materials.

Nevertheless, the most difficult part of living in Luanshya is the boredom and isolation, the Figovs say. The international community of engineers, doctors and professionals has moved away, leaving mainly poor farmers. Even the Figovs’ two sons, who went to England for university, married British women and never returned.

To shop for food, the Figovs make the arduous journey an hour each way to the slightly less-depressed town of Ndola, rarely finding all the basic products they want.

“Peas, I just want a packet of peas,” a frustrated Maureen Figov whimpers.

Other than weekend liquidation sales for the auction house, business is slow. The Figovs’ 15 employees, some of whom have been with the business for 53 years, mill around aimlessly, but Denis hasn’t the heart to discharge them.

He says he and his wife would move to their apartment in Cape Town, South Africa, if he could find a buyer for his store.

Yet, he says privately, “Zambia is my home. I have been here since I was two weeks old, and I love it here.”

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