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Promise and the Tuk-Tuk

April 2, 2020 | by Tuvia Ganz

An encounter in Ethiopia informs my response to the coronavirus.

Her name was “Promise”. An unusual name to be sure, but not so unusual in Ethiopia for young girls hawking souvenirs and trinkets to tourists in small villages everywhere.

The group of girls excitedly approaching our car were competing for attention – “Hi, I’m Layla. Remember me!”“Hello, I’m Mary. Where are you from? Buy from me!”“I’m Sue. Only 300 Birr!”

Ethiopian children on rural roads approach our vehicle wherever we stop. Sometimes eager for gifts and candies, and most often just saying "money, money!"

But Promise stood out from the crowd. She was vivacious, ambitious, entertaining, full of life, and seemed to speak English better than the others. She was flirtatious – asking and answering questions – but always with the sale at the forefront. “My name is Promise – will you promise to buy something from me? Promise? Promise?” The bantering was lively and exciting. And I knew that she had “hooked me”.

Ethiopia was country number 98 of my world travels, and all this was happening in front of a Falasha Village tourist stop, in Gonder. The Ethiopian Jews used to live in the village before being airlifted out by Israel in 1991. These days, it’s a small handicrafts village, and features a small round decaying structure, which they say was the shul. Today, the remaining Jews live in various other scattered villages, and many congregate in a large, fenced off, community center where many future Olim are learning Hebrew and Tanach and Jewish History, in preparation for their hopeful emigration to Israel.

Young children aggressively harassing tourists for money or for buying trinkets is so common in third world countries that after a few days of touring it’s easy to become immune to the underlying poverty there. On top of that, we’re often specifically told not to give money or buy anything because it encourages kids not to attend school. The experience can be very perplexing.

Jewish-themed souvenirs for sale at the Falasha Village old shul site. The small clay boxes are "tabot" (like the Hebrew word "teivah") and are representative of the Ark from the Beit Hamikdash. Inside the boxes are tiny figurines of King Solomon and The Queen of Sheba.

Knowing that tourists stopping at this village are interested in its Jewish history, the crafts shops create Jewish-themed items. Small figurines of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba inside a “tabot” (a small ark representing the Ark of the Covenant), clay Kiddush cups and candlesticks, African-style, but adorned with Magen Davids.

Promise was soliciting a small clay sculpture of Moses holding the Ten Commandments. I was intrigued, firstly because Judaism is so embedded in their history and legend, and I wanted a Jewish memento of my trip. And secondly, Ethiopia is mostly Christian Orthodox and tribal so most souvenirs are of that nature. The Moses figurine was very unique.

Negotiating in these countries is par for the course. No one ever pays the asking price. You start by offering 10% and hope for a successful “ending” around 35%.

And so the negotiating game with Promise began. She asked for 300 Birr (about $9.50). I offered 100. She came down to 250, 220, 200. I inched up to 120, 140. We were both having fun – certainly I was – and we settled on 150 Birr. Half of her asking price. Not bad, I thought. I handed her 200 Birr and asked for change. She didn’t have any. She exchanged some words, in rapid-fire Amharic, with my driver, tossed the souvenir into the car and darted off.

On the road to Gonder, with a tuk-tuk in the background.

A moment later, we saw a tuk-tuk accident across the street. A tuk-tuk is a small three-wheeled vehicle, about the size of a small golf cart, but covered with canvas and plastic. Many of them are decorated with colorful decals of famous celebrities. Bob Marley, of Caribbean reggae music fame, seems to be popular. Tuk-tuks have tiny engines that putter – thus the name “tuk...tuk”. There are literally thousands of them zipping around everywhere.

There was a sudden frenzy, with hysterical villagers screaming and running out to the street. A tuk-tuk had veered off the road and into an embankment. Our driver dashed outside to see what was happening.

When he returned, he was visibly shaken and crestfallen. He said that a woman was hit and she was under the vehicle and that people were tipping the tuk-tuk to get her out. We asked if she was alive and he said, “I don’t know, but her body was limp.” He said they took the girl to the hospital in a car.

Our driver was shaking and crying. Slowly, he said, “It was the girl that was selling you the souvenir! She got hit! She was running to get the change.”

Oh, my dear God. You cannot begin to imagine the thoughts racing through my mind. What if she’s dead? The silence in the car was palpable. We were all in shock. Processing. Thinking. What if she died for 50 Birr? Is a life not worth a dollar and a half? Could she have died over the sale of a Moses figurine? Was it wrong for considering to buy that? For negotiating? Was I in some way responsible? Was this really happening?

Boy, how fragile life is. How it can change in a fraction of a second.


We are currently experiencing an unprecedented pandemic. Never before has the entire world had an event so far-reaching.

The internet is awash with suggestions as to why this is happening, both from physical and spiritual perspectives. Why? And why now?

As no one knows the ways of God, it is certainly not for me to attempt to explain it. But as Jews, we have Torah perspectives and Jewish history to glean from.

Jewish Ethiopian boys studying the parsha at the Hatikve Jewish Community Center in Gonder. After learning there was minyan for Mincha.

Besides the panic buying, fear of death, loss of money, and the helplessness of not having a cure, the main consequence that we’re all experiencing is being alone. Humanity is being separated. Whether it’s self-imposed or a mandated quarantine, we are being separated in a way that has never been experienced before.

We can no longer congregate with our community, neighbors, family, even our own children, parents and grandparents. We can’t shake hands with anyone. We can’t even be within 6 feet.

