A muzungu goes to church

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07:04 – Ba Cecilia Malenga, deacon of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Nshinda, knocks on my door. On Monday morning she had corralled me on my front porch and didn’t leave until I agreed to attend this Saturday’s service. Today is Saturday.

I’m in bed in my birthday suit, checking the score of the Mariners game. I panic briefly, thinking that I’m late. I check the time. I’m not late; church starts at 8. She’s early. We have a brief conversation of which I understand little, she standing outside the door, me lying in bed sans clothing. I manage to catch “Nalaisa” (I will come) amidst Cecilia’s rapid-fire string of Bemba and gratefully respond, “Cawama.” (It is good.)

08:00 – I have been ready for fifteen minutes, dressed in my Sunday Saturday best: green chinos, Allen Edmonds dark wine wingtips, pinstriped white button-down shirt. This scruffy, poorly-dressed Peace Corps volunteer is only poorly-dressed by choice, dammit.

08:15 – No sign of Cecilia. I figured with the personal wake-up call earlier in the morning she’d be the one Zambian I could count on to be on time.

08:22 – Still nothing. I start reading.

08:35 – I drag my wicker chair outside to my front porch and resume reading.

09:05 – Cecilia ambles up and we head off to church.

09:07 – We greet a teenaged boy along the way who falls into step beside us. With Cecilia’s prodding, the boy reluctantly relinquishes his English copy of The New Testament to me.

09:08 – Outside the church, three more well-dressed teens mill around. We enter an empty building of mud brick walls and thatched roof; a table near the head of the room is draped with an embroidered white cloth. What appears to be a pulpit can be seen at the very front of the room, obscured by a hanging curtain. The teens troop up to the first bench on the right-hand side of the room and Cecilia and I take seats on the left, on the very last of the ten rows of benches.

09:10 – Two of the male teens get up and begin singing a slightly off-key duet at the front of the room. Their voices are shaky but their resolves are strong. Cecilia and I are nine pews and about thirty feet away. We are, along with the two other sitting teens, the entire congregation. I am nonplussed. Has this entire church service been staged for me?

09:15 – Cecilia asks me the time. I tell her. She makes a tsking noise and complains that people are late. I do not remind her that service was supposed to start at 8 and we didn’t arrive until 9. She pays no attention to the two boys at the front of the room doggedly grinding their vocal cords through almost impossibly high and low notes in tandem.

09:18 – A well-fed man arrives, shakes my hand, and plops down on the bench beside me. He surveys the empty room and complains that Zambians have a problem with not acknowledging time. The singers, unperturbed, sing on.

09:20 – A teacher I recognize from the school arrives, greets me, and squeezes onto our suddenly-popular back bench. The rest of the room sans the four teenagers remains empty. He, too, bemoans the lack of punctuality. I’m beginning to think they’re all in on an elaborate practical joke being played on the muzungu. And the singers sing on.

09:55 – Finally people begin trickling in. Cecilia slowly makes her way up and down the rows of sparsely populated benches, proffering a collection bowl. By the time she makes her way back to me, I can plainly see that it is empty. I fish a two-kwacha note from my wallet and place it in the bowl. Cecilia drifts back up to the front and waves the bowl perfunctorily under the noses of the two singers who gamely ignore her before she returns it to its place on the table.

10:04 – I don’t know whether to be relieved that we’re actually going to start, or deflated that we haven’t even started yet. And with more people comes…

10:05 – Bingo. The staring begins, mostly from smaller kids who swivel on their benches to soak me in. On cue, a baby chitenge’d to her mother’s back spots me and starts wailing. The singers sing on.

10:15 – The church is approximately half full now. Even though most of the women are on the right side and only men and children are on the left, there doesn’t seem to have been any conscious segregation by gender. Unless I smell much, much worse than I think.

10:18 – At last the singers stop. With a clatter of scraping benches, the children all rise and exit, noisily dragging their benches with them. I watch in mild alarm as one wobbly bench nearly careens into an old woman as it levitates out the door. Presently a chorus of small, clear voices begins to waft back through the building. We begin our own hymn.

10:21 – The heavyset man next to me has exited out the back door as well and reemerged at the front. We stand for one more hymn, then kneel for a prayer.

10:24 – My former pewmate stands at the front of the room and begins to address the congregation, quoting from various passages of scripture. I didn’t realize he was the pastor. I follow along with my English translation, trying to convert his Bemba to English in my head. I am not successful.

10:40 – I admire the chitenge worn by the elderly woman in front of me. It features toucan-like birds stenciled onto a sparse reed/bamboo-patterned background. I contemplate approaching her after the service ends and trying to work out a deal. Then I remember that my Bemba is not nearly strong enough to be absolutely certain that I’m not offering an entirely different kind of proposition altogether. I give up this idea.

11:09 – The sermon ends and another set of hymns begins. The singing is energetic and thus pleasant, even if most of the congregation, contrary to popular stereotype, cannot sing very well. Another collection bowl makes the rounds. When it reaches me, I see that it contains a few coins, maybe 1.5Kr total. About $0.30.

11:31 – The actual sermon starts. I thought it had ended half an hour ago. A different man is now animatedly orating and gesticulating from the pulpit, appearing to preach fire and brimstone. I can still only understand one out of every five words.

11:44 – I definitely hear the preacher say “Muzungu” a couple of times.

12:38 – He stops. A hymn, a prayer, and then another hymn. I wonder how many more of these there are going to be. Wait! People are leaving! But why are they still singing?

12:40 – I confirm that church is indeed over. But Cecilia is telling me something that I mostly don’t understand. I catch the words “food” and “come.” Food? I come.

12:55 – I finish eating a communal meal of cassava nshima and Chinese cabbage in groundnut sauce with all of the church leaders. It is the first time I’ve had nshima made from cassava; it’s much stickier than maizeflour nshima and smells a bit like unwashed feet, but it tastes good and I’m honored that they invited me to join them.

13:10 – I return home, greeting my neighbors, “Mwashibukeni mukwai” or “Mwabombeni mukwai.” They return the greeting, “Ee mukwai, mwapepeni.” Greetings in Zambia, while ubiquitous, don’t exactly translate directly to standard English turns of phrase like “Good afternoon.” Instead, they are usually acknowledgments of actions: Mwashibukeni literally translates to “You have awoken,” Mwabombeni to “You have worked.” And the typical response, Ee mukwai, means, basically, “Yes.”

Mwapepeni, heretofore unknown to me, is a statement of fact meaning “you have gone to church.”

Yes. Yes, I have.

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3 thoughts on “A muzungu goes to church

  1. That was nice of Cecilia to ask you to church and for you to go. It’s kind of like being invited to someone’s home, an act of hospitality. Long service, though!

  2. Very interesting post. First, perhaps “Muzungu” is a term used by your Christian preacher to describe the “wandering” or”aimless,” as this is one of the original definitions of the word in East/Southern African countries. It could be the counterpart of “prodigal.” (You will need to hear the Bemba version of “Wayward Son” to confirm) If this is the case, then you will hear a lot of “muzungu” at church, and it wont be necessarily referring to you! More research needed.

    Second, I detect a pattern of speech that is a clue to the culture. the Sunday greeting: Mwapepeni, meaning “you have gone to church.” and the daily greeting: Mwalila (Are you enjoying?) -Taficila pa bwali (Not better than nshima.)

    It is in the idioms that one begins to understand.

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