Shabbos in an African village

Wherever we are when the sun sets on Friday, it’s Shabbos

By Chandrea Serebro

When Rabbi and Bella Grynhaus and their family decided to take a long weekend in Swaziland to experience the beauty of nature and the simplicity of being out in the African air, they thought it would be from the scenic vista of their accommodation, or at best, while on a Sunday morning walk. But, what started as an ideal way to extend their trip and have more time to enjoy the tranquillity of the scenic surroundings by leaving early enough on Friday morning to arrive in time for Shabbos, turned out to be a Shabbos encounter with Africa up close and personal.

“We had said we would not depart for the four-hour long journey after eleven, but last-minute details overcame us and we ended up leaving just before twelve,” recalls Bella. But, making up time along the way, they found themselves at the border in time, with an hour and twenty minutes to go until shkiah (sunset) and only 10km from the border to their booked accommodation. This would leave them with just enough time to unload their trailer and put up the cholent. “Or so we thought.”

The Grynhaus family failed to recall a most important rule to remember when in Africa, whether as a local or as a tourist: never underestimate an African border post. One can never be well enough prepared for the bureaucracy and paperwork needed to get you through what should be a relatively simple process. And always leave yourself enough time to navigate your way through it. By the time the Grynhaus family was served at the border, there was less than an hour to go to Shabbos. Only to be told that they would need the birth certificates of their children to get through, documents which were lying comfortably in their home in Johannesburg, along with the forgotten kugel in the oven.

Luckily, a picture of the birth certificates would suffice, but still, this close to Shabbos, the Grynhauses felt that they “couldn’t impose this task on anyone”, so they began to look at other options. The closest resort to the border was 100km away, which they wouldn’t make in time. But the GPS pointed them in the direction of an accommodation only 29km away, which seemed heaven-sent and they headed in that direction.

“My kids worried about what would happen if, upon our arrival, it turned out to be a five-star hotel which would be unaffordable. My husband said that for Shabbos, Hashem will help. Little did we know that we were about to embark on a challenge that would be just the opposite of what my daughter had feared, all for the sake of Shabbos. Looking back I wonder if we had known, would we have embraced the thought the way we did a five-star hotel?”

So, with emunah and a very real time-constraint, the Grynhaus family forged ahead in a mild panic, on a sandy road into the mountainous, rural homelands, with shacks and settlements scattered around, holding onto their seats and reciting Tehillim together as they traversed the treacherous roads at top speed. The GPS said their destination was getting closer, along with Shabbos, but all they could see was grass rondavels dotted here and there around the landscape. “Suddenly my husband stopped the car, switched off the engine, and said he would go no further.” There they were, a family of seven, in the middle of nowhere, Shabbos fast approaching, and they were running out of options.

Just then, a previously unnoticed shack appeared close by, “a half-built house with an old lady holding a baby, a true African matriarch who only spoke Zulu.” Using hand gestures and a few words, Bella offered her some money, and the old woman welcomed them into her home as Shabbos – with all its implications – came in. How were they going to bring the rest of their food, clothes, and bedding in, with no eruv? A human chain to the fence. But then carrying from one domain to another is prohibited. The cholent? Not tonight. “Boruch Hashem, a little girl was living in the shack who managed to move our stuff over from one domain to the other, and finally we had all our things for Shabbos, and we just stood around as we watched it getting darker and darker.”

The Grynhaus family felt as though they were the talk of the ‘town’, as people kept arriving in a steady stream to the small shack, until someone who had some English explained to them that the family had suffered a loss, and the extended family was arriving in preparation for the service for the funeral. According to their culture, the family then go on to the cemetery where they spend the night praying and preparing a meal for the community. This meant that only the grandmother and two children would remain in the shack for the night. “Hashgocha pratis (Divine Providence) had it that, because of this, we would have a spare room and some privacy in which to spend Shabbos.”

Eerily reminiscent of the way Hashem distracted the locals by busying them with burying their dead when the Spies were sent to Eretz Yisroel (Bamidbar 13-14), the Shabbos that ensued would prove to be a special moment in time. It reminded the family of the power of Shabbos over all other things, bringing home the lesson not to travel so close to Shabbos that, if they had missed before, they undoubtedly learned that day. “We also learned to recognise how much Hashem just loves us, and showers us with goodness in the most unlikely of places.”

The shack had concrete floors, cement brick walls, and a corrugated iron roof that was almost waterproof. There were two rooms and a kitchen with an oven that was heated with wood and dried manure that the grandmother collected from the field. There was electricity for lights, but no running water. Water had to be collected from the river and huge containers that stored rain water and was collected by even the aging grandmother using a wheelbarrow while simultaneously balancing a bucket of water on her head.

They noticed Hashem’s chesed in many ways: it was winter and not the rainy season, as the rain would surely have come in through the roof; being winter, there were little or no insects, which would be swarming in summer, and with less of a risk of snakes. This shack had the privilege of a toilet in a little cubicle in the garden, and while it wasn’t connected to any sewerage system, others had none at all. “Looking around us, at shacks that had much less than this one, most with mud brick walls, we came to see what a chesed it was that we were led to relative luxury.”

“We felt privileged to uplift this place with our mitzvos, tefillos, and kedushas Shabbos.” Over Shabbos, they experienced “true peace”, in the “absolute tranquillity of the country”. “The simplicity of life we saw and the peace we experienced that Shabbos were truly humbling. There were no distractions of modern life to take us away from the kedusha (holiness) and menucha (tranquillity) of Shabbos. Plus the actual setting we found ourselves in was magnificent. There were majestic mountains all around us so that one could not help but see and contemplate the wonders of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.”

The Grynhaus family davened and ate the Shabbos meal, with plenty of food despite no time to make cholent and them forgetting the kugel in the oven at home. “Boruch Hashem we had five litres of our own water and juice that we rationed for three Shabbos meals and negel wasser. B’chesed Hashem it stretched and served us till the end of Shabbos. We had learned that one can align one hand under the other so that all of us could wash for the meal simultaneously. We were so grateful for our Torah education and mentors. We survived the cold night by cuddling close to one another and sharing a few blankets my daughter insisted on schlepping with.”

They bade farewell to their host, who danced with gratitude that they had come, continuously thanking G-d. On arrival in Swaziland, their accommodation was a backpacker resort which were originally stables that had been converted into rooms, walls still not reaching the ceiling, and there was a communal kitchen and bath. “Suddenly we realised the chesed of Hashem for not allowing us to reach Swaziland before Shabbos – where we would not have been able to daven, sing, or eat in privacy, and we would have had to keep our food in the communal kitchen. This incident showed us how we need to trust in Hashem no matter what He has planned for us; every detail was clearly orchestrated.”

The Grynhaus family enjoyed the rest of the holiday alone in comfort with down duvets, running water, and flushing toilets, which now felt like five-star accommodations. “We have so much to thank Hashem for.” Bella was reminded of a lesson she learned once from a lady who had moved into a flat without any furniture. “She told me it was fun, that they were camping out. It is all a matter of attitude. If one takes on a challenge with simcha, then one’s family will respond to it like that too. We have the power to make or break any opportunity that comes our way.”

Thanks to Michelle Freeman for this story idea.

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