It was a warm July under the desert sun when Simon climbed up the ladder against the orange tree. He’d set out to work at six that morning, just as he had done on any other morning in the preceding months. It had been a few months since Simon first arrived at the orchard. He already felt accustomed to and almost comfortable with the labor. He was used to racing to fill his to container to reach his daily quota, taking his lunch break and nap at the same hour each day, and collapsing in bed every evening. Before arriving in Israel, he had never imagined he would be working in such menial circumstances, nor did manual labor ever come to mind as an optional vocation, but he was eventually proud of mastering his new trade. With time he learned to carefully select only the best oranges to make the grade and deftly twist each one off its branch, placing it gently in its plastic container, preventing any damage to the fruit, while doing so hastily enough to reach his quota.
It was almost midday as Simon adjusted himself on top of his ladder. His only wish was to reach a few branches on the far-off top of the tree. Though Simon did not always take joy in his work, it meant everything for him to get the work done and done well. He did not imagine what it would cost him.
There were economic implications to the quality of work, of course. If the managers were not pleased, or if quotas were not reached, he could be fined. That would mean he might not be able to cover his tuition and living expenses. Luckily, Simon never reached that point.
However, that morning something unexpected happened. As he adjusted himself on the ladder step, he slipped and lost his balance. By the time he reached the ground, he was in great pain.
Simon was born to an average Kenyan middle-class family and grew up in a suburb of Nairobi. His parents worked as civil servants and could afford to send him to a private school in Loresho. This was significant when he applied for his undergraduate degree and was accepted to Kenyatta University. He was in his final year when he learned of the study program in Israel.
An event was held on campus when a cohort of students was to be sent off for a year in Israel. The Ministers of Agriculture, Education, and Foreign Affairs were all in attendance. The fortunate few who were selected for the program were all recent university alumni. Standing on stage before the audience, they seemed thrilled of what was expecting them.
‘Bring pride to your country,’ exclaimed the Foreign Minister, addressing the students in the tone of a preacher when it was his turn to take the podium. ‘Israel is a small country with no natural resources. Their land is dry and infertile. And yet they are wealthy. They succeed against all odds. They triumph over drought as they do against any of their foes, and not only because God is on their side. They are wealthy and successful because of their sophisticated technology and innovation. We need this innovation in Africa. We can rid ourselves of our drought. But it is now up to you. It is now your responsibility to be good wanainchi, to come back with what you learn and bring that innovation to Kenya. You are the chosen ones. You were carefully selected to learn and upon your return teach your fellow Kenyan brothers and sisters to farm like in Israel. May our land be then as fertile as the land of milk and honey.’
On an informational stand, some brochures lay before a seated recruiter. They promised a unique experience in modern agriculture and smart farming, combining theory and practice. Participants will learn through practical internships in Israeli farms where they will be duly compensated for their work. Testimonials described the jobs and successful business ventures that alumni went into following the program. Photos of Jerusalem caught Simon’s eye. They were shiny and bright. They were an opportunity, perhaps a chance to gain some ground on his classmates, he thought. He had always dreamt of being worldly. ‘Are you in good health?’ asked the recruiter. A few months later Simon was on the plane to Tel Aviv, flying out of Kenya for the first time.
Simon was carried out of the orchard in an ambulance. On the way to the hospital he had a vision of a young woman. She was dressed in a white t-shirt under denim overalls and wore her blonde hair in a bright blue ribbon. She seemed to be offering him an orange as she spoke to him in an American accent. He was mesmerized. She told him that studying in Israel will change his country; it will bring him and his continent prosperity and peace. All the while, he lay in great pain. He will learn the most sophisticated farming techniques in the world, she said. He will be able to move beyond subsistence farming, towards a sustainable and food-secure future. We will not only give you fish, she said, we will give you the rod and teach you to use it, building your capacity to thrive for centuries to come. In his agony it came to him: the woman of his vision is none other than the presenter from the promotional video for the program. She continued: our students are here not only to study; they also get a chance to see the country and visit the holy sites, including the sites of the birth, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. Terrified, he yelled in his delirium, ‘Forgive them!’
Simon’s first job after graduation, and his first job ever, was his job at the orchard. He believed, like his parents, that he should focus on his studies while in university. His parents catered to his every need, while he prepared to plunge into the waters of employment once he finished his studies. The job market in Kenya was competitive, but he knew he had to make his parents proud. He could not bear to remain unemployed and disappoint them. An overseas study program was just what he needed to get the right job in Kenya, he thought.
