Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tanzania week 2

The second week of church in Tanzania was even more exotic than the first. On August 9, we attended the service at Kanisa Baraka--the Church of Blessing. In this case, the name of the little village where it is located is Baraka. This word for 'blessing' has the same source as President Barack Obama's name. See my favorite online Swahili-English dictionary,, for more English words that correspond to this word.

Kanisa Baraka has a concrete floor with several large chips taken out of it from considerable use, a corrugated metal roof supported by numerous wooden posts and wooden truss rafters, and walls made of a lattice of sticks covered with cattle dung. This is a church of the Maasai tribe and, being a herding people, dung is one of their primary building materials. Their houses are made of it, too, now usually with a thatch roof, occasionally metal, but more traditionally a complete dome of sticks and dung. The pews in the church consisted of rough wooden benches without backs.

The Swahili language is the language that Tanzanians have in common, at least if they've been to primary school (not all have), possibly learned to read and write, and interact with members of other tribes enough to use Swahili and keep it fresh in their minds. However, most people, especially in rural areas, more often speak a different tribal language. So, although I can follow a little bit in Swahili, this church service left me completely in the dark because it was almost entirely in the Maasai language. However, there were slogans written in Swahili on the wooden parts of the church--the door and the rafters, welcoming and blessing everyone. For them, Maasai is the language of speaking and Swahili is the language of writing.

This is a church that has some historical remove from missionaries from the United States and Europe bringing the Lutheran faith, but follows some of the same forms. One that was brought to another level is the part of the liturgy in which confession and absolution occur. Some Lutheran churches in the US dispense with this; others might or might not have their members kneel on kneelers or possibly the floor, or individuals might do this at their own option. At Kanisa Baraka, they knelt right on the rough concrete floor and put their head down on the bench in front of them, and where there wasn't a bench, right on the floor.

Now, the music. It might not be considered beautiful by the standards of Western church music, but it sends shivers. It is the words of Christian faith, translated into their language and set to the sound and soul of the people of a particular tribe who, in a land that is highly foreign to us, are the people who are foreign to the rest, the outcasts through an interplay of force and choice. Some of it lapses well into the realm of shouting and some amount of it consists of grunts. As someone living here in Ann Arbor, having lived my whole life in the USA, this kind of music is ordinarily not a reflection of my soul, but in the moment of being there among those people who bring it from the depths of their history, yes, it is part of my soul.

They asked our group to sing, and I led them in "We Are Marching in the Light of God." We're not a rehearsed group or even ones used to singing, especially in public, but we did it, it went OK, and we fulfilled an expectation they had of us. Not only among the Maasai, but all Tanzanians, and probably most of Africa, claiming that you don't sing is just plain unheard-of. Some people might be better at it than others, but they all do it. I tried to think of an analog in our American culture--something in which an element of skill distinguishes some people from others, it's not completely essential to survival, and yet everyone is strictly expected to do it. The closest thing that I could think of is talking.

Most of the songs involved some sort of dancing again, but it had less of the feel of formulaic movements inserted into the music, as we saw the previous week at Kanisa Kantate (the city church). Instead, it was more organic, and included the traditional bobbing up and down from their knees and toes (men only). In church, they didn't go to the extreme of the very high jumping that you might have seen. They brought back some of the same songs to repeat them, without any hint of apology for doing that.

I didn't time the service--it was long and meaningful. During the times when we were standing, as tall as I am, I was able to see through the sizable gap between the roof and the top of the wall (strung with barbed wire to keep some medium-sized critters out, possibly including people), and look toward the dusty horizon. Part of that horizon contained the escarpment that marks the edge of the Rift Valley, while in the foreground were often dust devils. Unusually dry conditions have brought Maasai herders from far away, including Kenya more than 100 miles away, to this location near Mto wa Mbu, itself unusually dry, but less so than the places that these herders came from. Many animals are dying and it is likely that human death by starvation will soon accelerate. Compare this with bad times in our country: Among many Tanzanians, in good times, they live in a shack with a dirt floor and eat the simplest of food; in bad times, people starve to death.

After the service, our group sponsored a meal. We had pilau, rice with chunks of beef and some spices. The meal was funded by our group and cooked by our cook, Jackie. (The photo at the top of the post is a poor-quality picture of Jackie. Only one person was allowed to take photos and video in the church, and I haven't received any from that person yet.) We don't trust ourselves to cook safely in that environment, but we trust Jackie. I got a huge serving of pilau, which for sanitary reasons was on a paper plate with a plastic fork; Tanzanians usually eat with their hands. At this point after the service, I would have loved to have had some of the church choir members teach me some of their songs, particularly one that had a call-and-response format, with a male voice doing the call. However, the men all left immediately after getting their food, because of a cultural taboo against men eating in the presence of women. Unfortunately, I didn't actually learn a single song on this trip.

After the meal, we handed out some food for them to keep. Because of the drought, their cattle are giving very meager amounts of milk. We gave them cartons of ultra-pasteurized milk that keeps for a long time--1/2 gallon per family. And also a one kilogram bag of flour per family. This small amount of food was a greatly appreciated gift. Our hearts were left with the feeling of having given these people something that they really needed and appreciated, but at the same time, something that wasn't enough and would only last for a short time.

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