Hannah Fogel and Daniel Kroft. (photo by Rebeca Kuropatwa)
Held earlier this year in March, Limmud Winnipeg featured a couple of young community members sharing their experiences of volunteering in Kenya. Their talk, Walking the Talk of Jewish Values in Kenya, reflected on how their Jewish upbringing was an essential ingredient in being able to give of themselves abroad.
Presenters Hannah Fogel and Daniel Kroft graduated from the Gray Academy of Jewish Education in 2012 and traveled to Kenya for three weeks in June of that year instead of going on their class graduation trip. “This was kind of our alternative grad trip idea and everything worked out,” Fogel said of her choice.
Once in Kenya, the two learned there are many misconceptions when it comes to the day-to-day lives of Africans. “There’s actually quite a big difference in levels of development in the country,” said Fogel.
Kroft reflected, “We spent one night in Nairobi and then we drove out to Mara, [which is] basically a game reserve, a rural area with villagers.”
Fogel said they spent their nights in a military-style tent and their days helping build school classrooms and playing with local children – having a chance to learn a little bit about their lives, challenges, and experiencing the “contagious positive vibe they have … regardless of their difficult existence.”
Describing their personal living conditions, Fogel said, “Due to the lack of running water, we had to use bucket showers that were filled by Kenyan staff that worked at our camp. One of them, his job was basically getting hot water. So, they’d heat up this big tub of water over a fire and you’d ask them to fill the bucket over your shower, two people per bucket.”
Ever since the trip, Kroft said he has continued using the Kenyans’ conservative showering strategy he learned there. “They recommended we take staggered showers – so to turn on the water, get wet, turn off the water, soap up, then turn it on again and try to use very little water.”
Kroft said he learned that the local Maasai boys are sent off to become men – going on a quest and returning as warriors – at the age of 13. They spend time in the wilderness, doing strength training and learning how to use bows and arrows.
While Kenya has begun offering free elementary school education for all, there are not enough teachers, schools or resources to go around. “In a lot of communities like this, the parents came together and built their own classrooms for the kids to go to,” said Fogel. “Finding teachers and resources was still a big problem. They have a limited number of pens and pencils in the room. Kids share one pencil between the three of them.”
Kroft was struck by the similarities between the mission statement philosophies at the Kenyan school and his home school, Gray Academy. “You have things like community, cultural values and leadership,” he said. “You go halfway around the world and you have the same sort of values being promoted.”
Both Fogel and Kroft were happily surprised to be able to connect with the children so easily. “We didn’t know very much Swahili or their tribal language, and they knew very little English,” said Kroft. “Our facilitator basically dropped us off and said, ‘OK, go play!’ It was actually surprisingly easy to find ways [to connect], through hand gestures, hand signals … lots of hugs, and they love soccer.”
There were less light moments, as well. “We listened to a university professor speak who came to our camp to discuss hunger and starvation,” said Fogel. “And we learned some stats. More people have died from starvation in the past five years than all the battles, wars and murders in the entire world in the last 150 years. That’s something we can’t imagine in Canada. To think of that is a whole other level of poverty.”
Seeing how all people have similar struggles and needs particularly impacted Kroft. “Agriculture, food security, health, clean water – these are all issues that aren’t just isolated to Africa,” he said. “These are things that are going on in Manitoba, in Canada, on some of the reserves.”
Kroft and Fogel found that most Jewish values are values held by other religions and cultures throughout the world, as well.
“We are not that different after all,” said Kroft. “Jewish values were definitely in the back of our minds going, just because it was the culmination of graduation from the academy – 13 years surrounded by Judaism and Jewish values. It was something that we thought about.”
Fogel added, “Also, we had no idea what to expect, but there were similarities. At the school, people we met had similar values, regardless of what they had or the communities they grew up in. It was also interesting learning about Maasai culture, a similar coming of age at 13 [in Judaism].”
Kroft interjected, “Actually, when they come back from their journey, the similarity of practice…. The men get circumcised at 13 and it’s a sign of weakness to flinch during the process. So, it’s a really big deal, a shame on the whole family [if they flinch].”
Kroft also felt that education plays a central role in the Maasai community, similar to what we see in the Jewish community. “They don’t really have the means…. They are starting to get it now, but idealistically it’s really important to them,” he said “Family values, togetherness, respect are big things…. To be a teacher, which, again, is like Judaism. There are similarities and differences.”
Returning home, both youth described wanting to remain committed to social justice issues. Kroft said, “I’m chaperoning with a Washington trip this year. One thing, we did a session last week on food security and the lack of food at the concentration camps and things like that. And, in order to give the kids a sense of what that means, we had them tally up their daily intake of calories at the end of the day. We had a big list of foods and the amount of calories they’d eaten that day – you’d have 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 calories a day. Then, you’d tell them how much they were given in concentration camps as a perspective thing. It was something I’d personally seen in Africa, not to the same extent … that’s something that comes to mind.”
An organization Fogel volunteers with in Winnipeg is Osu Children’s Library Fund. “It was started by a woman in Winnipeg and she was living in Ghana for awhile with her family and realized the lack of educational books for the kids there,” she said. “So, she started this fund, collecting books from relatives, and put together a library in an old corrugated metal box car. They’ve built libraries in 10 different countries, mainly in Africa. So, I volunteered with her collecting books and going to her house and packaging them. She’s into photography and has written some children’s books with the pictures she’s taken.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.