Stepping out of the bubble: A Jewish journey to Ghana
“Ghana? Why would you go to Ghana? What’s there to do in Ghana?”
This was by far the most common response when I informed people of my recent expedition to the Sub-Saharan country. Few had heard of the Ben Azzai program and nearly all reacted in pleasant disbelief that a trip offering 16 Jewish university students to learn about third-world Africa in an Orthodox framework could be true. In Britain, social action “Tikkun Olam” initiatives have mostly been in the domain of other denominations within the Jewish faith.
Chief Rabbi Mirvis set up this program in partnership with Tzedek UK to emphasize to Anglo-Jewry that in fact outward-looking social responsibility is not only encouraged but it is an important part of our traditional Jewish identity and is ingrained in our heritage. The program is named after the 2nd century sage Shimon Ben Azzai, who contended that the core idea in Judaism is that every human descends from Adam, quoting the verse describing humankind as B’tselem Elokim, “In the image of G-d” (Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 30b).
The Haftarah we read in Mincha of Yom Kippur (the most important day of the Jewish calendar) recounts the well-known story of Jonah. The prophet is sent to persuade the non-Jewish city of Nineveh to repent from their evil immoral ways. Jonah, however, has this internal struggle in which he is reluctant to carry out this divine command where he’s ordered to travel far to deliver a message to people not of his faith. The parting message of the book consists of God reproaching Jonah for this misguided inward-looking approach. ”The Lord said: You took pity on the kikayon tree, for which you did not toil nor did you make it grow … Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than 1120,000 people … and many beasts as well?” (Jonah 4:10-11) This final verse is a major lesson about God’s universality and the worldview Jews should espouse.
The thorough preparation by the Office of the Chief Rabbi and by our accompanying Rabbi Daniel and Rebbetzin Ilana Epstein stamped the Orthodox perspective that ran through our observations and discussions before, during and after the trip.
Upon arrival, the first place we visited in Accra was called Ussher Fort. This slave castle embodied the many different aspects of Ghana’s dark past. Accra played an instrumental role in the infamous African Slave trade. The museum’s basic content was impactful enough. A powerful thought-provoking mural depicting a chain of indigenous villagers being led away from their homes to a life of slavery told a million stories.
The “Gate of No Return” and the slavery-related relics provided us with a vivid image of the brute subjugation innocent African people were forced to endure for centuries. As a people, we can hardly not associate and empathize with the suffering of their oppression when the memory of our centuries of Egyptian slavery is so deeply embedded in our daily prayers, canon, and identity.
Despite the dreadful history, the colonialist exploitation, and the widespread poverty across the country it is glaringly obvious that Ghanaians do not embrace any sense of victimhood and self-pity. It is a pragmatic and optimistic nation. Anyone who has visited Ghana will tell you that the joie-de-vivre positive vibes are contagious. The colorful clothing reflects this in a sense. Smiling at strangers is the default. US flags which are viewed as a symbol of liberty and hope in Ghana are widely on display. The serenity one can feel at the Nkrumah mausoleum in the Memorial Park in downtown Accra represents the peacefulness of Ghana since the much-admired Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah led the country to independence in 1957.
Tzedek UK is a Jewish charity which has a permanent presence in Ghana and focuses its efforts mainly in Tamale, a city in the mostly Muslim northern region of Ghana. Sub-Saharan Africa is in fact among the most religious regions in the world where “roughly nine-in-10 people or more say religion is very important in their lives.” In a part of the world where tension between religious groups is high, Ghana is an exemplary exception. Religious cohesion and low crime rate are social facets the natives are extremely proud of and the men, therefore, felt totally at ease wearing kippot in public wherever we went.
