Seldom do I use the term “life transforming” because very few things in life are. Change is something that requires diligence, effort and even monotonous repetition. It doesn’t come cheaply.
But what I did this past Thanksgiving forever changed my perception of the world. As a volunteer with my good friend Glen Megill’s organization, Rock of Africa, a Christian relief effort, I traveled to Zimbabwe, one of the poorest countries on earth to one of its poorest villages.
Joining me was my daughter Chana; my friend, the writer and radio host Dennis Prager; Dennis’s son Aaron; Glen Megill; and several Christian volunteers. We staged an outreach program preparing a Thanksgiving feast for 500 villagers. Most important, we gave them seed that can produce shima, the corn-flower mixture that is the staple diet for most of Africa and which, for $25 a year, can literally keep a family alive. The feast consisted of ten slaughtered goats and giant pots of cooked cabbage and shima.
It would be difficult to convey the appreciation of the villagers for one good, hot, meaty meal. The people we met were gentle, beautiful – and utterly poor. The village consisted of nothing but mud huts, the chief’s homestead included. These people have next virtually nothing. They live in tiny pen-sized huts; one we visited housed a hospitable but infirm man in his late eighties who lives with and takes care of his twelve-year-old-grandson whose parents died of AIDS.
Of the hundreds who came to our feast only a few were young mothers and fathers. We saw scores of young children strapped to their grandmothers’ backs in the African way. So many on this continent have already been lost to AIDS – an entire generation wiped out by a killer disease.
Despite these serious challenges, the people smile and exhibit unbelievable warmth. Are they happier than we in the West? I cannot say. I have never believed in the ennobling quality of poverty and I will not glamorize a life with so little. But what is undeniable is that they seemed far more satisfied, more grateful, and more content.
We in the West who are fortunate to be able to translate so much of our potential into something professionally and personally fulfilling are frequently plagued by an insatiable material hunger, making it challenging for us to ever find the inner peace these villagers seemed to possess.
As we Rock of Africa volunteers cooked and served the food, I noticed that among the villagers there was not a single finicky eater. They ate every part of the goat served them – the stomach, the intestines, the vertebrae. Food was not a luxury. It was survival itself.
The men and women sat apart. When the women, my daughter included, served them, they curtsied, as women do by tradition before men. If a woman does not curtsy, the man will not accept the food.
Most memorable were the children, who were wondrous in every way. Gorgeous, extremely polite, and exceptionally well behaved. They exhibited none of wildness common among Western kids. Hundreds of them sat in perfect rows on the floor, grateful to have a warm, hot meal. They too sang and danced for us and we danced with them.
The most moving part of the day was when we distributed the corn seed for the families. The chief called out the names and as they came forward for the seed they were glowing. Many of them kissed the bags as they collected them.
It should be mandatory to take Western kids to Africa for at least one humanitarian mission. It would help wean them from the corrosive materialism that has overtaken us and it would lead them to appreciate their blessings and share more of it with others.
All this was made possible because of two angels. The first is Glen Megill, the American businessman who created Rock of Africa and is one of the most righteous men I know.
The second is a young woman whose courage and heroism left me incredulous. Her name is Regina Jones. She’s thirty years old and from Detroit. She moved to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, four years ago after a teen life where she owned more than two hundred pairs of shoes.
She now lives on her own and runs the organization. She saves orphaned street children from dying of AIDS. She teaches villagers how to become self-sustaining. For our feast she went at midnight to a neighboring village, negotiated the price of the goats, rented a trailer in the morning and picked them up so the villagers could eat meat. I personally watched her lovingly lecture a man with a white beard to help out his wife more with their tiny farm.
No, she is not a household name and she will never be as famous as Britney Spears. But to me she was a small reminder that the suffocating selfishness of Western material culture can indeed be transcended.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network and the author most recently of “The Blessing of Enough.” Donations to Rock of Africa can be made via the organization’s website, www.rockofafrica.org.