Shmura Matzah in Rural Uganda

I am in straw-roofed hut. Three windows overlook a vast empty field. All is dark, save for a kerosene lamp, white eyes brightening black faces, and a handful of white visitors. We are about an hour’s ride on dirt roads from the nearest town. I look around me, wondering if things will ever get stranger. And then I am handed matzah.

Matzah! Putti village is an orthodox Jewish community in the rural areas of Eastern Uganda. People are wearing kipot, dresses and greeting me with the words “Shabbat shalom ve’chag sameach”. No, I have not had too much to drink. Yet.

They conducted services in Hebrew (with a few mispronunciations, but I come from a very Anglo Saxon part of Israel which has trained me to be tolerant of terrible accents) and then went on to the Seder, which was conducted in Hebrew, English and Luganda (or some language I couldn’t understand).

The highlight was when the Rabbi yelled in every language “all those who are hungry, should come and eat!”, and broke the matzah for the entire community.

We were served a balanced meal of rice and posho (the Ugandan form of Ugali, which is the African form of Grits, which is the American version of cornmeal with water). The animal-eaters got fried fish, as well, but I didn’t mind the food much – how much can you expect from a Kosher for Passover meal in the middle of nowhere, Uganda?

The air was special. Everyone was smiling. Tens of children flocked to me with glittering eyes, trying to get as close to me as possible. And lo and behold – they didn’t call me mzungu. They didn’t ask for money. They just wanted to look at me – a white Jew. From Israel.

After the Seder people continued to encircle me. They wanted to learn Hebrew songs. With my terrible voice and worse sense of rhythm, I conducted Jewish folk dances, and even showed off my knowledge about Ugandan pop songs, but one of the women informed me with a smile that those were “not Shabbat songs.”

The next day was a slow, Shabbas-y one. Everything was Jewish and beautiful and heartwarming. But it’s been a while since I had a slow Jewish day, and when I was informed that there was going to be another Seder that night – I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle it. I am an Israeli (we only have one Seder and we have ants in our pants).

So I decided I would do a little Seder hopping and head over to a nearby Jewish community (did you know that there are five Jewish communities in Uganda? We’re taking over the continent!)

The Abuyudayah are real Jews. You know how I know? We were greeted in the entrance to the guesthouse, next to the gift shop. And were informed that a night there would be 25 dollars. Unless we wanted to eat the guesthouse food, in which case it would be more. (25 dollars is more than I would’ve paid for five nights at the guesthouse overlooking one of the most beautiful valleys in the country, where I stayed the following night).

Okay, fine. I would camp out.

20,000 shillings.

Are you kidding me?! Fine, whatever. I’m already here.

But I don’t have a sleeping bag.

But my friends do, and they have already paid the 25 for a bed, so I’ll use theirs.

But I have lice. So Iwon’t use theirs.

But if I pay 25 dollars to sleep inside, I will have two worthless coins left in my wallet.

Okay. Let’s just enjoy the Seder and celebrate the fact that they are a conservative community by taking photos. Hmmm… where is my camera?

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah. Did I actually let the boda boda driver hold my bag for me, after he saw which pocket the camera was in??? Why am I so trusting?

Phone call. Hi Danya! It’s Dad. How are you?

Crap. (Fill in all unfortunate events here)

Oh, sorry. Wait – I can’t talk, I’m golfing. Here, take your brother.

Hey Danya, what’s up? Oh shit – gotta go, take Dad!

(Repeat)

(Again)

Click.

But… everything worked out fine. My lice and I slept in the guesthouse, and I had enough money to make it to an ATM the next day. The camera was never found, but I think one Ugandan motorcycler had a really happy Pesach thanks to me.

The next day I hiked around Sipi Falls – three enormous and spectacular waterfalls. And if G-d thought he hadn’t been miraculous enough in those three days, in the last and largest waterfall, I swam, in freezing pool of water, into a full circle rainbow with droplets and mist splashing all over my face. It was magnificent.

What a very spiritual of very high person might look like. Strangely, I am neither.

Sewer Swimming and Wedding Crashing

I wasn’t planning on it. It was evening in Lushoto, the “main city” of the area we were hiking in, in northeastern Tanzania. When I say big city, I mean the place that sometimes had electricity (obviously not when we were there) and the potential to have running water (again, somehow not when we happened to be there).

Needless to say, the roads were not the best. Taking no heed of this, I walked down the side of the dirt path which was one of the main roads, concentrating on sending an SMS on my local phone. I was walking with my friend, who suddenly noticed I’d been swallowed by the earth. I was right beside him one moment, and the next I was falling down a two meter ditch. The fall was long enough for me to think, “where the hell am I going?” and then foresee the future: I became covered in muck – mud, bits of garbage and a distinct smell of shit. I don’t know if it was the sewer only because I don’t know if Lushoto has a sewage system. But I am sure there was stuff in there that does not belong all over my arms and legs.

