Passover in Mapakomhere, Zimbabwe Some Highlights

Sandy Leeder in the village of Mapakomhere, Zimbabwe Photo courtesy of Sandy Leeder
Sandy Leeder in the village of Mapakomhere, Zimbabwe Photo courtesy of Sandy Leeder

I must give Jack Zeller credit for my Mapakomhere Passover seder (ritual meal). In the fall of 2011, the two of us had visited Zimbabwe as Kulanu representatives and forged close, personal relationships with Lemba leaders. In contemplating what we might do to deepen our bond and to help community members on their journey of Jewish renewal, Jack had suggested we think about Passover. “The holiday is too good a teaching opportunity to miss,” he said.

So how do we teach Passover?

After considering the benefits and challenges of conducting a seder in Zimbabwe, and remembering the moon-lit seder I had prepared and led in the Niger desert during my West African Peace Corps days, I was prepared to give it a try. Jack was enthusiastic and the Kulanu board was ready to support the project.


Pre Trip

First, I had to ask Lemba leaders if they wanted to hold a communal seder. Community leader Rabson Wuriga brought the idea to the members of the Great Zimbabwe Synagogue (GZS) congregation.* They agreed. It was estimated that 100 people would attend.

While the Lemba have an historical remembrance of a springtime, full moon Passover celebration, in which a lamb is slaughtered and eaten overnight, they had not celebrated the holiday for many years (see Dr. Rabson Wuriga’s Of Sacred Times, Rituals and Customs. Oral Traditions of the Lemba Jews of Zimbabwe), nor had they seen a Haggadah (book of historic memory, prayer, story telling and ritual).

My second task was to send copies of the Haggadah to Zimbabwe, so Lemba leaders could translate parts of the ritual into Shona (the language of Zimbabwe). My goal was to insert the translations into a master copy of the Haggadah , which would then be printed for the seder.

The Haggadot (plural for Haggadah) arrived six weeks later. So much for advance planning.

My third task concerned the food. Following the seder instructions laid out in Exodus 12, which calls for roasted lamb, I asked Rabson to find some sheep** for the seder. One would think that buying sheep in rural Zimbabwe would be easy; it wasn’t.

Matza (unleavened bread) presented another challenge. Clearly, no store in Zimbabwe had matza on its shelves. We would have to either make it on site or I would have to bring it with me from Israel. We ended up doing both (see below). And what about the symbolic foods on the seder plate…bitter herbs and charoset (symbol of the mortar used by slaves to make building blocks)? I knew I could find wine and apples, but what about walnuts, raisins and dates?

Task number four was buying dinnerware. Many of the things we take for granted in Israel and the US were either non-existent in Zimbabwe or their cost was prohibitive. That list included plastic silverware, plastic or paper plates and cups for wine or soda. I would have to bring them with me too.

One last item: On our first trip to Mapakomhere, Jack and I wasted a lot of time driving back and forth from Mapakomhere to a guest house in Masvingo as there was no lodging in Mapakomhere. This time I knew I had to stay in Mapakomhere to plan the seder. I would need a tent.


Israel to Zimbabwe and Back
Dear Diary…

Sandy's Tent Photo by Sandy Leeder
Sandy’s Tent Photo by Sandy Leeder

Sunday April 1, 2012, 8:30 pm: Jack drives me to the airport from Jerusalem and gives me a 2.5 kilo/ 5 package container of matza (to add to the 2.5 kilo box I already packed). He throws in packing tape, 100 plastic kiddush cups (for the blessing over the wine), 100 kippot (skull caps), and 5 tallitot (prayer shawls). Altogether I have a 20 kg standup tent, 225 plastic plates and bowls, 175 kiddush cups, a shofar (ram’s horn), spoons, forks, bags of raisins, walnuts and dates, a cork screw, video and still cameras, clothes, matza, and and and… Checking in was an experience. Let’s not talk of the overweight charges.

Monday April 2: I arrive in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe after an all night flight from Israel, with a stop over in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Lemba leader Modreck Zvakavapano Maeresera picks me up at the airport and deposits me in Harare’s Cresta Hotel where I change my I-phone sim card to a Zimbabwe number, connect to the hotel’s wifi, eat dinner and crash.

Tuesday, April 3: In the morning, Modreck and I take a taxi to the car rental dealer and I rent a Toyota 4×4 Pickup. Then we purchase approximately 20 liters of wine and blankets in a large Harare supermarket. We leave Harare about 11 am for the 4-hour drive to Masvingo. We are driving on a two lane highway and I have to remember to drive in the left lane. On route, we pick up Rabson at the Great Zimbabwe University where he teaches and drive to Masvingo for supper. Then the three of us find a guest house where we can spend the night.

