Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Very Ngaoundere Passover

I've had some strange Passover experiences in my life. First there was the seder in Paris, a confusing mix of French and Hebrew with a family of strangers. Then there was the seder with my cousin's husband's parents on a secular kibbutz in northern Israel, a mishmosh of traditions in which I'm fairly certain we accidentally repeated several sections of the seder twice. But last night was the strangest seder yet.

I knew coming into Cameroon that I would have to be creative in my observance of Passover; explaining the concept of vegetarianism to Cameroonians is near impossible, let alone explaining why I'm not eating any grains for the week. It doesn't help that I'm the first Jew most people have met here. I was particularly nervous when I realized that the first few nights of Passover would take place during our time in Ngaoundere, a largely Muslim city in the north of Cameroon. Even so, I joined with a couple of other Jewish (and Jewish-curious) students on the program to plan a DIY, Cameroonian-style Passover Seder.

As it turns out, being in Ngaoundere was a blessing. My Muslim, polygamous host family is very welcoming and curious about Jewish traditions (and being polygamous, we live in a small compound made up of several buildings, including one large room covered in woven mats where we eat meals on the floor - the perfect setting for a large seder). My family was more than happy to host about 20 SIT students and staff, assisting in all of the preparations. Given that I have no cooking talent, I enlisted the help of another student who loves to cook and we prepared a menu together. After class yesterday, we hopped on motorcycle taxis and rushed around the city, from market to market, searching for ingredients. Unfortunately, some Passover staples cannot be found in this country - particularly horseradish, almonds, and cinnamon. Our bitter herb became piment, essentially powdered chili pepper that is very popular here. Our haroset was also interesting - we replaced almonds with peanuts and peanut butter and used extra sugar in place of cinnamon. In addition, though I asked a few meat vendors if they could give me a shankbone, no one seemed willing or able to - we used a representative piece of plastic instead. And, unfortunately, Muslims don't drink alcohol (and it would be disrespectful to bring it in the house), so we had to make do with grape juice.

Rushing back to my family compound, Sarah and I sat on wooden stools in the dirt courtyard and set to work peeling potatoes and cutting vegetables in our hands, the Cameroonian way (they don't have cutting boards here). With the help of my enthusiastic host brother, we were able to hard boil 20 eggs in a large iron pot over an open flame in the 'kitchen', prepare a huge pot of apple/peanut butter/grape juice/lemon/sugar charoset (we do Sephardic style here - kitniyot allowed), and cook a vast amount of potatoes and vegetables. To add to this, our program director arrived with a full chicken, already prepared.

With all the students gathered on the mats, I led the seder with the help of a printed-out Haggadah. We sang the songs, ate the foods, and explained the story of Passover to both the non-Jewish Americans and confused Cameroonians. During the meal I snuck out to hide the afikomen under a bamboo stool in the courtyard. My friends searched and eventually my friend's host sister, a 12-year-old Cameroonian, found it and received a bar of chocolate as a prize. Twice during the seder, the Muslim call to prayer boomed from the Grand Mosque next door and my host brother excused himself to go pray. How multicultural!

Being in Ngaoundere and seeing my host family go to the Mosque to pray 5 times a day has really revitalized my interest in being a more observant Jew. It was truly wonderful to share my Jewish traditions with my host family and the others on my program; I couldn't have asked for a better situation (except maybe if the Israeli guy who gave me the matzah had given me an extra box). I might even bring that haroset recipe back to the US! Now the challenge is to keep Passover for the next eight days...lots of plantains and eggs.


  1. Abs,
    Such an amazing adventure, you're having. It's the stuff of Hollywood, Harry Potter and real-life combined.

  2. I truly enjoyed this especially the multicultural comment- (the booming mic from the Mosque). That is how I grew up- in rich diversity! I am a cameroonian who grew up in Buea although Iam from Manyu division.

  3. Hey, I got a cameo!

    So there's no Chabad of Ngaoundere yet, eh? We should contact 770 and let them know there's interest. :)

    Chag sameach!!!!

  4. Jessica: Glad you enjoyed the cameo (sorry it was a bit vague)! I actually contacted Chabad of Africa a few months ago; the nearest center is in the Democratic Republic of Congo (don't ask me why...). The Rabbi invited me to stop by, of course! I don't think my parents are too into the idea of me going to the DRC, though...

    Joyce: Thanks so much for reading - I haven't visited Buea yet, but I hear it's beautiful. Cameroon is truly incredible for its diversity.