In a few hours, my family and friends, and community, will sit down to retell the story of the enslavement of the Hebrews under Pharoah in ancient Egypt, and the remarkable events that led up to their release, and beginning their journey to the Promised Land (or not). This year, I will not be celebrating with them. It’s a strange feeling.
I signed up last fall, when the news was full of the daunting numbers of people falling ill and dying from Ebola viral disease in West Africa. I initially thought I might be here in Africa in January or February, but it took awhile to get my life sorted out enough at home to be available to travel, and my 6-week tour of duty began five weeks ago, and will end just as Passover wraps up at the end of this upcoming week. As far as I know, there is no matzah to be bought here in Sierra Leone, and I am in no way in control of my meals – most of which are provided to me by the organization I am volunteering with. So, this week, I will be eating rice, and fish, and cassava leaves, and probably some pasta, and peanut butter on bread.
As is always the case, for me, at least, when travelling in Africa, is the unavoidable awareness of discomfort. And, while this was less true for me in most of the places that I worked in years ago while assisting in the PEPFAR program – where we usually had fairly reasonable accommodations (at least, running water, most places). Here in Sierra Leone, just out of a civil war, and then recently ravaged by nearly a year of fighting Ebola, the creature comforts are few. The days are extremely hot and humid – averaging 90+ degrees Fahrenheit, and with stifling humidity. There is dust everywhere. The air is often perfumed with the stench of burning trash pits, usually containing plenty of plastic (lovely smell, that!). Our guest house occasionally has running water, when the tanks are full AND the power is running from the generator to charge the pumps. Usually, one showers and and flushes the toilet with water from a bucket filled from the well. The staff of the guesthouse do our laundry, but it’s all done on an old-fashioned washboard, again using the water drawn from the well, and then dried on a clothes line. Which makes me, for one, think twice about throwing an item of clothing into the laundry. In usual life in the US, we don’t think twice about tossing multiple clothing items into the laundry bin during a single day, knowing how easy it it to run a load of laundry (but don’t we all complain about even that slight bit of labor – the folding of the laundry?).
So, all of this consciousness about how difficult life is, on a daily basis, when electricity is not a certainty, when running water is not available, when cooking the family meal takes all day over a coal fire in front of one’s home, when sunset signals times to sleep, because there’s no light to allow any further activities – all of these reminders have awakened for me a very tangible appreciation for the ideas of slavery and freedom that we contemplate during Passover. In places like this, children die in infancy from complications of pregnancy that would be unheard of in the US or Europe. Children die of starvation, due to lack of almost any protein in their diets. Adults struggle every day just to get through the day, and yet, they sing and smile, and wish one a good day in passing! And, most of us, in the developed world, are completely oblivious to the suffering of our fellow human beings who share this rich and varied planet of ours. Not only are we oblivious, but we tend to complain a lot about our own suffering! And, I admit, that I do my share of complaining. I hope that I might find less to complain about when I return home in a week’s time. And, I hope that I will be able to keep the suffering of my brothers and sisters in West Africa at the forefront of my mind, and that we can all work together to remember and give aid to the large fraction of humankind that suffers in ways that we in the West can barely imagine.