From 8 pm to midnight Rabson and Modreck translate key parts of the Haggadah into Shona .

Wednesday, April 4: After dropping Rabson at the University, Modreck and I go to a computer shop to print out the Shona translations we worked on last night, and for the next several hours, we cut and paste the translations and Shona biblical passages into a master Haggadah .

Our next job is food purchases: We proceed to all three food markets in Masvingo where we buy 3 bags of apples, 6 100 lb. sacks of potatoes, 20 more liters of wine, 200 eggs, a dozen kilos of unleavened flour, 4 cartons of bittersweet chocolate bars, 4 light bulbs, 1 kg. ginger root, 4 dozen 12 inch candles, 1 plastic washing bucket and a kilo of salt. We also bought 3 foam mattresses for sleeping in the tent.

Lemba leader Rabson Wuriga at the future site of the Great Zimbabwe Synagogue Photo by Sandy Leeder
Lemba leader Rabson Wuriga at the future site of the Great Zimbabwe Synagogue Photo by Sandy Leeder

Modreck and I then drive to Mapakomhere where we set up the tent in the homestead of Daniel Zifungo, president of the synagogue. We arrange to meet with Mrs. Ruvarashe Mhuka, wife of the GZS vice chairman William Mhuka, to make plans for the matza and food preparation. Mrs. Mhuka assures me that she will organize the women in the village to fulfill all cooking responsibilities.

Thursday, April 5: When I awake, Daniel and his wife Esther Zifungo serve me coffee with some porridge, after which I visit the cement outhouse. Their daughter Prisca then brings me a bucket of hot water and I wash up. The shower area consists of a grass mat enclosure around a cement slab. By the way, there is no running water. It comes from a hand pumped well a few kilometers away. Water is transported to necessary locations in various ways: by cattle-pulled carts, wheel barrels and by women carrying buckets on their heads. The same goes for the firewood used to cook and to heat water.

My next job is to check on the secondary school that we are borrowing for the seder and to arrange the tables, desks and benches to accommodate the participants. I am happy that I had the instinct to buy light bulbs, as the schoolroom has none. Initially, the electricity doesn’t work, but the watchman “assures” us we will have electricity for the seder. Even with 6 light bulbs it will be dark and I am really counting on the candles for light.

While setting up the schoolroom, I notice a circus size tent with a generator truck and speaker system being set up in the field adjacent to the school. It is a Christian church group from Masvingo doing outreach and celebrating Good Friday. I wonder whether their presence is a deliberate attempt at competing with our seder. I decide not to ask.

Later I meet with the women to explain how to bake matza. The women plan to gather on Friday morning to prepare the potatoes, eggs and matza. The men will roast the sheep.

That night the tent proves a perfect way to end the day. While it is not exactly cold, I am glad I bought the heavy blankets.

Friday, April 6 : After my morning ritual of coffee, outhouse and outdoor bucket bath, I set out to make the final preparations for the seder. Before doing so, Daniel and William, GZS president and vice chairman, convince me to visit the site of the synagogue a half kilometer away. Synagogue members are clearing the site by hand. It is a joy to see the progress being made on the Great Zimbabwe synagogue project. Another milestone on the journey of renewal.

Preparing the sheep for the seder Photo by Sandy Leeder
Preparing the sheep for the seder Photo by Sandy Leeder

Back to the seder preparation: As there is no oven, the women are “baking” the matza on an open wood fire using a flat metal sheet as the baking surface. Unfortunately, my back woods matza making skills are limited. I’m glad I brought the boxes of Jerusalem matzas.

Next, I work with Prisca to make the charoset . She pounds the ingredients in the traditional wooden mor tar and pestle used by African women to prepare their food. We peal and pound the apples and mix them with the walnuts, raisins and date paste from Israel and add the wine. Then she pounds the ginger for the bitter herbs, as horseradish is nowhere to be found. Later in the day a Lemba medicine man finds a local wild but edible green herb for dipping in the salt water.

I revisit the schoolroom to see if I can find more tables and chairs and to set up the candles. I place two 12-inch candles on each set of student desk-tables and melt them into place.

In the early afternoon, I hear from Rabson that Modreck’s bus from Harare has been stopped at a police roadblock and the driver arrested. I suggest that Rabson await Modreck in Masvingo, as the dirt road from Masvingo to Mapakomhere is the least certain stretch to find a ride.

During the food preparation, the women complain that I have not provided them with drinks as I had done for the men, who would drink the wine. I call Rabson and tell him to purchase 6 cases of coca cola. There are only 3 cases to be found in all of Masvingo. We will also need dish soap to wash the cooking pots as well as the plastic plates and cups as they will be reused after the seder.