We spent a full day with youth leaders our age in Nyankpala, a rural mud hut hamlet in the North. Tzedek arranged fun contests, interactive lectures, and the outcome of these bonding activities was that we got to know each other really well. The thought that struck and stuck with me was the realization that even though our appearances and our culture may be so dissimilar, we may lead distinct lives in such different circumstances so far away from each other, yet we still share so much in common and could relate to each other with such ease. The importance of the family and community, the pivotal role tradition and religion plays in our lives, our love for music and the “Beautiful Game,” the way humor, as well as our dreams and aspirations, keep driving us forward were just some of the obvious shared features.
The projects set up by Tzedek are acutely designed to be sustainable and to empower the local people. Their prime focus is on education and female emancipation from social pressures. One anecdote which put the deficiency of resources in perspective is when we visited Tiyumba School I opened a kid’s exercise book labelled “ICT” and inside was written the five steps to open a Word document. The twist was that it was all taught in theory and the teacher explained to us that these kids had never seen an actual computer before. It was an exercise for the imagination.
Classrooms tend to be packed with up to 60 children per teacher. While primary education is free and compulsory, schools cannot grant access to kids without the appropriate uniform. Many parents do not appreciate education and therefore do not buy the required uniform. This explains why many children can be seen roaming the streets during school-time. Local authorities, therefore, work tirelessly to educate the parents about the importance of education.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the trip for me was the soccer game we played against the local kids. The “pitch” was a field in the middle of a mud-hut village layered with excrement; livestock and ankle-breaking ditches. Some of the kids had what looked like second hand worn out sneakers, but most played barefoot. The goalposts consisted of branches and the ball was in tatters, but the match was hotly disputed,
with the home team eventually running out comfortable winners. Sports have this special power of making strangers bond instantaneously. The joy on the kids faces playing against these older foreigners was memorable.
One of Tzedek’s flagship projects is the primary school twinning program, where they have created a bridge between Ghanaian and British schools, for instance, the Sacks Morasha JPS partnership with Gumani Nuri Islamic Primary School. Students share work and learn about each other’s cultures and the schools share educational resources. Through collaborating with native community leaders and activists, Tzedek has successfully managed to set up institutions, such as the VSLA (Village Savings and Loans Association) project, which acts as a mini-bank allowing village residents to invest their minimal savings.
Throughout the trip, we were introduced to many remarkable individuals each with their own incredible stories. We heard from three inspirational women who overcame extreme social and family tribulations and disadvantages to get to receive generous grants and financial aid to further their worldliness and education. It was inspiring that unselfishly they had returned to Tamale to be the catalysts for change by sharing their gained expertise with their underprivileged communities.
Part of the trip focused on some amazing Jewish and Israeli-led initiatives that have drastically improved the lives of many Ghanaians. Ibrahim Sebiyam now the training officer of the Ghana Education System in the Northern Region recounted to us his experience growing up in Ghana, getting a scholarship to go to Brandeis University as well as an impactful education study tour in Israel under the Israeli Embassy’s Mashav program. On Friday, we heard from members of the Pears Fellowship Foundation, who were provided full scholarships for degrees related to international development, at the Hebrew University.
It is well known that Israel has an admirable outward-looking mentality and are always one of the first to offer emergency services. In the last 60 years, Israel has provided humanitarian aid to over 140 countries. Anglo-Jewry is certainly proud of their efforts and this outlook. Ben Azzai was established to inform the British Jewish community that we too can aspire to this global vision and emulate Israel’s altruistic participation in humanitarian affairs in our own way.
“You’re not going to solve poverty in Africa” is a cynical attitude I have often encountered, but if there is one lesson we could take away from the trip it is that with so little we can make such a significant difference and change lives dramatically for the better. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, a worthwhile endeavor, if we can improve the life of one person, never mind a village. As ambassadors of the Ben Azzai program, our primary goal is to raise the levels of awareness of outward-looking social action among British Jewish communities. We are currently working on numerous projects with this aim in mind and the reception of local institutions has been most welcoming, supportive and encouraging. It is important to remember Rabbi Tarfon’s mission statement which is most appropriate, “It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:16).