So what does Pessah mean to me? Another excuse to spend a stormy evening with the
family whilst debating, arguing and agreeing on the finer points of our secular
lives as well as the meanings held within the Haggada. The one time in
the year that we lather multiple layers of chrayne onto our matza, knowing that
Mum is expecting the tablecloth to be pockmarked with deep purple stains, so
doesn’t mind it so much. A time when we all agree that a couple of boiled eggs
swimming in saltwater is an hors-d’oeuvre worthy of the pharaohs, and always
wonder why we don’t similarly supplement our main courses this way throughout
the year. Enough of the anecdotes … what does Pessah really mean to me?
Rosh Hashana, it gives me a focal point to track my previous year and ponder
over the forthcoming one. It signifies the physical, meta-physical,
emotional and spiritual transition from a nation of slaves to a nation of free
thinking, free living people. It includes a night (or two) when thousands of
families are doing the same thing, at the same time, all over the world, and
have done so for 3,000 years. It marks the first steps towards Israel as our
homeland, irrespective of how you view that land today. And one particular year
I found myself in Malawi.
Malawi … home of its eponymous lake. The Lake …
continuation of the Great Rift Valley that originates in Ein Gedi, in the Dead
Sea area, and splits the Red Sea on its way South; breadbasket of the country;
provider of water, fish, tourism, life. An archetypal tropical paradise nestled
between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer, deep in the interior of the “Dark
Blessed with year round sun and a proud moniker as “the warm
heart of Africa” incessantly pushed by the tourist industry. Picture postcard
views of fisherman plying their trade in dugout canoes unchanged through
countless generations. But, there is trouble in paradise. Crippling
poverty as expected of the “eighth poorest country in the world,” low life
expectancy and high infant mortality, HIV/AIDS ruthlessly ravaging the
population in tenth plague proportions, poor education, poor medical health,
many impotent in the hope of pulling themselves towards a better quality of
life, plenty of disease, pestilence, wild animals, frogs, boils, but thankfully
no rivers of blood.
The eternal wandering Jew. It always amazes me that
wherever I travel, however obscure, on or off “the beaten track,” whether
Melbourne or Mangochi, I always manage to find a co-religionist or two. (As a
sidepoint, when in India a couple of years back I heard a story of a local
enquiring of an Israeli how many people lived in Israel, “I’m not exactly sure”
said the Israeli “but probably 5 or 6 million.” “No” replied the Indian “you
misunderstood, I wasn’t asking how many were currently in India, but in your
And for some reason, unknown to me, Jews abroad always seem eager to
celebrate Pessah more than other holidays. Apparently the biggest seder in the
world is hosted by Chabad in Katmandu, and I have been fortunate enough to drink
my four cups in years gone by in both Belize and Fiji.
In Malawi, it
happened to be hosted in picturesque Nkhata Bay, and enjoyed with a North London
Jew, a few Israelis, a couple of non-Jewish friends, and the obligatory horde of
On realizing Pessah was around the corner, a few
of us decided to organize the impending gathering. I took off a few days from
building a house for a small NGO in Usisya, a remote and beautiful part of the
world, uncontaminated by the Internet, mobile phones or television, situated a
few hours north of Nkhata Bay by boat. Others planned their travels from
different parts of the North, and rumors filtered through that an Israeli family
were planning to arrive decked out with canned haroset, a box of Rakusens and a
couple of haggadot.
Two days before the big night I was visited by the
local Head of Police, accompanied by two burly CID officers. In my best
“humble yet confident” manner reserved solely for officialdom (especially of the
African variety), I asked how I could help.
“We hear that there is a
Jewish gathering here on Saturday night” stated policeman No. 1.
right,” I replied with mild consternation.
“We would like to offer our
services, and give you protection.”
Flabbergasted, I thanked them and
told them that wouldn’t be necessary. The Bay is no Baghdad. Hence, beyond
braving the dubious perils of being a Mzungu in town (pretty much limited to
incessant hassling from carvers trying to sell you dodgy chairs), being a Jew
adds no extra security complications.
The prologue to this finale is
rather typical of Jewish paranoia. A hyper-protective father in Haifa phoned the
Israeli ambassador to Kenya, who in turn spoke to his counterpart in Lilongwe.
Concerns filtered through to the head of police in Malawi, who ordered the local
representative, who collared me. Straight from the top....
obviously, was not going to be scarce for this particular family on this
particular night. A hotch-potch seder plate was followed by lashings of chicken
soup and main dishes accompanied by an assortment of Israeli side dishes, all
washed down with the requisite wine. Omer, the kosher-keeping Israeli, ensured
that his special evening wasn’t going to be marred by a lack of
An abiding memory is of a sacrificial white chicken hanging
upside down from a tree at dusk, while Ben, another Israeli, waited with a sharp
knife in hand for Omer to receive a phone call from his father in Israel with
the correct Shechita blessings, before ending its life in accordance with
So, 18 of us sat down, boys with comical conical kippot
fashioned from cereal boxes, in a rented open-sided restaurant perched on a
peninsula – the lake, a spitting-distance away on three sides, the dull hum of
bad African Pop filtering up from town a short way down the dusty road, the full
moon of the month of Nisan casting its tapered glow over the long table, the
days activity from the primitive harbor nearby coming to a close.
unfamiliar surroundings soon gave way to the familiarity of seder night drones.
Ma Nishtana being sung in an awful cacophony of bad harmonization, poison to the
ears of any nearby Malawian, who is used to the effortless beautiful sounds of
local and church music.
A drawn-out discussion over the meaning of the
“Four Sons” and the relevance of those ancient words to our modern lives.
Skipping through the boring bits and dwelling on the singing. Trying to make
sure that the seder novices weren’t getting too lost in the ensuing (confusion)
and the inevitable arguments over the correct way of leading the service. All
fuelled by a steadily increasing drunkenness.
Irony. On the night that
signifies our journey from slavery to freedom, a group of Westerners with one
thing in common, were celebrating this supposed transition, in the developing
world. None of us knew what it is like to be a conventional slave, all of us had
the freedom to pack our bags and travel, a privilege that the vast majority of
Malawians don’t enjoy.
It was a role reversal for which we all felt
grateful, an opportunity to make the choice of spending our time in a land where
most are shackled by poverty. From freedom to slavery. A few of us had been
working for various NGOs in an almost pointless and vain effort to try and
loosen those shackles a little bit. Another privilege of the rich.
other hand, despite all the problems of being part of the developing world,
Malawi is a wonderfully free place. Problems here are raw and basic in
nature. Choices are over life and death. People don’t worry about child
obesity or the mental health of Britney Spears, people worry about finding their
next meal or whether they will be paid that week, which though tragic and deeply
unfair is paradoxically uncomplicated.
I come from a land that despite
all its undoubted benefits (of which I am, of course, a willing recipient)
charges you £8 to drive into town, where CCTV watches your moves unceasingly,
the media bombards us about the “War on Terror” and makes us feel guilty if we
don’t get our “5-a-day,” rising inflation, interest-only mortgage repayments for
the rest of our lives, 9 to 5, 365 days a year. A friend of my father recently
worked out that after 30 years of commuting into town, he had spent three years
in total, on the Underground.
Malawi has huge problems, as does every
country on this earth. On Pessah I have had the liberty to choose and spend it
in Nkhata Bay. I wonder whether this is still part of my personal journey from a
contemporary slavery to freedom.
Jonny Newton is a freelancer who focuses on
travel and feature writing. He is currently based in South Africa.