April 15, 2007

The acclaimed singer documents his trip with Israeli doctors to Ethiopia and Rwanda.
RWANDA – Three months ago, I was asked if I would like to join a group traveling to Ethiopia and Rwanda. When asked to travel to Ethiopia, I go. I’m even willing to join a group that supports elephants. It took me a while to realize that the group consisted of doctors who travel around the world to treat children suffering from heart ailments.

Naturally I was a bit cynical: Who are you? Great heroes trying to save the world? “Come and see the department at the Wolfson Medical Center,” they told me.

I decided to go there one morning. I saw things I couldn’t believe existed only ten minutes away from my home. Students from all over the world take care of Palestinian and Jordanian children, children from Zanzibar, Vietnam and Ethiopia -all of them suffering from heart diseases and laying in one department full of tubes.

Less than a year ago I performed in Ethiopia in a series of very moving concerts which were also documented by Tomer Hyman. I never imagined that I would return within a year, but then one night my partner Amber and I once again boarded an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa along with the group of doctors.

Addis, a poor and harsh city

At dawn we landed in Addis, a poor and harsh city. We immediately caught the soldier’s attention. Ethiopia is not a democratic country and the military treats the media with suspicion. As far as they are concerned, cameras and television equipment are forbidden.

I decided to go and talk to one of the soldiers who was paying a lot of attention to one of the big camera lenses we had brought with us. I spoke to him about music, about Mahmud Achmed, a great Ethiopian singer who we both admire and with who I had appeared in London the previous year. Suddenly he softened up and let us in.

We made a quick stop at the hotel and then went straight to the hospital. The group consisted of Simon Fisher – the Managing Director of the organization “Save A Child’s Heart” (SACH), Dr. Akiva Tamir (who we call Aki) – the Chief Pediatric Cardiologist in the Wolfson Medical Center and his wife Mirna, Head Nurse Nava Gershon, Amber and myself.

When we arrived at the hospital, there were already 40 children waiting for us. I thought to myself that if they had been waiting at such an early hour; they must have arrived during the night.

Only hope in outside help

The parents’ eyes focused on Aki. Each child was just one of out of millions of citizens who can only find hope in outside help. There was great despair in their eyes, but also the hope that maybe they would be chosen this time. It was a very difficult sight. Only three or four children would fly back to Israel with us. The rest would stay behind and there’s no way to help them. I don’t know how Aki copes.

I looked at the children and the families. People fighting to stay alive. I thought that a child is a child anywhere in the world and a mother is a mother anywhere in the world and how could it be that there is only one cardiologist in all of Ethiopia and even he has no resources?

In Africa, in a place where patients sit and wait for doctors to come from Israel, the bubble of Tel-Aviv suddenly seemed so distant. After two hours, Amber and I returned to the hotel. Aki stayed at the hospital and took care of children all day.

We left to tour the surrounding villages, places where I had visited less than a year earlier with members of [my group] the Idan Raichel Project. The people in Addis Ababa do not smile, but in the villages they do. They are extremely poor; sometimes they walk for four or five hours a day to draw water and to toil the land, but this is the only way of life they know.

Only the bare necessities

This lack of knowledge is good for them. Their way of life seems really difficult to us. Through western eyes they seem unfortunate with no resources at all. But in those villages people sit in huts, there is no cafe close by, children play outside and the stillness makes one think.

In Ethiopia one can eat and drink and raise children, and everything there is very basic – that’s how it can be summed up. We are the ones living on the edge thinking how great it is. In our world, children aged 12 can’t manage without their cell phones. It’s not that they are spoiled and pampered, they’ve just become used to it and that’s all they know. In the villages of Ethiopia, life is very different.

In the silence I thought of music, about Mahmud Achmed and his calming melodies. I found a special instrument called a “melodika” and I tried to find myself a quiet place to play. Suddenly I thought of my apartment on King George Street, about my performance in Tel Aviv on Thursday, about my friends who are now recording in Harlem and how life throws us from one place to another, I thought about our world.

Police escort

In the evening we returned to the hotel to rest a little and later went out to a local pub. There weren’t many people there, only four employees who play, sing and serve coffee. When we left it was really late and we walked for 20 minutes back to the hotel.

Suddenly we found ourselves in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Addis, surrounded by people. We were happy to see a policeman who, for a few coins, escorted us back to the hotel. The police also have to make a living somehow.

On Tuesday morning I went to the local radio station to be interviewed. In Ethiopia there is one radio station and one television station and all air time is owned by the government. A broadcaster who wants a program has to buy air time from the government. He himself sells the advertising time.

I had met the broadcaster who interviewed me the previous year. Each week he buys eight hours of air time and his program is very popular. In the middle of the interview there was a power cut. It happens a lot there. We sat and waited, the broadcast was prerecorded anyway.

