Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sukkot in Yirimadjo

Bamako’s climate is something of the mirror of Jerusalem: in my three summer months living in Jerusalem in 2004, I did not feel a single drop of rain on my head, and rarely did I spot a cloud in the sky. Rain comes in Jerusalem in the winter months—when I first arrived in Jerusalem my senior year in high school, it was February, and having prepared for sunshine and palm trees, I was quite taken by surprise by the hail and rain that greeted my on my second night in the holy land. In Bamako, summer brings with it the rainy season, and the summer’s close is met with the slowing and gradual disappearance of the rain.

Sukkot lands fortuitously at an intersection of these inverse climates, for in Bamako, too, it couples with the harvest. This year in Bamako, Sukkot coincided almost exactly with the height of the corn harvest. Walking about the peri-urban community in which we live and work as Sukkot approached, it was difficult to spot a piece of uncultivated land. In every direction, stalks of reaching six, nine, even fifteen feet into the air. On roadsides, in small plots, at the edges of houses—corn could even be seen growing inside of abandoned homes, stretching through roofs long destroyed, or perhaps that never existed.

Because corn seemed to be growing absolutely everywhere, it was more difficult than we had originally imagined finding a good spot to build our Sukkah. Nana, the matriarch of our host family, generously offered us a spot at the center of the small clearing of the family’s home—this was a particularly generous offer to make, because much of the family life happens in this clearing. The rooms of the house are tiny and hot, so most cooking, socializing, and eating happens in this clearing. Nana made heroic efforts in helping us build our Sukkah—from providing the precious spot, to organizing some men from the community to help build the frame out of branches (she did not have much confidence in our carpentry abilities), to guiding us in the best techniques we should use to construct the walls, to providing corn stalks and branches for the walls and the stalks, to helping us put the finishing touches on the door, Nana helped us with every step in the Sukkah construction.

Once the frame was erected, we used stalks of corn that had just been harvested to make the walls. The entire family helped us as we built the Sukkah. Small children of our host family boldly ventured into Nana’s corn field at Nana’s request, and drew six-to-twelve foot stalks of corn, several times their height, out of the ground.

Upon Nana’s suggestion, we wove rope between stalks of corn to make each wall. Baignee, one of our older teenage brothers here, climbed into the top of a tree in front of our house to help cut down schach branches for our roof.

Jessica and Nana worked together to weave stalks of corn and millet into an arched doorway.

Word soon spread of the structure we had built, and that we were living in it for the week. As I greeted a neighbor on my way home one day, she began to give me blessings as she walked into her corn field and pulled out the tallest stalk of corn, possibly 15 feet tall, straight out of the ground, and blessing me again, handed it to me, without a word of further explanation.

We explained to our family and neighbors that throughout Sukkot, we would be sleeping, eating, and living in the Sukkah. We explained that even some of the richest Jews in the United States move into temporary shelters for the week of Sukkot, and that this is supposed to help us remember that we began our peoplehood as newly freed slaves, as homeless wanderers in the dessert.

I explained to Nana and our neighbors that on Sukkot, the Torah teaches us that it is imperative for us to celebrate with all the members of the household and the community. So we invited our host family and neighbors into the Sukkah every opportunity we had. Mariam Sylla, one of the members of the women’s cooperative that meets at our house, sat with us in the Sukkah one afternoon and painted Malian bogolan designs, using natural mud-dyes. Children of the household came to sit, visit, and sometimes have a snack. We invited our family and neighbors to eat in the Sukkah as well. We ate freshly harvested corn, boiled, with fresh lemons.

At the end of Sukkot came Simchat Torah. When I had anticipated celebrating Jewish holidays in Mali, of all the different festivals in the year’s cycle, Simchat Torah filled me with the greatest apprehension—how would we do it? In Mali, there are no synagogues, there are no bimahs for hakafot, there are no minyanim, and, most significantly, there are no Torah scrolls. It seemed like all the essential tools were missing, so I was worried that we would not be able to celebrate the chag, or that our celebration would be lackluster at best.

Little did I know.

As the chag approached, we assessed the materials at hand. We did not have a Torah scroll, and we could not find one anywhere in Mali, but we did have a little black JPS Tanach. We did not have a synagogue, but we did have a sukkah. We took a small half-broken metal chair, one of the only pieces of furniture in our room, and brought it into the Sukkah. We took the tallit back that my mother made for me for my Bar Mitzvah, and placed it on top of the chair in the Sukkah, with the JPS Tanach inside of it. It wasn’t your typical aaron kodesh, but it was beautiful, and it gave us a start.

We davenned in the Sukkah, and took our the Tanach when it came time for Hakkafot. Jessica and I traded off turns leading Hakaffot. For each Hakaffah, we would come out of the Sukkah, with the JPS Tanach raised high in the air or cradled in our arms, and we would start a niggun. Each hakaffah, we danced around the Sukkah, singing a niggun. As we sang and danced around sukkah in the dusty clearing with this tiny black book, our little brothers and sisters in our host family began to clap and dance with us. At first they were somewhat shy, not sure if it was ok for them to join in. They danced on the side when we came around for the first Hakaffah. But when we came over to dance with them, they grew bolder, and soon they were dancing with us and the little JPS Tanach around the Sukkah. Boi, one of our teenage little brothers, picked up a bucket and started playing it like a Djembe drum. Although Mali has strong musical traditions, particularly in drumming, Djembe drums are expensive and only a few people in Yirimadjo, professional musicians of the community, have them—so our little brothers decided to improvise. Following the lead of Boi, our four year old little brother Bazu picked up a little tin can and made it his own Djembe, and they followed us around the Sukkah, drumming to our nigguns, and encouraging their little brothers and sisters to dance with us. Nana, the matriarch of the family here, who has had serious back problems that have kept her under house arrest for months, could not dance with us, but she clapped and danced as much as she could while sitting, and she kept count of our hakkafot.

After the seventh hakaffah, Jessica and I took turns reading from the end of Dvarim and the beginning of Bereshit. Afterward, we talked about Torah and its significance in our lives.