Jewish Journal

My Kenya Adventure: Volcanic ash and existential angst

by Ruth Broyde Sharone

May 4, 2010 | 4:58 pm

Sharone reads “The Princess and the Pea” with James, a young boy from the Dandora slum.

Sharone reads “The Princess and the Pea” with James, a young boy from the Dandora slum.

A women’s delegation to a microfinance conference, headed by writer and spiritual leader Marianne Williamson, was what initially brought me to Nairobi, Kenya, on April 5, but it was volcanic ash that kept me in Kenya indefinitely.

Three days after the cancellation of my Virgin Atlantic flight — a total of 61,000 other flights were canceled in Europe, Australia and America — I was one of 7 million travelers who were stranded across the globe. I didn’t know when I might be able to return to my home, to my family and friends, to life as I knew it.

In the interim, I had a rare opportunity to examine my ability to stay centered in a time of personal uncertainty. I chose to view the spreading cloud of gray volcanic ash and severe disruption of air travel around the globe as a time for self-reflection, a test of my faith and a reality check.

Self-empowerment was the theme I was most keenly aware of at the Africa-Middle East Regional Microcredit Summit held April 7-10 and attended by 2,000 people, including distinguished keynote speakers Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus; Queen Sofia of Spain; Crown Princess Maxima of the Netherlands; Mwai Kibaki, president of the Republic of Kenya; and other notable individuals who have helped
shape the worldwide microfinance movement during the last 30 years.

The goal of the conference was to compare methodologies and share evolving organizational models used to help provide microloans to the poorest populations of the world, so that the most marginalized and helpless would be able to lift themselves out of a vicious cycle of poverty and hunger. The solution to world poverty and hunger, everyone at the conference agreed, is not handouts, but an opportunity for self-empowerment, extending small loans without any of the usual bank requirements of collateral or guarantors, in order to help families, in general, and women, in particular, become self-sufficient and productive members of society. 

The key for success in all of this has been self-empowerment, not charity. And, as Yunus so succinctly and eloquently phrased it, “The world will be rich when there are no more poor.”

I joined other participants of the conference on field trips to visit the worst slums in Nairobi, as well as a new settlement called Kaputei being built by and for 10,000 former slum-dwellers. It is the brainchild of an organization called Jamii Bora (which means “good family” in Swahili), one of the most successful and inspiring microloan associations in Africa, run by people who were once homeless, hungry and destitute.

Kenya has a proud history of helping Jews escape pogroms, economic hardship and the Holocaust, and offering those Jews a chance for a new life and opportunities to practice their Judaism — and also opportunities to contribute to Kenyan society.

The Nairobi Hebrew Congregation celebrated its centennial in 2004, and though at times its members have numbered in the thousands, today it consists of about 300 Jews from around the world, mostly Israeli-born. Not large enough to maintain a full-time rabbi, the congregation counts on its congregants for religious leadership, or on the itinerant rabbis who pass through.

I visited the Nairobi Jewish community twice. The first Friday night I arrived with Williamson and members of our women’s delegation. I had been asked to address the small congregation, which often has difficulty reaching a minyan.

My talk was related to Passover, which had recently ended, and I drew a parallel between the Israelites in Egypt and the poor of the world today, who desperately need to be lifted out of their modern-day slavery. Moses, empowered by God, delivered the Israelites from slavery, and in our modern-day scenario, microfinance organizations are helping free the poor from the vicious cycle of poverty and economic slavery that they, like the Israelites, are too weak to break.

Self-empowerment unexpectedly became my personal theme during my last few days in Kenya, as I sought to recalibrate the locus of my life.

We were lucky. Those of us who held a boarding pass at the time of the volcanic eruption were installed in upscale Nairobi hotels at the airlines’ expense — this as millions of other passengers around the world had to fend for themselves until the crisis was over.

In sharp contrast to the places I’d visited in the days before, I was ensconced in a five-star hotel complete with fluffy white towels, terry cloth robes, five-course meals and doting hotel personnel. I felt I was living in a fairy tale. I am not used to first-class accommodations; I usually go economy and stay with friends when I travel abroad, so my new luxurious reality prompted a personal existential crisis. I tried to make sense of the paradoxical situation of — through no virtue of my own — being treated to an upper-class lifestyle when the people I was visiting were living at a subsistence level.

On Saturday morning, instead of going to synagogue, I chose to spend time with children who live near one of the 10 most notorious dumps and slum dwellings of the world. My English friends, Jenny Wilson and Sam Cole, both in their 20s, who had hosted me during the conference, teach at a private school in Nairobi for children of wealthy families. Every Saturday, however, as part of their project called “Tent of Refuge,” they devote five hours to reading stories and playing with the children of the slum of Dandora.

We met with the children at a churchyard, adjacent to the dump. I spent the morning reading fairy tales about princes and princesses to children ranging in age from 4 to 14. Some 25 kids were present — although usually about 40 show up — and they received a cocoa-flavored porridge once during the morning, perhaps the only food they could count on for that day.

The children hung on every word I uttered, staring at me and the books’ illustrations with equal fascination. When it was time to go, they clung to me, pressing their faces against my body, holding tight to my hands, three and four of them crowding together on each arm, not wishing to release me back to my world, a world they would probably never know. Their expressive eyes, affectionate hugs and ready laughter would be etched in my memory for a long time.

I returned to my five-star accommodations, my hot shower and a dinner of roasted quail with plum sauce.

I found myself eating less and less of the gourmet buffet in the days that followed, as I waited for a 5:30 a.m. call from the airlines. I skipped meals because I felt guilty at having so much food available, designed to satisfy every palate. It didn’t seem fair, and I could only enjoy my good fortune for brief interludes.

When the call to leave the hotel came, I was grateful to be going home to a life that has never lacked for food or shelter. May I never forget the homeless or the hungry, because my people, too, were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Filmmaker and freelance journalist Ruth Broyde Sharone is the producer/director of the prize-winning film “God and Allah Need to Talk.” She is co-chair of the Southern California Committee for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, a global organization promoting interfaith dialogue. Her new book, “Minefields & Miracles: My Global Adventures in Interfaith” will be published this year.

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