The Joy of Religion
Julie Dreyer Wang
It is Sunday, a quiet day, and we all sleep in until 8 or even 9. Then I go with my assigned African ďmother,Ē Helen, to church on a motor scooter, despite the torrential rain.
On entering the small, unassuming church building, a six-piece band, complete with full drums and cymbals, a tambourine, West African tom-toms, a gourd with beads attached, a keyboard and a man tapping the metal equivalent of half a coconut shell is already in full swing. The rhythm is hypnotic and a choir of three women leads the congregation of about fifty in rousing African chants and hymns.
When they pray, they all pray out loud at the same time and for their own particular needs. I canít understand a word they are saying. It sounds like the original Tower of Babel.
A fierce-looking woman with a long stick prowls around poking children if they misbehave or adults if they start to nod off. She jabs several of them hard, so I sit up very straight in my seat and try to pay attention.
The minister reads from the Bible in French, then it is immediately translated into Fon, a more expressive language of southern Benin, spoken at high volume with a lot of glottal bís and gís hidden in this ancient tribal tongue. The preacher (there are several, all men) preaches first in Fon, which is immediately translated into French, phrase by phrase, a lengthy and tedious process. But this is Africa and time is both expendable and expandable.
A little girl of about three, with an enormous blue turban, strolls around the congregation, then collects a bowl full of steaming hot food from her mother and proceeds to eat it with her right hand from her seat in the front row, apparently unconcerned with how hot it is.
We all dance rhythmically to the donation box to drop in our CFA coins and occasional bills. I am congratulated on my good dancing. Although I have been practicing I still look like a stressed pigeon searching for food and worry about tripping over my pagne
, a long colorful cotton skirt.
Men and women alike, are robed in magnificent, colorful materials resembling a tropical garden in hues of bright orange, red, green, yellow, and blue. The women wrap their heads in ornate turbans that cover their hair and extend several inches high. This week my African mother outshone them all in her silky periwinkle blue outfit and sparkling purple hat.
I canít help contrasting this joyous Evangelical congregation with the pomp and ceremony of a service at Winchester Cathedral, in England, where the organ music is divine, everything and everyone in their proper place for the past 1,000 years, including, perhaps, God?