I have always thought of Passover as a unique and special holiday because we are commanded not just to read the story of our ancestors' plight, but also to symbolically re-enact the story as if we had been there ourselves. This year, however, the Passover story took on a more literal significance as eight other Jews and I held our seder on the brink of being evacuated from a country being led by another violently obstinate ruler.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2008 to 2010 in Mali, West Africa, my most significant connection to Judaism was hosting a seder with the other Jewish volunteers. My parents and aunt were all too eager to help, sending me heaps of care packages full of matzah, Haggadahs, a seder plate and more.
We had one seder each year, though they were small affairs and only a third of those in attendance were actually Jewish. Regardless, they were meaningful to us Jews who got to keep celebrating in a country that, for all I know, hasn't seen the birth of a Jew in ages. They were also fascinating for our non-Jewish guests who hadn't ever seen a proper seder, and could hardly believe one could be held in a developing African country.
When I returned to Mali six weeks ago through Peace Corps Response -- think Special Forces for aid work -- I had been told that several of the new Jewish volunteers there were excited to meet me so we could get right to work planning the next "Passover in Mali" event. We all had received our care packages in the mail, and we were spreading the word to get as many people as we could to come out to celebrate.
Then, things took an unexpected and disastrous turn.
There has long been criticism by many Malians of their President Amadou Toumani Touré and his administration, which has been perceived as corrupt and ineffective against the problem of violent insurgents in Mali's northern regions. Last month, discontented military leaders led a coup d'etat to seize control of the national government.
The Economic Community of West African States, of which Mali is a member, united against the illegitimate takeover by declaring, like Moses, "Let our Malian democracy go!" When the coup leader, Captain Sanogo, hardened his heart and refused, the Economic Community retaliated by raising sanctions against Mali, wreaking Ten Plagues-like havoc on the nation. With access to oil, food and cash completely cut off, and 12-hour blackouts in the capital to conserve now-precious fuel (the plague of darkness?), many NGOs, embassies and the Peace Corps made the call to evacuate their members from the country.
The other Jewish volunteers and I realized with bitter irony that "our exodus" was planned to occur sometime near the beginning of the holiday, and we wondered anxiously how we would pull off our seder in time and not let our Passover care packages -- nine total -- go to waste.
We decided that with the situation as fluid and unpredictable as it was, the smartest thing to do was to have our seder as soon as possible, and not risk missing the window of opportunity.
So earlier in the day on Friday, before the holiday was to begin, we gathered together in the Peace Corps' transit house in the capital where we had all been consolidated, and started opening packages. Soon the kitchen was filled with jars of gefilte fish, matzah ball soup mix, charoset ingredients, macaroons, plus kosher for Passover paper plates, a tablecloth and, of course, two bottles of sweet, syrupy Manischewitz. The house was a frenzy of activity from noon until sundown as we all prepared perhaps the last feast we would be having in Mali.
Finally, the table was set and the candles were lit. Together sat nine Jews and just as many volunteers of other faiths, some of whom had never seen a seder, some of whom had attended our previous Mali celebrations. We did the whole thing, from kiddush to "Chad Gadya" and everyone had as much fun as could be had with such a desperate situation looming over our heads.
It was definitely a welcome morale boost following a stressful couple of weeks. But we also made a special prayer for the Malian people. Although both the ousted president and the coup leader have now stepped aside, the people there will have to weather whatever lies ahead through the unpredictable future. Unlike our own ancestors, they have no strong hand or outstretched arm to free them from their strife.
Jake Asher, who grew up in Lower Merion, is a former Peace Corps/Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Mali. More of his articles can be read at jakeinmali. blogspot.com . This piece is strictly the opinion of the author and does not reflect the views of Peace Corps or the U.S. government.