Friday, April 25, 2008

Seder in Mali

Here is a recounting of a seder in Mali complete with lettuce hanging from trees, torrential rains, mango-based charoset, and several haggadot shipped from the united states. Jess and Ari, our seder-leading beacons of light, can make just about anything accessible to anyone by identifying the core themes and creating gateways while staying true to the source. It’s really amazing.

Jessica and Ari's Seders in Mali

As Jess was taking a shower to prepare for the first night of Hag, she heard Ari from inside the latrine walls talking with our host sister Djeneba. “I be se k’an ka farini ani buuru be san?” he asked her in a serious voice. (Can you buy all of our flower and bread goods?) “Seli a be na ani an ka kanka farini ani buuru be feeri,” he explained (We’re about to start our holiday and we need to sell all of our flour and bread things”). There was silence. “Djeneba?” Ari prompted. “You want me to buy all that from you?” she asked. “Are we going to put it all in my room? Or in our host mom’s room? And what are we going to do with all of it?” She didn’t question why Ari would want to sell these items to her, but she was concerned about how the logistics would work. “We’ll just leave all of the stuff in my room,” Ari reassured her. “Wait a second,” Djeneba said. “Let me make sure I understand. You’re saying you want me to buy it from you so you can leave it in your room?” “Yes,” he replied. “You’re going to buy it from me and you’re going to leave it in my room.” “So,” she said, “it’s going to be in your room but it’s going to be mine, not yours?” “Exactly!” Ari explained, “and I’ll sell this entire bucket full of wheat products to you for 10fcfa” (i.e., 2 zuzim).

Ari and Djeneba drew up a formal contract, but selling our Hametz was the least of our challenges. Because the first Seder fell on a Saturday night, we needed to figure out how to prepare the Seder meal without cooking and also without access to refrigerators, electricity, hotplates, or coolers. This had to happen in the middle of the hottest point of the hot season in Mali, where the heat rises well above 100 degrees every day. For the first Seder, we decided to prepare one of our favorite meals in Mali: salad. We preordered the vegetables and hardboiled eggs. We knew we would have many guests, so we ordered an enormous tub of lettuce, which arrived in a big wagon that was wheeled to our house by a neighbor who showed up with a big smile. Several women from the neighborhood gathered to help us wash the vegetables for the salad. As is the custom here, where there are no salad spinners, all of the lettuce was wrapped in a huge piece of thin, clean, cotton fabric and hung from a clothesline so that the water could drip out. By this point, it was well over 100 degrees. Derik, who is a small golden puppy who lives with us is an expert at finding the coolest spots in the courtyard area of our host family’s home naturally settled right below the enormous sack of dripping lettuce. Jessica, who was also rather warm by this point, went to join Derik under the lettuce, peeling onions while water ran down her head.

As the salad was drying, we got out the ingredients to start making the charoset, but just as we were about to start, the winds came. High speed winds tearing branches off of the trees and overturning everything quickly brought with it torrential rain, one of the first rains of the year. We scrambled quickly to take the salad down from the clothesline and brought it inside so that it would not get caught in the whirlwind of dust and rain. Jessica and Derik were overjoyed at the sudden change in temperature and refused to seek cover, standing in the rain until they were soaked. Finally, when they came inside, we started preparing the charoset as the winds roared around the house, and the entire courtyard got flooded. For the charoset, we decided to use mainly local ingredients: fresh mangoes, dried lemon mangoes, cashews, dried cashew apples, dark local honey, lime juice, and a few apples from South Africa. We sat on a mat on the ground with our host mom Nana and sister Seytou, cutting up ingredients for the charoset.
We prepared for the Seder using three different haggadas: the yellow-and-red traditional one that was mailed to us by Ari’s parents from Maryland, the Reconstructionist Haggadah of Northern Virginia, which came from Jessica’s first-year advisor at Brown, and a Haggadah prepared by our friend Frances for a Seder she led in Jordan several years go. Each provided inspiration for relating Yetziyat Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, to modern day inequalities and injustices.

These three haggadahs, though they were from different backgrounds and traditions, all shared the common introductory proclamation, “All those who are hungry, come and eat! All those who are oppressed, come and make the Passover Seder with us!” From that point on, however, the haggadahs we consulted referred to the hungry, suffering, marginalized, and enslaved as though they were not present at the Seder. For ourselves, this was the first time we would be discussing the Jew’s freedom from slavery in Mitzrayim with friends and neighbors who are still bound by great adversity on a daily basis. All the haggadahs instructed us to view ourselves as if we were personally slaves in Mitzrayim on our way to freedom, but although they expressed solidarity with those who are suffering, they also contained the implicit assumption that everyone involved in the Seder would be engaging in an act of creative memory, conducting the Seder from a place of relative freedom and comfort.

