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Finding My Jewish Roots in the African Wilderness
by Harry Flaster
This is a story about how I found my own tribe after passing through many different tribal territories. Or, perhaps more accurately, how my tribe found me. 

In July of 2008 I decided to pack my bag and head southeast from Lusaka, Zambia, to Mozambique. I anticipated and looked forward to long bus rides, hitching on questionable vehicles, and empty, tropical beaches in Mozambique. I anticipated seeing many different tribes and hearing many different languages. I did not anticipate, however, meeting two wonderful, generous, Chabad rabbinical students my age. I did not anticipate davening in a Shul at the end of my journey. Yet when I returned to Lusaka two weeks later, it was to the sound of Hebrew prayer, not Zulu, Xhosa, Portuguese, Chewa, Nyanja, Shona, Bemba, or English. 

In Lusaka I worked for the Center for Infectious Disease Research Zambia on a HIV prevention project. My role in the project would soon be over, so before the last month of work I decided to travel. I picked an unexplored overland route through the Bush that, if all went well, would take a few days to reach Beira on the Indian Ocean. If it all didn’t go well, I could be stranded for a while in the middle of nowhere sub-Saharan Africa.

The trip began beautifully. The bus only left three hours late from Lusaka, and I made it to Katete without any problems other than an overly enthusiastic preacher who grabbed the bus microphone, which dutifully amplified his all ready loud, raspy, high-pitched voice to our captive ears. At the border with Mozambique I was lucky to find a vehicle, which only required some minor repairs before it started moving. Fortuitously, it kept moving through that evening and well into the night. We rode across hundreds of miles of beautiful emptiness, only punctuated by small villages. The clear night sky was littered with stars, and when we stopped I had a few minutes to explore the local villages as we exchanged passengers and goods. 

We had the good fortune of passing through during a local ceremony of the Chewa people, the dance of the Ne’u. The Ne’u were out that dusk, running around the village covered in straw and billowing chalk, scaring the children and causing the women to giggle and run. Later that night, the sounds of the Ne’u dance and drums could be heard under the vaulted stars.

The Chewa were just one of the many tribes I would encounter that trip. In Lusaka, where my journey began, there is a mix of many different tribes, languages, cultures, and traditions. The most predominant tribes are the Bemba, followed by the Chewa and the Tonga. When we left the city, we traveled through Chewa territory, which continued into Mozambique. The Chewa language is the root language of the urban Nyanja language, so I was able to speak a little with the people I met. By the time we reached Tete, in Mozambique, we had left Chewa territory, and I was no longer aware of the tribal identities of the people around me. 

It was towards the end of my journey, in Maputo, Mozambique, that I met two Chabad Rabbinical students, Shraga Putter and Pinni Goodman. I met them on a bus ride from Maputo to Johannesburg, South Africa, where I would catch my flight back to Lusaka. At the time I was exhausted and worried about how I would spend ten hours alone in Johannesburg. I had never been to Johannesburg before, and I knew little about it except that it is a very dangerous city. I had missed the first bus that morning in Vilanculus, and been unlucky in choosing buses since, so by the time I saw Shraga and Pinni I had been traveling for almost 24 hours without rest.

With their black coats, Yamakas and tufts of beard they really stood out, even more then a large white backpacker. While I waited for the bus to leave, I approached the one who had a Yamaka with the word Tucson, Arizona written on it. As a native Arizonan myself, it was a natural conversation starter. 

After we started talking it wasn’t long before they asked me if I was Jewish. When I told them I was, they immediately asked what I would be doing in Johannesburg. Did I want to stay for Shabbas? Did I have a place to stay? Did I want a guided tour of the city? 

I had questions for them as well. What were they doing in Mozambique? 

Shraga and Pinni had gone to Mozambique to build a Jewish community. They only had one loose contact; an Israeli businessman who offered to put them up in a Hotel while they made their rounds. And so after arriving in bustling Maputo, they met the businessman who gave them the addresses of a few Jews that he knew. The trip started off well and they reported remarkable success in assembling the beginnings of a Jewish community in Maputo. 

Progress was halted when, during a meeting in the office of a Jewish lawyer in Maputo, they were robbed at gunpoint. Almost everything was taken – Shraga’s wallet, the keys to the rental car, the rental car itself, everything except for Pinni’s wallet, which he had accidentally left at the Hotel that day. With their remaining money they were traveling back to Johannesburg to regroup.

But they weren’t intimidated at all. They were still excited about the progress they had made in Maputo, about the number of Jews they had met and the prospects for returning to further build a Jewish community. They were young men on a mission to bring the joy of Judaism and a Jewish community to Jews in Maputo. And so even after being robbed in a strange city, they didn’t hesitate to invite a disheveled stranger into their home and into their Shul. 

In Johannesburg we went to Pinni’s house, where I had my first shower in days and something to eat. Then we went to the Chabad Shul to daven Shacharis. Finally, they dropped me off at the East Gate mall so that I could get a good meal and do some shopping before the flight back to Lusaka. 

After traveling hundreds of miles, exploring different countries, cultures and languages, it was two courageous Jews that brought me home.


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