“SAVE ME, OH LORD” are the words that are boldly painted on the back of the bouncing van in front of us. That’s not far from what I’m thinking. Dearest God, it’s not enough that you brought the Jews out of Egypt for passover. Please bring Lian safely out of Ghana too. I think this passover, I may have exhausted my lifetime quota of personal passover miracles.
I hadn’t realized just how important having somewhere to celebrate passover was until a few days before the first seder night. I was sitting on the floor of my room, watching the sweat make perfect little droplets as it dripped from my face to the ground, when a little pouty mental voice crept into my mind and said “but I don’t WANNA celebrate passover alone!” This genuinely surprised me, as I’ve been extremely satisfied with and purposefully making room for alone time this year, be it a solo hike or an evening where I take myself out on a dinner date. But it turns out that one of the most important parts of Judaism for me is the community, having shared rather than personal traditions. So I did some research. I’m open to contrary evidence, but I’m pretty sure that I am currently the only Jew in Togo. In other words, no Israeli embassy, no sign of Jews: expats or Togolese, anywhere on the internet. No Jews. So I contacted the Israeli embassy in Accra, Ghana and procured the information for the seders (two!) in Accra. I’d heard that it was tricky to get a visa upon arrival for Ghana, but I figured I’d give it a shot.
Monday morning my friend picked me up on his motorcycle and we sped an hour and a half through the forest to the nearest Ghanian border, dreadlocks (his) and semi dreads (mine) flying behind us in the wind. At the border, security guard number two said there was no way without a visa and that I’d have to go to Lome. Security number one was playing a virtual soccer game on his computer with his feet on the table. My friend joined him. Back through the potholes we sped, to where I joined a shared taxi to Lome, the capital of Togo (a two hour drive away). At the border, the bulky security guard explained that unless I wanted to pay quite a few hundred dollars, I would have to go to the embassy and get a visa. No problem. Motorcycle taxi to the embassy, which was, of course, closed. So there I was, sitting in front of Palm Hotel (the only landmark I know in the city), crying to mom and dad on the phone. First they gave sensible advice “maybe it’s just meant to be. Go treat yourself to a nice dinner and hotel, shower with running water, think about passover in a quiet, personal way.” Then they gave the advice I wanted: “just go to the border and see what you can do again, and worst case, budget some of the grant towards Passover”.
Back at the border, I was approached by a man wearing a Stalin style mustache and a sneaky glean in his eyes. I followed him to a back office where he explained: if I wanted to slip money into 4 or 5 big men’s pockets, then I could pass. It was as easy as that. He would give me his number and upon my return, make sure that my passport was stamped back into Togo.
Three hours later, I barged into a well lit room in the middle of Accra, Ghana with a long white table and 40 smiling people singing tunes of my childhood. I took 2 minutes to take a few deep breaths in the bathroom, change my clothes, marvel at the running water and mirror, and emerged. I don’t think I stopped grinning the whole seder. I’ve never felt so thankful to be surrounded by familiar songs, books, stories, and to be eating matzo ball soup! That night I slept on the couch of one of the lovely seder-goers, whom I joined for the second seder the next night.
I’d been feeling a little bit guilty about my recent cravings for familiarity. Why couldn’t I share passover with my Togolese friends? Explain what passover and Judaism was to them? I could have, it’s true. And it may have been the more righteous thing to do. But the truth is, that every day is an experience of trying to explain myself, my weird culture, habits, and language. This passover was about allowing myself to want familiarity, about not judging, and criticizing myself for wanting some of my own culture.
I pretended to sleep in the shared car the whole way back to the border so that no police officer would do a random passport check. At the border, mustache man stamped my passport, asked for “something to chop” (some money) and then for my hand in marriage. I agreed to his first request.
Now I’m back in Kpalime, Togo, the small town that I’ve been living in for the past month. Togo has been a personal music therapy break for me, as I’ve felt a surprising lack of personal musical development this year. My schedule here is a bit ridiculous, but it does reflect my goal, which is to soak up as much West African music as possible. It’s nice when days and weeks are actually centered around my goals. For as sensible a lifestyle as that is, I feel like it rarely happens.
My days look like this:
8AM roll out of bed, walk outside to the toilet, remove the wooden lid, try to ignore the hundreds of scurrying cockroaches. Pull a bucket from the well and wash up. Eat 2 mangos, bananas, some apples with freshly ground peanut butter.
930-11:30 AM Dance class: One of the best dancers in Kpalime (which a central music hub in Togo) spends 2 hours teaching me West African dance. We jump and spin and create rivers of sweat.
12PM Pull a bucket from the well and take a delightful cold bucket shower.
1PM Walk to my favorite beans lady. Eat a bowl of beans mixed with manioc powder and a whole, beautiful avocado.
2-4PM Djembe lesson. Hands down, the best djembe player in Kpalime and I sit under the mango tree in his backyard and play for 2 hours. He speaks no English, so we really do just play for 2 hours. He produces music, I repeat with garbled noise. But I assure you, it’s sounding more like music every day.
4:30-7PM Zota practice. I’ve become a member of Zota, the oldest drum/dance troupe in Kpalime. Ten stunning, dreadlocked men, 2 incredible women dancers and I spend a few hours drumming and dancing outside until it’s too dark to play. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wo7ItjEXwo)
7:30 PM Eat something on the street….maybe a mushy starch (fufu-yam mush, akume-corn mush, amakume-cassava/corn mush) with a tasty, oily sauce (peanut, greens, meat, fish)
9 PM Play with the 2 year old and her mama, with whom I live
10 PM Crash, exhausted and with bruised hands and feet.
The market in Kpalime
Yams of all sizes and shapes…used to make fufu (yam mush).
Women pound fufu
Mama grinding ginger and garlic
My dance teacher
PASSOVER in Accra!