Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Worship music in Tanzania

On July 29 through August 14 this year, I traveled with a group of 10 people, all members of Zion Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor, to Tanzania on a mission trip. Our nominal destination and task was to work to improve buildings at the Kirurumu Health Center in Mto wa Mbu, a relatively developed town along the main (blacktopped) road between the regional center in Arusha and the popular tourist destinations of Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti Plain. Another tourist attraction right next to Mto wa Mbu is Lake Manyara National Park. This town has electricity, cell phone service, a couple of public places with internet access, and a bustling, active look to it. According to Wikipedia, its population is a little over 16,000.

On August 2, our group attended a church whose name was a combination of Swahili and Latin--Kanisa Kantate, i.e. The Church of Singing, a name to which it lives up well. It is a cinder block structure with a seating capacity of about 400. It has a concrete floor, permanent pews, and a metal railing around the chancel area. Having just played some cards the evening before, I recognized the shapes worked into that railing as being hearts, diamonds, and spades (upside-down hearts). The choir, at about 50 people, was nearly as numerous as the rest of the congregation in attendance, and were accompanied by about 6 guys switching off on guitars and keyboards. The instrumentalists sounded great and the choir sounded and looked great. The biggest difference from most American churches was that for every song, whether a congregational hymn or a choir anthem, the choir did some sort of choreography. It wasn't usually very complicated, but it was done with gusto and panache.

The choir performed a few anthems. I pride myself in knowing more Swahili than my fellow travelers (this was my seventh time in East Africa); I am able to speak certain things in compelte sentences, and pick out bits of speech, but I'm not able to follow everything that's happening when someone is talking (or singing). However, the choir's choreography helped out immensely on one of the anthems. Their actions were highly suggestive that it was based on the text of Matthew 18:9 (or very similar passages elsewhere): "And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell." Not a text that most American church choirs would choose for an anthem, but this group stood up, sang, acted like they were pulling their eyeballs out of their sockets, pitched them away with a sidearm motion, then covered over where the eye had been with one hand, and repeated this on each of about a half-dozen choruses. Other songs had more rhythmic and less narrative choreography, usually involving either the arms or the feet, but not both. Four times they had a collection of money: for the general church fund, for a trip to a contest for the choir, and for a man whose son had been seriously injured. For each of these offerings, there was a hymn, some of which use tunes that will be familiar to many Americans from their churches, but with words in Swahili, and sung in a lilting African style, con portamento molto. And each time, the congregation stood up and walked to the front and center of the church to deposit their offering. This included the choir, who did their choreography all the while.

Some offering items were not money, but goods. They auctioned these off outside after the end of the service in order to liquidate them into cash. One generous soul bid on some potatoes, "elfu moja kwa wageni," meaning "one thousand for the guests." He paid one thousand shillings, or about 75 cents, for these potatoes to give to our group. I also got in on some of the bidding, managing to say "shilingi elfu moja na mia mbili" in order to pay just under a dollar for some corn still attached to the stalks. We ate it later--not sweet corn like we're used to, but tougher field corn that hadn't been ripened to its fully hardened state; it tasted fine.

I am sorry that I do not have any photographs of this experience. Photography is a touchy thing to do for many people there; we had permission for one person to do some videography, so I may later be able to post some footage taken by one of my traveling companions.

This was an exotic experience for those of us from the States, a feast for eyes, ears, and stomach. In my next installment, however, I will talk about the following Sunday, when our church venue was more rustic and possibly less eye-catching, but was an experience that shook body and soul.

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