Much to his dismay, while in Israel, he only studied for one day a week. He spent the lion’s share of his time at the orchard or the packing house. He worked from six to three every day, except on Thursdays when he went to class and usually dozed off in his chair as his Israeli teachers spoke in broken English. Between work shifts he rested in a room he shared with three of his classmates: James, Pierre and Jean.
The first week was the hardest. He worked in the packing house the entire week. It was his first time working on an assembly line. He was not fast enough to put together the cardboard boxes that kept coming and flowing down the line. All the while, the line manager kept coming in and out of the packing house, and in between yelling things like, ‘yalla, we don’t have all day,’ or ‘treat these oranges like you would treat your girlfriend. Otherwise, your salary will be at stake.’ Simon realized this was not what he signed up for. He cried at night. He was ashamed to tell his parents. When he phoned, he told them nothing of his experience. He spoke of the great learning facilities and the knowledgeable Israeli professors. Perhaps just saying this allowed him to endure the next seven months.
He wanted to protest at first. His roommates were against it. ‘The work is hard, brother, I agree,’ said James, a stout Ugandan. ‘But we are blessed to be in this country. We are making some money, more than we make back home. And we spend time with the Israelites, learn their culture. This is enough for me.’
‘This program is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,’ said Jean, a tall and thin Rwandan. ‘We got here through our Ministry of Agriculture and through our universities. Therefore, it must be a serious and respectable program.’
Simon excitedly tried to persuade the others, ‘I am not a mashambani. I lived in the city my whole life. And now they want me to work in the field all day instead of studying. And even on Sundays! It is clear they think we are slaves! We have to do something.’
‘It will only bring us shame to talk about this with anyone,’ said Pierre, also a Rwandan, backing his countryman. ‘We cannot do anything about it. Let us just work and finish the year and go home. I have a son. I have a family to think of, not just myself. I need to save some money at least, even if I am not studying. If you want to go on strike, you can go on strike alone.’
Simon was released from the hospital with a broken leg and a couple of broken ribs. Despite what had happened, he felt relieved. As he returned to the orchard, he was summoned to the manager’s office. He remembered his first visit to that office. It was in his second week at the orchard. He came to protest. Before him sat Shlomi, a thick middle-aged man. Behind Shlomi hung a black- and-white photo of white men and women wearing khaki shorts and bucket hats; at their feet stood wooden crates filled with oranges. He gave off an air of importance as he spoke sternly with an Israeli accent. He could not be interrupted as he ranted endlessly.
‘You Africans are too lazy. You think you can have modern agriculture without getting your hands dirty and sweating a little? It is with hard work that we built this country, not by sitting around. You see this cherry tomato,’ he points to a framed photograph resting on the side of his desk. ‘The person who developed it is now a millionaire. He does not need to work another day in his life. But money does not grow on trees. To get to where he is today, he had to work very, very hard, twelve hours a day, sometimes nights, for years, and decades. But you are not there yet, my friend. You are, in fact, very far. You have many years of hard work ahead of you before you can even reach his starting point. You know, we have something you will never have, we have ingenuity, creativity, innovation, the Jewish mind. It allows us to disrupt and be always ahead of the game. Do you know we are the startup nation? But all that means nothing without hard work. We are hardworking and that’s what makes a difference. If we were to run your country, no one would be poor, everyone would have enough to eat. You would have had a developed Western country by now, like us. You know that Israel was supposed to be built in Africa? It was Herzl’s plan. We could have had you as neighbors instead of the Palestinians. Imagine that! We could have had good business because your land is fertile. More than ours. But you do not make use of it because you are lazy.’
‘If I wanted to work like a juakali, I could have gone to a flower farm in Naivasha. I did not go to university to climb trees like a monkey.’
‘So what? So you have a university degree. I have two. Everyone has a university degree. I don’t see your friends complaining. And you know what, your degrees are worth nothing unless you work hard to make something of them.’
Disgruntled, Simon asked before leaving, ‘How is it that you have the name of King Solomon and yet you hate Africans? It was Solomon who admired the African queen.’
Shlomi gave a loud laugh and then said, grinning, ‘You Africans know the Bible better than we do, and it is about us. This is good for us, you know? It is good that you love the Bible. You love us, you love Israel, you admire our technology, then you come to study here and it’s a win-win. You know win-win? I love Africans. I don’t know why you say I hate them. You come here to study and you help me with my orchard and I’m happy. It’s good for my business. And you I like especially, Simon. You are bold and there is nothing we respect in Israel more than boldness.’