Relations between Ethiopia and Israel are very good. They know that there is a large Ethiopian community in the country and that some have become very successful. There are not many great cultural figures from Ethiopia, mostly sportsmen. Every achievement is a source of great pride for them.

I tell the interviewer in English, for those listeners who understand the aims of SACH. It’s true that each time only a few children are saved, but the important goal is to build a framework in which children can be treated in Ethiopia.

After the interview we went back to the hospital to meet other people – young people in their twenties who were already operated on as children and who returned to the hospital to volunteer. It’s moving to hear that some of them have become medical students. Nava, the head nurse, recognized some of them and was excited to meet them again.

Two kinds of Israeli ambassadors

When I travel the world, I meet two kinds of Israeli ambassadors; the diplomats and statesmen – who serve the state – and cultural ambassadors, the doctor and the scientist – who make contact with the people themselves. I think of those people who were in my position in the past: Chaim Topol, Shoshanna Damari, Achinoam Nini and Ivri Leder. It’s a great privilege.

The children are not interested in countries and borders. They want to be healthy. They don’t understand the language; they are not even aware that they have serious heart problems. They don’t care that we’re from Israel.

I sat and waited with the children in the queue to see the doctor; I took out my melodika and began to play. I taught them to play and they got excited when they succeeded. All the differences disappeared. The differences between the countries and the language. Children are children.

They laughed at the way I look, about me being white, about my dreadlocks and how I can’t pronounce their names in the right accent. They pulled at the pockets of my trousers and I saw their parents watching out the corner of my eye, it’s moving.

Maybe in a few years they will be told that a doctor from Israel traveled around the world instead of working from nine to five, and because of him they are alive. At the moment it doesn’t interest them. A child only wants his heart to work properly so that he can run about freely.

That evening we flew to Rwanda. We are all excited because it was the first time the group traveled to Rwanda. More than 10 years have passed since the genocide there and rehabilitation is not yet complete.

Like an artist without a pencil

Dr. Joseph Mucumbitsi waited for us. His story is amazing. After 18 years in Brussels, after gaining a world-wide reputation as one of the world’s best medical experts, he decided to come home, to his people, to his country, to take care of them after the massacre. His frustration is enormous.

Aki says that all of his diagnoses are accurate, but that’s all he can do – diagnose. Like an artist without a pencil. He has no resources to treat the children. He is so helpless; he is trying to establish a center to treat children. Without outside support he will not be able to get out of this cycle. The villagers don’t cooperate. Most of them are afraid that they cannot afford medical treatment at hospitals, so they just don’t come.

Dr. Mucumbitsi asked for SACH to come – so they came, with their medical equipment. Suddenly there’s a sense of a humanitarian mission, the meaning of the mitzvah “to save a life is to save an entire world.” In a few months, in Kigali (the capital of Rwanda – the city we visited), SACH will set up a center. Even the Health Minister of Rwanda came to give his blessing.

We didn’t waste any time. This month some children will already be flown to Israel for medical treatment. I asked myself how I could help, how I could raise public awareness, how I could recruit volunteers and donations.

The next day I walked around. Addis Ababa is brown and dusty, but Kigali felt like the Africa you see in the movies. Kigali is a colorful and lively flourishing town. It looks like a market with all the colorful clothes and beautiful objects. No one has heard of the Idan Raichel Project there.

I got the chance to observe their culture. It is so open and impulsive. Life is generally modest. They save everything for special moments and then it all becomes relaxed and exciting.

We didn’t have a lot of time. After only a day and a half we were already on a connecting flight to Ethiopia, where the three children chosen to come back with us to Israel were waiting. Yisuv, a small sweet girl captured my heart.

She has something cheeky in her eyes; you can see that she’s no sucker. Here she is at five years of age, without her parents, flying to another country for surgery and she knows exactly where the surgery will be. She explained to the nurse in Amharic about the heart area and about the surgery. I looked at her and thought to myself; when did we lose our naivety? The only thing that matters to Yisuv is to be healthy and to go back home, to Mommy.

Tomorrow Yisuv will be five years old. She’ll celebrate her fifth birthday at the SACH hostel. The operation which was supposed to take place the day before was delayed a little because she had a cold. I went to the Wolfson Medical Center to visit her. Sometimes you write a song and it has such power.

Five years ago, I lay on a mattress in the basement of my parents’ house. I was grumpy, I had just broken up with a girlfriend and I wrote on a piece of paper: “Come, give me a hand and we’ll go.” This week I returned from Ethiopia and I gave a hand to Yisuv, so that she will come and also begin to walk.

(Reprinted with permission of Ynet News)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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