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Bamba in Dakar

On my final day in Senegal, I left the comfort of Thies, the friendship of my friends in Darou Mouride and Keur Songo, the routine of waking up each morning and spending the subsequent hours confronting the horrors of abject poverty. I left all these things and more and headed back towards the nation’s capital, Dakar.

The drive was long and arduous. The forty mile trek should be a straight shot, but can take as long as five hours, depending on things like traffic, police checkpoints, and donkeys stopping along the road.

And so it was, that, on the outskirts of Dakar, still an hour from our destination, our van made a pit stop so people could do their business. I joined the parade of tubobs (Wolof for “white person”) towards the gas station’s latrines. Yet, after nearly two weeks without touching money, two weeks without even a hint of capitalism, I could not help but enter into the snack shop and walk around.

The refrigerator filled with neatly stacked bottles of Coke Light beamed with angelic light as a heavenly chorus filled my ears with song. I grabbed one from behind the glass. My mouth began to water, my heart beat a little faster. But there, just as I turned around, my eyes gazed to my left and were met dead on with the comforting stare of a large blue and white bag of Bamba.

Bamba, if you did not already know, is a favorite snack of Israelis. Something only conceivable in this land of Milk and Honey, Bamba is like cheese puffs, only with peanut butter instead of orange cheese powder. Sounds gross. Tastes delicious.

I bought a few bags and triumphantly returned to my van, providing gastronomic solace to twenty five future rabbis removed from civilization for far too long.

We all enjoyed the snack, taking little time to think about the experience. But, in retrospect, most surprising about finding the Israeli national snack at a gas station in the capital of this West African Muslim nation was the fact that it wasn’t all that surprising at all.

A week prior, we had met with the Israeli ambassador to the country. The tall man – a walking caricature of himself – spoke proudly of the work his home country is doing throughout the Western Coast of Africa.

Not prone to believing others’ hyperbole and an eternal sceptic at heart, I was adept at taking everything he said with a grain of salt. Could the massive amounts of development work that he is describing really be possible? Is it true that the Israeli embassy in Senegal is behind a giant tolerance program taking place soon in Dakar. What are the ulterior motives? What is behind his message? How could such a small country be responsible for so much good?

Not that I wouldn’t want Israel to be such an or lagoyim – light unto the nations – in this hell on earth. It just seemed too good to be true. Could the country really be funding tzedakah to help non-Jews merely because it is the right thing to be doing?

Surely, Israel has much to gain from such work. A heavily tolerant, Suffi, non-Arab country has much to offer the Jewish State. But the support is real. Is real. Israel?

Low and behold, NGO after NGO that we met with described the great support they receive from the Israeli government. Not the American government with its gag rule and bureaucratic stipulations. No, the Israeli government.

In a country without stable sources of water and an agricultural system stuck in the Iron Age, Israel’s drip irrigation technology has giant potential. In a country forgotten by most of the world, that small Jewish state, so embroiled in its own quagmires, is not forgetting.

The Jewish state’s embassy is doing the hard groundwork to help this underdeveloped nation and its neighbors realize their potential. All Israel gains is the love of an unknown people ignored by modernity and a market to sell its national treat.

Let’s remember after all: most Senegalese have never met a Jew. In fact, most don’t even know that such a thing exists. For two weeks, I found it easiest to describe myself as an Israelite. And the Senegalese know what that is only because they read about them in the Koran.

Stellar.

This is the ultimate form of tzedakah, is it not: giving to a people who do not even know you.

In the age of Lieberman and Netenyahu, of showdowns with the US, and ultimate fears of annihilation from Iran, of violent protests against parking lots and never ending hate-mongering, as I chewed on my delicious bites of peanut-coated puff, I felt good, very good.

Surely, the Diet Coke helped.

But each bite of Bamba seemed to carry in it a morsel of redemption. The food was symbolic of everything that I had learned to work for during my time in Africa. This is what giving is supposed to be about. This is human beings helping fellow humans alleviate their most dire problems. This is the work ahead. This is what it means to be a Jew, to be a human, to be privileged and ready to give back.

ברוך אתה ה’ הזן את הכל.

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