Unfortunately, I was wearing my best clothes. Don’t worry, they were still clothes I wouldn’t normally want to be seen in. But still, I had a wedding to crash and I was about to get into two friendly strangers’ car.

My wedding outfit

In the ditch, I allowed myself two seconds of absolute shock at the wetness and the stench and the realization that I was swimming in it, before I started howling with laughter. I was not alone in my embarrassment. Ten men flocked over immediately to help me out. Every person on the road (and that’s a lot) turned his head to look at the stupid mzungu who’d fallen in the ditch. But for some reason I was the only one laughing.

That’s when I decided I liked Lushoto. People really cared about me, said “pole” which means sorry, and hardly laughed. A few people suppressed smiles but that was only once they’d seen I was laughing.

I didn’t notice yet how much my neck hurt from the whiplash, so I continued walking down the road laughing, saying “Thank you Lushoto! Don’t worry…” and wondering how long it would take until people stopped staring at me. And then the headlights of our ride flashed at us.

I tried in broken Swahili to explain what had happened, and that they should just go to the wedding without us, but they insisted on waiting for me while I got washed. Which was quite a problem considering there was no running water.

Ten minutes later I was in the car, with a light aroma of crap and soap, in hiking clothes and muddy sandals, on my way to the wedding of Mohammad and Aisha.

I’d always wanted to crash a wedding. The perfect opportunity fell into my lap that afternoon, when my friend and I shared a corn on the cob on the side of a road in Lushoto. We were sitting on wooden beams near another group of people who were also just sitting. That’s the main activity around here.

But we noticed they were wrapping a present and seemed to be excited about something. I gathered my Israeli Chutzpah and started chatting with them about something. They liked my camera. I told them I’d be their photographer if they took me to the wedding.

“Okay!” Really? “My brother who is supposed to go cannot go, so you can go,” said the man. I looked at my friend with a dopey grin. “Wow! You sure?” I asked, hoping he wouldn’t change his mind. He told me where and when he would pick us up. I was ecstatic.

Although I was little smellier than I would have liked, the wedding was fantastic! After days of feeling sorry for all the poor people in the villages, we got to see a different side of Lushoto: Long satin gowns, sparkling jewelery, a five piece wedding cake and lavish decorations.

Our hosts took care of us as if we were the angels who’d just visited Abraham. The woman held my hand I was walked into the auditorium, and the man gave us running commentary throughout the four-hour ceremony.

No hurry in Africa. But eventually we did eat,  and how.

There were a few moments of embarrassment, for example the train of dancing and giving of gifts – they really do that. Or the saying of blessings. I said “Mazel Tov” but didn’t even receive a hint of a smile from the bride or groom.

Oh, what a night!

Bananas

Did you know that bananas come in all shades of green, yellow and red, can be a foot long or the size of your finger, and can either be sweet or used like potatoes in soups and other local dishes? Did you care?

Well, when you’re living in Tanzania you sort of have to care, and so I do, and I think I’ve eaten about 18 bananas in the past two days to prove it. Bananas are everywhere.

I ate DELICIOUS banana bread at this house where I’m staying (I always wonder if I think things are good because they really are or because I’ve eaten so much crap here) and I think the recipe is worth sharing. Don’t worry, folks, this is not becoming a cooking blog.

Stamil’s Banana Bread

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 cup flour

1 tsp vanilla

1 tsp baking soda

3-4 mashed bananas

1 egg

3/4 cup butter (although here they use “Blue Band” – the world’s most artery-clogging vegetable fat)

Mix bananas, sugar and butter well. Add egg, vanilla baking soda and then flour.

That’s all I know, so you’ll have to guess how much time it needs to bake. No hurry in Africa, though, so don’t worry… Hakuna matata.

Fine Dining

He looked at us with excitement. “So… you want the one piece butter, and other piece peanut, and another one jam, and then”, his eyes twinkled, “You put it together.”

Dad and I looked at each other. We’d spent the last ten minutes trying to explain to our guide, who would later explain to our cook, how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Frustrated, but at the same time motivated to get his sandwich, my dad attempted it once more. “You take one piece of bread, and you put peanut,” he held out one hand to demonstrate, then the other. “Then you take another piece of bread. You put jam. Okay? And then,” he clapped his hands together, “You put it together.” There was silence for a few moments, as we waited for all this new and strange information to register.

He looked up at us. “But what about the butter?”

“No butter! Peanut butter. Just… peanut, forget the butter.”

“Ah.”

The next day we each got a sandwich with three pieces of bread, a layer of jam and a layer of peanut butter. If I recall correctly, the peanut butter had been mixed with butter. I guess it’ll be a while before we Westernize Africa.