My Pessah in Malawi

A group of Westerners with one thing in common found itself celebrating amid wild animals, frogs, boils, but thankfully no rivers of blood.

Island in Malawi 311 (photo credit: Jonny Newton)
Island in Malawi 311
(photo credit: Jonny Newton)
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?
Like 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 Continent.”
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 homeland.”)
Click for special Jpost Pessah featuresClick for special Jpost Pessah features
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 unrelenting mosquitoes.
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.
“That is 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....
Food, 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 poultry.
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 Halacha.
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.
The 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.
On the 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.