Rwanda's creative Hanukka

Rwandas creative Hanukk

rwanda hanukka 248.88 (photo credit: David Druce)
rwanda hanukka 248.88
(photo credit: David Druce)
When Karen Shulman was hired to work in Rwanda, many of her friends and family wondered what she would do for the Jewish holidays. More than a year later, she has celebrated the entire calendar of Jewish holidays in Rwanda and has succeeded in drawing a diverse group of friends to join her. Some three dozen people joined her for her Hanukka Hano party, which translates as "Hanukka is here" in Kinyarwanda, the national language. Billed as a chance to "come out and enjoy the Jewish Festival of Lights - Kigali style," Hanukka Hano was held in Shulman's house on Saturday night. The guests came from such countries as Israel, Canada, the United States, Uganda and, of course, Rwanda. Of those, Shulman said about a third were Jewish and the rest were friends and well-wishers. Latkes made from potatoes and plantains were served along with homemade sour cream and apple sauce. Sufganiyot were ordered from a local café that also bakes halla on request. Shulman had hoped to have a hand-carved menora with the phrase "a miracle happened here" written in Kinyarwanda. But the menora was not ready in time for Hanukka so she improvised by using beer bottles from Primus, the local beer, to hold the candles. Improvisation is a necessary quality for one wishing to observe holidays in Rwanda. The African nation has no organized Jewish community due to the transient nature of the Jewish expats who live there. It has no synagogue or holiday services and Chabad's nearest outpost is 650 km. away in Nairobi, Kenya. Jessica Smolow, an educator who was the Rwandan coordinator for the WorldTeach organization, notes that Rwanda is quite different from Namibia, a nation with an established Jewish community where she had previously worked. "I loved celebrating the holidays in both Namibia and Rwanda," she said. "In Namibia, there is a synagogue in Windhoek. They are very welcoming to everyone. After both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, they had a wonderful dinner and everyone got to talk and meet. "It was really nice in Rwanda. It's been a little different without a focal point of a synagogue. She [Shulman] really has done such an amazing job of bringing the traditions of the holiday with traditional food that non-Jews really get to learn about some of the traditions of the holiday." Shulman and Smolow are part of a growing population of young professionals working in Rwanda, some of whom are Jewish. A sampling of those who came to past events included those working in the fields of education, public health, academia and international development. In addition, there are Jewish staff members and volunteers at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwamagana. These professionals are largely from English-speaking nations, who have joined an established Francophone community dating back to Rwanda's time as a Belgian colony. There are also Israeli businessmen and experts here. A 27-year-old social worker from Los Angeles, Shulman lived in Israel and New York before finding her way to Rwanda as a volunteer to help to coordinate construction of a community center in Nyamata. She spent Rosh Hashana in a village in the southern province of Bugesera, infamous for its high concentration of victims in the 1994 genocide and earlier massacres. Nyamata was chosen as a site for the community center for the large community of genocide survivors and their families. There Shulman worked with other volunteers like Ferdinand, a Rwandan computer science student, and Khalid, a Palestinian-American from New Jersey. Along the way, she began to meet people involved in Rwandan education and started a side project to help create a Rwandan version of Sesame Street. Later Karen joined the staff of Aegis Trust, the UK-based charity that manages the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. Shulman developed programming for tolerance education. Occasionally, she gave tours of the museum to Jewish visitors who included participants in human rights programs as well as students on educational tours. "I found it especially meaningful walking through the museum with other Jews discussing the historical linkage between Rwandans and the Jewish people," she said. Innocent Niyezemana is an engineering student at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology and a former co-worker of Shulman's. Born in a village in the Kibuye province, he lost his family in the genocide, escaping to Congo through the help of a neighbor. Like the majority of Rwandans, Innocent is a religious Christian. His name Nizeyemana means "I believe in God‚" and is quite appropriate. A devout Catholic who like many in Rwanda struggles with the legacy of the church in a post-genocide country, he takes pleasure in attending Jewish events. "Karen was the first Jewish person I had ever met," he said. "I knew about Jews from the Bible and about the Holocaust. We were treated the same way Jews were treated during the Holocaust. The way we live and they live is very similar." Shulman enjoys combining the Jewish holidays she observes with elements of Rwandan art and culture. She and her roommate built a succa making sure it was fully kosher. The succa in which we had the Hanukka party was made of colorful fabrics bought at the nearby Nyabugogo Market originally from countries such as Burundi, Tanzania and Cameroon. Shulman's roommate, Andrea Thompson, a journalist from Brantford, Ontario, helped to build it. "It was really exciting to visit a succa and share someone's background," Thompson said. "This little hut brought so many people together. Our Rwandan friends were really excited. They kept asking me: Is this hut mentioned in the Bible?" "I have always been one to reach out to a Jewish community when I have lived away from home," Smolow said. "It's been nice to know that even in Africa you can do the same!"