‘Why is he so arrogant?’ Simon later asked his roommates. ‘He is so sure of himself like a mze. We don’t have this in Africa.’
‘It is because he knows he is special,’ answered James. ‘He knows he is of the chosen people.’
Simon carried himself in a wheelchair on the way to Shlomi’s office. Before entering, he paused to gaze at an old advertisement for Jaffa Oranges that hung on the wall in the corridor. In it, a spirit seemed to be protruding out of a sliced orange against a smoky dark backdrop. Wearing a green turban, it was grinning at Simon menacingly as he sat staring. Above the spirit hung a slogan: ‘Summon the genie of Jaffa to guard your health’. Simon remembered a conversation he had held with his roommates.
‘Can you believe that a mzungu is teaching us how to grow Ovacado?’ said Pierre. ‘Next they will teach us how to cook matoke. Did you see the price of these ovacados in the supermarket? It is as if we are growing diamonds.’
‘And the oranges too. Why are they so expensive? What is in these oranges that makes them so special?’ joined Jean.
‘Everything is expensive here,’ said Simon.
‘It is because they are blessed. They have the spirit of God in them. The Israelites call them golden apples,’ answered James.
‘How do you know this?’ asked Jean.
‘I heard it from the rabbi.’
Simon first met the rabbi at the packing house. He wore a pointy grey beard and a black suit, and his white shirt was tucked clumsily under a protruding belly. He shoved his hand into a carton of oranges and dug around for a minute, as if he was in fact searching for gold. Simon approached him cautiously. ‘Is it true what James says? That this orchard is fruitful because of your blessing?’
‘We have fruit because that is what He wants. How can we fail with Him on our side?’ The rabbi’s air of religious authority, along with his assertive way of speaking, gave off the impression that he was someone to confide in, someone to be trusted, like a village elder, or a Catholic priest in a confession room.
‘Why do they make us work so hard if we are here to learn?’ asked Simon.
The rabbi answered in what seemed to Simon as the tone of a mad old witchdoctor, ‘we call this place pardes. It means paradise, and paradise is holy. So, you are doing holy work.’ Simon got the impression that there was some secret truth behind the oranges that the rabbi was not sharing with him. He could not tell what it was, no matter how much he thought about it throughout his time at the orchard.
Sitting in Shlomi’s office, Simon started in a hopeful tone. ‘What happened to me was painful, sir, and it is not that I am happy about it, but it is for the best that it happened. I will now have more time to study.’
‘You cannot study in your condition, Simon,’ Shlomi interrupted. ‘We need you to study in the field, at the orchard. You cannot even pay your rent like this.’
‘But sir, I will pay my rent. I saved money. I want to study. Let me study.’
‘There is nothing to discuss, Simon. I am sorry for what happened to you, I really am, because I like you. But we have already arranged for your flight. You are going home.’
A long uncomfortable silence followed, after which Simon asked, ‘Why is it that no Israelis do the work that we do at the orchard?’
Shlomi sighed and took a minute before he answered in a philosophical tone, seriously considering the question at hand. ‘Did you know that Israel has the highest yield of milk in the world per cow? Do you know why this is? I will tell you why. It is because we are smart. We use our Jewish brains to find technological solutions to complicated problems. But today I can’t find Israelis to do this work anymore. They became too smart for this work. They all want to work in high tech in Tel Aviv. They forgot where their fruit comes from.’ He then said almost in a manner of heartfelt confession, ‘You know, my father worked on this orchard before me. I grew up doing this work and I took over once my father could not work anymore. I love this work. I have been doing it my whole life. But I know I cannot share this love with my children. They are interested in other things. This is not just my problem. This is a problem that all farmers face here these days. So the government came up with an ingenious solution. They brought others to work for us. It pains me that things are so, but we must adapt to the changing times. That’s all there is to it.’
The next day Simon was already on the flight back to Nairobi.
Or Mor-Yosef holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Comparative Literature and an M.A. in Development Studies, both from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Or’s work brought him to different African countries, including Uganda and Kenya, where he served as Country Director for IsraAID after cofounding the Jerusalem African Community Center. Or contributed to International Development in Africa: Between Theory and Practice (2019) and his short play Fear of Missing Out was produced by The Stage in 2019.