Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Very Ghanaian Passover

Holidays this year have been interesting to say the least. My first holiday abroad, Thanksgiving, I spent  alone in my Lagos hotel semi-miserably working and eating room service (though it was fortunately followed a couple days later, by a belated celebration at the home of a random expat couple who happened to be friends of friends of friends). I spent Christmas exploring Bangkok with my dear friend, Kathy, and we reigned in the New Year at the infamous Countdown Party on Koh Phangan. For my birthday, I made very certain to travel back to lovely New York to be with my family and friends for the first time in months. But after all of this, I have to admit, Passover has been the most interesting of all.

Despite the challenges of being in Africa, I had not one, but two Passover seders, one at my own apartment and one at the house of a local Jewish expat couple. While the second night, was much more what I was used to from growing up on Long Island (reading from the haggadah, singing Diyanu, and kids frantically searching for the afikomen), the first night was a truly unusual and especially memorable Passover experience.

First, I should preface that the seder at my apartment was not hosted by me; it was hosted by my Christian roommate Bridgette. Yes, you read that right. I learned that night from Bridgette's pastor that her church practices what's called apostolic Christianity. In other words, they worship as Christ's apostles did. So in practice, they're actually more like Jews than modern Christians (except for that whole "Christ our savior" thing). And while there aren't very many, if any, native Ghanaian Jews, there are quite a few apostolic Christians. So we ended up hosting quite an interesting night.

Their customs depart considerably from those of most Jews, but the fundamentals are the same. The day before the seder, she baked her own unleavened bread and I made charoset. They aren't quite so picky about what constitutes chametz, but Bridgette faithfully cleaned out our kitchen before Passover began. And while there was no retelling of the story of Passover (a staple that I personally missed), we did pray before the meal began. I've always believed that how one worships is a personal matter, and for me, being Jewish is more about making a point to do something and to act righteously rather than following a set of rules. Thus, I don't believe that one people's interpretation of a text is inherently any better than anyone else's. Needless to say, I was actually quite excited to try another group's customs for a change.

The people I met were fascinating. I spent most of the night talking with a few local recent college grads. They were telling me all about their frustrations living in Ghana as young, educated adults. They had spent all of this time and energy in college, and now that they were out with degrees in math, statistics and economics, they couldn't find jobs. They voiced their sorrow that they felt like they had to leave their homeland to find opportunity. They didn't want to leave, and yet given the state of Ghana, they didn't want to stay either. These were all things I understood, but what really hit me as I was talking to these bright, articulate, hard-working young men was that just because where they were born, they weren't entitled to the same opportunities I was. Despite their hard work, despite their drive, and despite their intelligence, getting a visa or a job overseas seemed an insurmountable obstacle. They asked me about all of the places I'd traveled, and I ended up talking about New York. They listened raptly, and seeing the interest on their faces, I added, "You should visit!" As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized how foolish I must have sounded.

One bit of the conversation that really hit me was one of the guys said, "every time I see an obruni, I feel inspired." "Why?" I asked, perplexed. "Because they're blessed." I tried to argue that we're all blessed in our own way, but confronted with the reality that these young men faced, I couldn't argue that we're all blessed equally. When I started traveling a few years back, I left the United States a staunch believer that the US wasn't inherently any better than any other part of the world, just different. Maybe bigger, more prosperous, more powerful, sure, but not inherently better. Two and a half years and many countries later, I still believe we Americans must to acknowledge our country's faults, but on the same token, I also count myself very, very lucky to have been born in the USA.

1 comment:

Ariana said...

I've urged people to visit places that were out of their reach, too, but the circumstances were different: I was talking to an Israeli about Lebanon, and the conversation quickly became really awkward. Also, one of my colleagues at TechnoServe told me over dinner once that, "There is a saying that if you are on your way to church and you see a white man, then you can turn around and return home since you have already seen God. The white man can answer all of your prayers."