I am now getting nervous. Modreck is somewhere between Harare and Masvingo, hopefully with the 100 haggadot. What will I do if neither Modreck nor Rabson arrive in time for the seder? I have only one copy of the Haggadah , no Shona translation and Daniel tells me people have a hard time with my funny English accent.

I turn my attention to the sheep… They are hanging on a nearby tree being skinned and cut up as per my directions. The men have slaughtered the sheep according to Jewish dietary laws (which is exactly like Lemba tradition) and they are ready to be roasted.

As the food preparation continues, it becomes clear that I do not have enough food for Saturday lunch, so I ask Daniel to buy 10 chickens, and, out of necessity, I adopt the Sephardic Halacha (law) which allows for eating rice on Passover. I find and purchase 5 kilos in the local pub, the only store in Mapakomhere. Amazingly the women are able to cook the rice and prepare the chickens in record time.

It is getting late and I have had no word from Modreck or Rabson. I prepare 20 plastic seder plates each with bitter (ginger) herbs, the greens, the egg, sheep bones, charoset . Each table has a bowl for salt water and three Jerusalem matzas. I put out the kiddush cups and plastic plates. The only thing missing is the wine. It is almost sundown.

The plan had been to use the rental car to move the wine, but Rabson has the car. Daniel and I decide to have the men carry the wine bottles from his house to the school. I decide to use Jack’s shofar and form a parade. With me blowing the shofar and the men carrying the wine, we parade passed the Christian Hallelujah Tent.

I have my own hallelujah moment as a few minutes after we arrive back at the schoolroom with the wine, Rabson and Modreck walk in the door. Modreck passes out the haggadot. We start the seder with the women lighting the candles that are on each table set.

Modreck reads the “order of the seder” in Shona , I make the kiddush in Hebrew and Rabson and a young female student read the four questions in English and Shona .

The seder continues according to the traditional order, with Rabson reading the blessings in Hebrew and then in Shona and the people eating the “strange” foods and making matza sandwiches, dipping, etc.

Modreck and other participants read from the Shona translation of Exodus, chapter 12, with its commandment that we celebrate the Passover and the redemption from bondage in Egypt. ***

Lemba woman cooking over an open fire Photo by Sandy Leeder
Lemba woman cooking over an open fire Photo by Sandy Leeder

The meal is served. As the plastic kiddush cups are small, the celebration includes numerous toasts of L’chaims (To Life), and then, the old men break into traditional Lemba dances with drum and song. After a while, I join them.

When we finish the meal and it comes time to bargain over the afikomen (piece of matza hidden for children to find and receive a prize), I realize the children have been too polite to get up during the seder to look for it. Without an obvious “winner”, I decide to give each of the 25 children his own chocolate bar, possibly their first. But as we are about to complete the meal, the older children, who had been carefully reading the Haggadah , start to look for the afikomen. When one girl finds it, I celebrate the find and give her the prize money. Between the chocolate bars and the afikomen prize, I am sure there will be twice as many kids attending the next seder.

That night, Rabson, Modreck and I sleep in the tent, satisfied we have conducted a very special seder.

Saturday, April 7 : In the morning Rabson, Modreck and William Mhuka, vice chairman of the GZS, conduct Sabbath services. Daniel then reads a letter of thanks to me, calling me Moshe (Moses) and thanking Kulanu. It is clear participants understand the essence of the seder and how it is similar to their own story of isolation and redemption.

We enjoy our lunch of chicken and rice, hard-boiled eggs and wine and the matza the women baked.

Sunday, April 8: My time in Zimbabwe is coming to an end. It is time to leave. After breakfast we fold up the tent and store it at Daniel’s home, ready for the next guests. We pack up the 4×4 and head back to Masvingo. I drop Rabson at the university and drive on to Harare with Modreck. The seder has been a great success. To see the Lemba villagers experience their first seder as Jews do the world over was emotionally fulfilling and a joyous occasion. I am touched with their comparing me to Moses. However, the seder is still the beginning of the Lemba journey of renewal, not the end. Kulanu will help them, but the journey is their own.


*A group of Lemba Jews living near the Great Zimbabwe archaeological site have formed a congregation with the express goal of constructing a synagogue and returning to the faith of their fathers. The synagogue is being funded by Kulanu with the labor supplied primarily by the congregants themselves.

**For those who know about these things, there is a current tradition not to roast meat for the Passover meal, especially sheep, to avoid the appearance that you are sacrificing a lamb in the ancient tradition. I obtained a verbal Rabbinic ruling that if we cut up the sheep before roasting, it would not be seen as a sacrifice.

*** I have inserted this passage into the Haggadah to ensure that participants understand the importance of the seder in Jewish ritualistic observance.