Over the last few years we've seen acrimonious disharmony. Right wingers. Left wingers. Absolute disdain for people with different views. Countries threatening each other with war. Other countries split from within. Look no further than the United States, the European Union, England, and Israel. Political considerations take front row to the people’s needs. Corrupt leaders suppress and steal from their own citizens.

Where is the unity? Where is the concern for the “klal”, for the nation – and the world – as a whole?

With everyone in the world looking out for themselves, is it any wonder that the result is separation?
The quarantine seems to be a direct reflection of our disunity.

The interior of the old Shul, built in 1942, at the Falasha Village in Gonder. The seating is around the circumference of the building (Sephardic style). The guardian said that the chopped out area on the wall is where the Sefer Torah was.

The sages explain that the destruction of the Second Temple was because of sinat chinam – baseless hatred. God was essentially saying, “Why have a Temple to have a relationship with Me, when you don’t even have a relationship with each other?”

We are also familiar with the Avinu Malkeinu prayer. We first say Avinu, our Father, before Malkeinu, our King, because we want to appeal to God as a father first since a father always has more mercy than a king.

But a father can only act as a father when his children act as children. If they’re always fighting, the family bond is broken, and he won’t treat them as a father. That is why we ask for forgiveness from all our friends before heading into the heavenly court of Yom Kippur. We try to heal our interpersonal relationships before approaching our Father in heaven.

What we see today, with the unprecedented closing of all shuls (not to mention churches and mosques) is so strikingly similar. God is effectively saying, “I don’t want your communal prayers.” Our shuls are our mikdash me’at – replicas of the Temple. If He’s closing every single one of them, that’s extremely telling. It means we’re being shut out.

For me, the nail in the coffin was when the Chief Rabbi of Israel closed the Kotel to prayer. This was, after all, the outer wall of the Temple. It is a remnant of what was. And all we have left. And God seems to be saying, “Not only did I take the Temple away – now I will even take the minimal outer wall away! I don’t want you there. Until you show some love and unity with one another.”

Ironically, the quarantine and closure of places of worship is having precisely the effect that it appears intended to have. People, in desperate straits, are beginning to act as brothers and as a family, and helping each other in so many ways, even during social distancing. The entire world’s efforts have shifted away from sports, entertainment, business, and materialistic pleasures. Priorities are changing. Governments are being forced to spend all their resources on survival rather than illegitimate activities.

I am certainly not the only one who says that this appears to be a “reset” of the entire planet’s modus operandi, but we all need to do soul searching and see how we can be better, kinder, more sensitive people – to everyone – and what we can do for the common good. We need to see ALL people as “tzelem Elokim” – all made in the image of God, regardless of nationality, religion, race, ideology.

Sometimes it takes a total stoppage to the system for us to re-evaluate everything. And sometimes it has to be shocking for it to be REAL wakeup call. It can’t just be a 9-11, or a tsunami or local earthquake. It has to be on so grand a scale that the entire humanity realizes it. And it appears to be working. Divided governments are starting to unify. These are signs that unity is possible.

There is nothing as shocking as the fear of death. It is the ultimate wake-up call.


Which brings me back to my humble little story about Promise.

After 20 minutes sitting alone in the car (a quarantine, of sorts) contemplating the possible ramifications of what happened, I asked our driver, Ahmed, to drive to one of the local hospitals to see if a young girl was recently admitted. He obliged and went inside as we nervously waited outside.

A young Ethiopian Jewish Oleh-to-be, at the Hatikve Jewish Community Center in Gonder.

I can’t begin to tell you how relieved we were when he returned. Promise was alive, didn’t remember what happened, on an IV line, and even spoke a few words! It was miraculous. We couldn’t understand how she could possibly be alive and well after being run over by a tuk-tuk.

The next day we heard that Promise was released, with only minor scratches. As we ended our tour, I handed Ahmed an extra $100 and said, “Please buy the Moses figurine. Tell her we were negotiating too much, and that it’s really worth $100! And please, Ahmed, keep the Moses figurine in your house as a memory of the miracle that had happened.”

In the end, the girl was okay, the driver was okay, and all the fears of death, thank God, went unrealized.

Promise (at left) holding 3,300 Ethiopian Birr (about $100) we gave her, and Ahmed our driver (at right) holding the Moses souvenir. Ahmed sent us this photo a few weeks after the accident.

As we are enduring this frightening pandemic I realized that the fear of death propelled me to do something that I wouldn’t ordinarily have done. Of course, I wasn’t guilty for what happened – she ran across the street on her own volition – and was probably so excited in making a sale that she neglected to watch the road. But I was clearly and inexorably linked to that event. There I was, bargaining for a dollar – which is so minimal to me, but so critical for her. How shortsighted. God showed me, in an instant and via a life-threatening tragedy, the value of life, and what can potentially happen if we lose track of that value. That another person’s life is just as important and equal to ours.

As tourists we tend to view the world through our camera lenses. The challenge is to step out from behind that lens and to see the person in the viewfinder as another being created in the image of God, regardless of their age or gender or race or background. We are all the same human beings going through our individual struggles and challenges.

In the end, I didn’t get my “Moses” and his Ten Commandments. But what I got was so much more – a reminder of what Hillel says is the essence of the entire Torah – Love your neighbor like yourself.

We shouldn’t be waiting for a shocking and transformative event to change us. Tragedies are God’s last resort option. We need to work on unity and love of all humanity now, before a tragedy hits.

May God, who rules the entire world and can disrupt it literally in an instant with an invisible microscopic organism, heal us all, both physically and spiritually, and reconnect us to Him in the way it is meant to be – as Father and children, and may we no longer need frightening wake up calls to remind us of what’s important.

Passover Sameach. May it be a month of miracles!

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