In a village called Mwandi, in southwest Zambia, there are two new homes — huts, actually — built in the local style of mud between wooden frames. Zara Ducker helped build them last June, during a 10-day visit to the village. It was her bat mitzvah project.
Zara belongs to an adventurous globetrotting family, so a stay-at-home mitzvah project was never very likely. Wall maps in the Duckers’ Bethesda house are studded with pushpins where Zara, 13, and her family — mom Shelley, dad Adam and sister Vivi, 10 — have traveled: 40 countries, at the most recent count.
“It started when one of my really good friends went to Africa,” Zara said recently, surrounded by her family in their living room. “My mom asked me what I wanted to do for my mitzvah project. I said I wanted to go to Africa. Everything fell into place after that.”
Shelley Ducker, whose personal blog is called CrazyTravelerKippahs, started researching. One of the non-profits she found was Home for AIDS Orphans, which provides a variety of services in Mwandi. It also recruits outside volunteers for its housing project — “to provide safe and secure housing for the vulnerable populations (orphans, seniors, and people in poverty) of Mwandi,” according to the organization’s website.
Of the project ideas her mom brought to Zara, “I thought this was the most intriguing.”
In June, Zara, Shelley and Vivi were in Mwandi.
“I came not knowing what to expect,” Zara said. “We woke up every morning and made mudballs for six hours a day.”
Those mudballs are the building blocks of houses in the village.
They helped finish one house — smoothing out the mud walls — and helped start another — setting up the wood skeleton and tying the pieces together with string.
June is winter in Zambia. Even so, it was hot work in the sun for the two girls. “It was difficult for us,”
But they also got to spend time in the village preschool, playing with the kids and teaching them a bit of
English. Zara and Vivi quickly discovered that the kids thought they were exotic.
Wherever they went, they were trailed by delighted shouts of “makua,” or white person.
“If they see you, they run out of their house and down the street,” Zara said. “There’s six kids trying to hold your hands.”
“And they want to touch your hair,” Vivi added.
One day, the tired sisters lay down on the ground and fell asleep, watched over by kids from the village.
The kids, they noticed, wore the same clothes every day. It was a sign of the economic insecurity in Mwandi, Zara said.
Zara had brought along a copy of her Torah portion to practice. Their first Sunday in the village they decided to go to church. They ended up at the Faith Tabernacle Pentacost Church.
Church leaders were excited about their guests and told Zara she would be called up to read her
But the sermon was long, preached simultaneously in the local Lozi language and in English. It was all so disorienting. Zara was told she would be called up soon.
“There was a lot more preaching,” Shelley Ducker wrote on her blog of that Sunday. “‘Soon,’ we were told. Finally, there was singing. Fun. Good energy. ‘Soon,’” we were told.
“Then, there was some sort of healing circle where the preacher ‘put hands’ on people, some of whom fainted.
“‘Soon,’ we were told.
“Then there was a lot of hand waving and (we think) pushing out the devil. Good people watching. Interesting body jerking.”
This was nothing like Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, their home synagogue.
“The service was extremely long,” Zara said. “Time doesn’t affect anything, because you aren’t going to do anything else. It’s Sunday. It’s so hard to leave because everybody is so happy to see you.”
But when they made it outside, Zara read her Torah portion in Hebrew to a group of kids. There was a Bible in Lozi and English, and she found her portion in Lozi and showed it to them.
“It was a cultural immersion,” Shelley said.
The family brought three duffle bags to Zambia, crammed with clothes, toys and colored pencils. “If we were to go now, I’d bring more blankets, more books for learning,” Zara said. And she’d go easier on Vivi and herself, less construction work and more time with the kids.
Ten days was enough to shake loose the rhythms of Bethesda and the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School she attends, and enough time to begin to absorb life in Mwandi.
“I brought home a new perspective,” she said. “I go into the mall and say I don’t have anything to wear. But those kids only have one thing to wear.”
Zara’s bat mitzvah was during Sukkot, and she compared the temporary sukkah with the impermanence of the mud huts people in Mwandi live in. And she compared the insecurity of a hut dweller with the insecurity of two “makua” girls trying to build huts for a bat mitzvah project.
“Although we were not that good at helping build the mud walls of these houses, it turns out, we knew we were doing the right thing. We were actually changing these kid’s lives,” Zara told the congregants at her bat mitzvah.
“We were able to see the people we were helping and see the smiles on their faces. We could see the insecurity going away, at least a little. Our insecurity about being not that good at building mud houses went away a little bit, too. Sukkot teaches us that sometimes you have to leave the comforts of your home — to face your insecurity — to feel great joy.”
Back in her living room, Zara tried to sum up the experience.
“It was very real,” she said. “I’ve seen people different than me [in other travels]. But this time I could see the people I’m helping.”
Would she encourage other kids to perform their mitzvah project the way she did?
“It’s not for everyone, and at times I was overwhelmed. But it was definitely a good experience.”
Photos by Shelley Ducker