For our Seder guests, however, slavery, oppression, marginalization, hunger, and daily suffering would not be a distant historical memory. How would we frame the narrative of Yetziyat Mitzrayim? Most other years, we struggle to capture the immediacy of slavery and the struggle for freedom, but this year, we had the opportunity to think with our friends and neighbors about the existence of slavery, marginalization, and suffering in a very intimate and visceral way, and to discuss what it means to be free.

The first night, we told the story of the Exodus from Mitzrayim with more than thirty people at our Seder—our host family, friends, neighbors, and women who participate in Project Muso’s education program. Since there were no other Jews at our Seder—everyone else was Muslim or Christian—we began the story with Abraham, to explain who Jews are, and that we all, Christians, Muslims, and Jews, share a common ancestor and are from the same family. Everyone engaged in the story with rapt attention and appreciated the retelling. To our great surprise, though no one at our Seder had met a Jew before us, some of the children already knew parts of the story because they had seen “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston on Malian television. (Though there is not electricity where we live, some families rig up batteries to power old televisions.)

The second night many of the same people came back, and again we had more than 30 guests. We were able to get deeper into discussing the story and the challenging questions it raises about slavery and oppression in our world. Several of our guests talked about poverty as a form of slavery. Our friend Daouda said that poverty keeps him bound, and that those who are poor are slaves in this way. He said that if everyone in the world, poor and not poor, shared their resources and efforts in solidarity with each other, that poverty would end and slavery would be abolished. Daouda is living with AIDS and has recently started on antiretroviral therapy, thanks to a life-saving referral from a Project Muso Health Promoter and free ARVs from the Global Fund, which has allowed him to continue working. At his job, he earns $1-4/day, which he uses to support his mother and seven younger siblings. He and his older sister, who sells cakes on a bus stop for a few penny profit, are the sole income earners for their family.

A local Bamanan proverb here teaches, “bolo fila be nyogon ko ka je,” or, “two hands must wash together for either to become thoroughly clean.” Referencing this proverb as everyone ritualistically washed their hands at the beginning of the Passover Seder, we explained the Jewish mandate to have solidarity with all of those who are slaves, marginalized, and oppressed because we were slaves in mitzrayim. With each ritual of the Seder we discussed the significance to the story of the exodus. For maror, we used the only bitter plant we could find in Mali, which is a bitter eggplant called goyo. For karpas, Jessica talked about how the salt water represents tears and urges us to confront suffering while the bushy green stalks of celery we used represent life, renewal, and hope.

While preparing for the second Seder, all of our host-mother’s grandchildren came out to help peel onions: 9-year-old twins Awa and Kadja, 8-year-old Fatimata, 4-year-old Ya, 5-year-old Aminata, 4-year-old Bazu, and 3-year-old Tonton. Tonton was absolutely filthy but demanded that he be included in the onion peeling. Tonton really just likes making mischief but since everyone else was involved he had to be included. Jessica spent 10 minutes washing him up so he could participate, but then he wiped his hands on his filthy shirt and rubbed his onion covered hands in his eyes and after screaming for a while decided he didn’t want to be involved any longer. Ya helped grind the choroset with the mortar and pestle.

We think it is safe to say that the food was a hit. Upon tasting our charoset, our little brother Papuse whispered to Ari: “Ni, a kadi a be se ka ne faga de!” which means in English: “This stuff is so good it could kill me!” Everyone liked the salad the first night and the shakshuka that Ari made from his mom’s recipe the second night. Everyone loved the enormous cauldron of matza ball soup that Jessica made, and everyone kept saying “Vitamini caman b’a la!” which means, “There are a lot of vitamins in this stuff!” referencing all of the fresh local vegetables that she included. Although many of our friends and neighbors were used to sharing grape juice with us on Friday nights, our 3-year-old host-sister Mamani liked the grape juice so much that she collected the empty grape juice boxes and, holding up the boxes in her hand, whispered sincerely to her grandmother, “Ne be t’a feere”, meaning, “I’m going to go sell it.”

But what we never expected was the reaction to the matza. After making hamotsi and the blessing over the matza, we passed around two pieces of matza, imagining that everyone would want to have a little taste. Yet we were entirely unprepared for the mad rush on the matza that ensued. Everyone asked politely for seconds, thirds, fourths, and extra pieces to put in their bags to take home to their families and relatives. Throughout this week, the mere appearance of a matza box brought children running to us, saying, “feti buuru jalan a diarra!” meaning, “that dry holiday bread is good!”

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