Senegal gives grad student new view of tzedakah

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In the West African country of Senegal, where only 18 percent of women are literate and infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world, women are teaching one another reading, child care and community development skills.

Dressed in color-splashed robes and turbans, the women gather in classrooms, dance to an alphabet song in their native language, Wolof, and sit on mats under palm trees, planning how they can make their lives easier by building clay stoves.

Capturing these scenes on video, Amon Rappaport, a young man from Marin and the East Bay, chronicled the adult literacy project for Tostan, a nongovernmental organization that has been developing literacy and health programs in Senegal since 1991.

Rappaport, 23, was a volunteer from American Jewish World Service, a partner in the Tostan project, which receives funding from AJWS, UNESCO and other organizations.

During his seven months this year in Senegal, where he was the first AJWS volunteer, Rappaport also used his computer skills to expand the database for Tostan's administrative operations. Now that he's returned to the United States to attend Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, his video is still working for Tostan, raising funds and world consciousness.

In fact, UNESCO was so happy with Rappaport's English-language video that it is funding French and Spanish versions as well.

The video, said Rappaport, is "a tool to sensitize others, to show them the results of a basic education program."

Rappaport was in the Bay Area recently to visit his parents in Corte Madera and Orinda, and to show the video to AJWS representatives in San Francisco. He was accompanied by Tostan coordinator Molly Melching, an American who has been living in Senegal for 20 years and has headed Tostan since its inception.

The video camera gave Rappaport an "entree into the community. Being a foreigner makes you popular," he said, noting that being Jewish also made him a curiosity in a country that is 94 percent Muslim.

"There was a variety of knowledge" about Judaism, said Rappaport, a 1993 Pomona College graduate who spent the year after graduation working as a legislative assistant for Union of American Hebrew Congregations' Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. "Some people are misinformed. They've heard propaganda and ask a lot of silly questions like, `Did you marry your sister?'"

Others were more knowledgeable.

"They're not fundamentalists," said Melching, who lives in the town of Thies, about an hour from the Senegalese capital, Dakar. "They're extremely tolerant of others, religiously curious. It's important [to them] that you believe in God."

Most AJWS volunteers are midcareer professionals who have the funds and the wherewithal to take one to six months off and cover their own expenses while providing service in the Third World. Depending on cost of airfare, length of service and living expenses (some projects provide free housing), outlay can range from under $1,000 to several thousand. While most volunteers pay their own way, local Jewish organizations often provide stipends.

Rappaport, whose service was financed in part by a stipend from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund, is considerably younger than most volunteers. AJWS is his Peace Corps, a time of immersion into the real world between college, graduate work and making a living.

"AJWS [representatives] are truly volunteers. They pay their own fares and living expenses," said Melching, who also worked with a second AJWS volunteer, Rick Bercovitz of Montreal. Bercovitz, who had directed a conference on Judaism in rural New England, worked in community organizing.

Traveling to remote, impoverished areas invariably creates adjustment problems for urban Americans. For Rappaport, "the biggest shock was coming to terms with my own feelings of fitting in or not fitting in. I was beating myself up for not instantly integrating."

Melching agreed, noting that Rappaport took himself seriously, carrying the burden of guilt for having been born in a wealthy country.

There were other adjustments, she said. For one, the words "please" and "thank you" hardly exist in the Wolof language, she said, and their use does not constitute politeness. For another, it wasn't uncommon for Rappaport to be greeted with the words, "Hello, give me a gift."

"It infuriated me," said Rappaport, who wanted to feel like a resident, not a foreign benefactor.

But later, just before heading off to graduate school, he began to experience the benefits of experiencing life in a developing Muslim country.

"There are an enormous amount of similarities between Islam and Judaism, he said. "Zadahk [in Hebrew, tzedakah or charity] is one of the five pillars of Islam. In [the United States], we tend to [associate] Islam with terrorism. But the Koran teaches peace, not hate. There is a surprising validity in being a Jew and spreading tzedakah among Muslims.

Ironically, "In a roomful of African Americans in Claremont, I'm treated like a Jewish oppressor," he said, recalling an experience he had in Southern California. But "in Thies, Senegal, in a roomful of Africans, I'm treated like an international celebrity. My final conclusion is that I'm neither."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].