Seldom do I use the word 'life-transforming" because very few things in life are. True change is usually something that requires diligence, effort and often monotonous repetition. It doesn't come cheaply.
But what I did this past Thanksgiving changed my perception of the world forever. As a volunteer with my friend Glen Megill's organization, Rock of Africa (a Christian relief effort), I travelled to one of the poorest villages in Zimbabwe, one of the world's poorest countries. Joining me was my daughter Chana, my friend, the writer and radio host Dennis Prager, his son Aaron and about seven Christian volunteers. We staged an outreach program, preparing a Thanksgiving feast for 500 villagers, to whom we then distributed mosquito nets and Bibles. Most importantly, we gave them seed that can produce shima, the corn flour that is the staple diet for most of Africa and which, for $25 a year, can literally keep a family alive. The feast consisted of 10 slaughtered goats, giant pots of cooked cabbage and shima.
It would be difficult to convey the appreciation of the villagers for one good, hot, meaty meal. The people we met were gentle, beautiful and utterly poor. The village consisted of nothing but mud huts, the chief's homestead included. These people have virtually nothing. They live in tiny pen-sized huts, and one which we visited housed a hospitable but infirm man in his late 80s who reeked of urine. His 12-year-old grandson lives with him and takes care of him; his parents died of AIDS. The only luxury in the tiny dwelling was one mosquito net for the grandfather.
Indeed, of the hundreds who came to our feast, only a few were young mothers and fathers; the vast majority had already been lost to AIDS. We saw scores of young children strapped to their grandmothers' backs in the African way. An entire generation has been wiped out by this killer disease, which is still met by denial in Africa. Most of the people we spoke to who lost relatives to AIDS told us that "they got sicker and thinner." They knew exactly what caused the ailment but would never pronounce it. Strict moral codes govern life in southern Africa, so a sexually-transmitted disease is rarely acknowledged.
BUT AMID these serious challenges, the people exhibit unbelievable warmth. Are they happier than we in the West? I can't say. I have never believed in the supposedly ennobling effect of poverty, and I will not glamorize a life with so little. But what is undeniable is that they seemed far more satisfied, grateful and content than us. We in the West who are fortunate to be able to translate so much of our potential into something professionally and personally fulfilling are more often than not plagued by insatiable material hunger, rarely finding the inner peace which they seemed to possess.
When we Rock of Africa volunteers cooked much of the food and physically served it, I noticed that among the villagers there was not a single finicky eater. They ate every part of the goat served them - the stomach, the intestines, the vertebrae; food was not a luxury, it was survival itself. Indeed, the villagers rarely looked down at their food, which they ate with their hands (which were washed just before the meal). There is no piping in the village, so water is fetched from a well a kilometer away. Before and after the meal, the women serenaded us with joyous song and dance. The chief was a man of extraordinary humility, and took great pride in showing us his village.
The men and women sat apart. When the women, my daughter included, served they curtsied, as women do by tradition before men. If a woman does not curtsy, the man will not accept the food. The men seemed more self-conscious than the women. I hugged every man I met - something usually not done in Africa, but a pity because men need tactility as much as women. They all responded warmly to the overture.
Most memorable were the children, who were wondrous in every way. Gorgeous, extremely polite and exceptionally well-behaved. They exhibited none of wildness that is becoming common among Western kids. Hundreds of them sat in perfect rows on the floor, grateful to have a hot meal. They too sang and danced for us, and we danced with them.
The most moving part of the day was when we distributed the corn seed. The chief called out the names and as the families came forward, they were glowing. Many of them kissed the bags as they collected them. A few bags broke open and their recipients searched for, and found, every last seed as if it were a diamond.
It should be mandatory to take Western kids to Africa for at least one humanitarian mission. It would help wean them from the corrosive materialism that is suffocating us all, and it would lead them to appreciate their blessings and share more with others.
All this was made possible because of two angels. The first is Glen, an American businessman who created Rock of Africa and is one of the most righteous men I know. The second is a young woman whose courage and heroism left me incredulous. Her name is Regina Jones. She's 30 years old and from Detroit. She moved to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, four years ago, after a teen life where she owned more than 200 pairs of shoes. She now lives on her own and runs the organization. She saves orphaned street children from dying. She teaches villagers how to become self-sustaining. For our feast, she went at midnight to a neighboring village, negotiated the price for the goats and rented a trailer in the morning and picked them up so the villagers could eat meat. I personally watched her lovingly lecture a man with a white beard to help out his wife more with their tiny farm.
No, she is not a household name and she will never be as famous as Britney Spears. But to me she was a small reminder that the suffocating selfishness of Western material culture can indeed be transcended.
The writer is founder of This World: The Values Network and the author most recently of The Blessing of Enough. D`onations to Rock of Africa can be made on its Web site, www.rockofafrica.org.