Like so many other things, I was surprised to find how deeply Western influence has been integrated into the religious culture here. It is even more surprising as I generally always expect religion to be one of those things to which people cling most strongly. However, in the several hundred years since the first white establishment was settled at the Cape of Good Hope to provide a refill station for sailors working for the East India Trading Company, (what I call) Western religions such as Christianity have made a distinct impression on the cultural landscape.
In fact, the only religion locally (to my knowledge) that can really be considered a traditional African religion is Shembe, and even this is apparently a form of the Baptist Church. I am told the attendants dress in more traditional clothing, with leather skirts, head wraps, etc., and their places of worship can be seen periodically in the form of a circle of white stones on the ground. The circle represents their church hall, as it were, with a space left in the stones to serve as a "doorway," through which they come and go. Their belief is that Shembe is a kind of prophet or intercessor between that person and God.
**I know this is a very superficial description of a religion, but it's all I've got so far and I will correct any inaccuracies at a later date as I am made aware of them (speaking of--thanks for the Facebook tip several weeks ago, Meredith. I have corrected my "personal information" page. Lol--wouldn't want to make that mistake. Although, who knows? I might actually go to heaven). This goes for everything else in this or any other post--I take no responsibility for my inability to tease out all the varied and nuanced beliefs and distinctions of a different culture, especially one in which my language capacity runs that dangerous gauntlet from, "Hello. How are you?" to "Where's the bathroom?"**
Even so, what we would consider religious belief is not always so distinct from daily life here, and the Christian traditions which have grown up have done so alongside many continuing cultural practices. For instance, it is still known that the ancestors are not only present, but actively interacting with the physical world on many levels. They are prayed to for help and guidance, and married women continue to cover their hair in their homes, even if nowhere else, for fear of displeasing them.
So I went with my wonderfully friendly weekend-host family (I think I'm going to have lots of these) to their church Sunday morning, and to my initial and immediate shock, I did not burst into flames upon entering the building (all I felt was a slight burning sensation; I must not be doing something right). And so we took our seats at the front of the approximately 800-capacity hall, which quickly filled behind us.
I must say, this church puts TV worship/praise services in the States to shame. For the first hour (no kidding), one song played while people sang and danced and praised Jesus. The music never actually stopped, but the band (drums, guitar, keyboard) would variously change the tempo and roll from one theme to another. Seriously, this group could have made a fortune as a jam band in the States playing for teenagers on mind-altering drugs. Widespread Panic at its height didn't go for this long. Anyway, all the while the people were dancing and singing, praying independently and out loud, so that the room was filled with a veritable storm of worshipping. This was all led by a group of women at the front who were dressed as though for stylish job interviews, wearing neon pink silk shirts under smart black business suits with skirts and strappy heels. One woman even wore knee-high black leather boots. Generally one of these women would be at the front, straining into a microphone, seemingly under the impression that the louder she praised God, the more likely He would be to hear her. "Thank you...Jay-suhs! Thank you...Jay-suhs! Thank you...Jay-suhs! When your praises go up, your glories come down!" Throughout all this, the women on stage were steadily working themselves into a frenzy, pacing back and forth, necks taut and straining with the tension of their prayers, hands beating in rhythm to the music.
It was about this point in the service that a woman sitting in front of me fell out on the floor, hands fluttering at her chest and tears streaming down her face. Everyone just sort of moved the chairs out of the way so that she wouldn't hit her head as she slumped down, then several women hurried over with shawls to cover her legs so that her nether regions wouldn't be exposed during her raptures.
Around this same time, I noticed one of the women on stage was lying down, also in a sort of rapturous exaltation. However, unlike the woman in front of me who got up after about 10 minutes, this woman stayed on the floor throughout the next three hours of the service, intermittently flapping a body part such as a hand or a foot, or rolling onto her stomach and shaking all four limbs in the air. In between times, she would lie there, seemingly worn out. Had I not been in a church and seen everyone else's nonchalant response, I would have said her asterixis was acting up again (can't remember if I spelled that right). I personally think she just wanted to take a nap, and felt she had to keep up the act every now and then. Of course, she could really have been touched by the Holy Spirit. As for me, I don't want to be touched by anything I can't see.
After another hour or so of singing, it was time for the sermon, and it was just as animated as one could hope for. Several different people came up to preach, and each had their own style, though they all fell under the "televangelist" heading. And sure enough, the service was being filmed for broadcast in the local areas. That's when my big debut came about. They called all new members up to the front, so I and about 20 others had to get up in front of this enormous crowd, and I quickly introduced myself in isiZulu as both Lindsay Wiggins and Lwandle Ndunakazi, and left it at that. Several people then came up to green us, and were extremely sweet and excited as they shook my hand. I don't think they'd ever had a white person there before, but like in all other aspects, they were thrilled when I came in to share in their experiences. So for a while at least, I was on South African church TV. Wonder what they thought about that.
Eventually, it came time for those people in the crowd who felt as though they needed to be saved, or resaved, or something like that (it was Zulu), to come to the front and kneel down. This was when I determined the significance of the women with the shawls. Several of them lined up behind the group of about 75 people kneeling in front and passed out shawls to each other, I assume so that they could rush in and cover any female in the group overcome with the Holy Spirit. I suppose this happens enough that they're prepared and have now appointed this guerilla-style fashion police. Maybe it's just me, but I would think that if God caused you to fall over in ecstasy at his presence, He could at least have the decency to cover up your legs for you. Either that, or maybe relax the standard about women having to wear skirts.
Anyway, the service ended up with more singing and dancing. After four hours, the entire while I having been a good, respectful, diligent Southern daughter who appreciated the people I was with and the fact that this was a cultural experience I would likely never have again, I had to excuse myself. I intended to give my mind a rest by sitting in the car and reading my science fiction book (oh, sweet science). Shortly thereafter, however, my host family came out and joined me. They, too, were worn out (the service had apparently run long even for them; usually its only about three and a half hours), and no one seemed to be surprised by the fact that I couldn't hang.
So, I hope everyone takes this post in the manner in which it was intended, not to make fun or make light of a truly wonderful group of people and their admirable enthusiasm in their style of worship. But I can't help but treat this form of religious expression with the same skepticism that I treat all religions. I mean, really, is it any more believable that wine turns to blood with a few magic words, or that everything that doesn't go right in life can be explained by God's divine plan (as in, "Damn it, I didn't win the lottery when I know there were about 1.3 million other people also praying to win. Must be that Plan everyone is talking about, as opposed to just pure friggin' chance."), than that a demon spirit possessed my host cousin a few weeks ago because she believes there were Satanists in the crowd at church (which she believes happened; again, more on this later)?
Anyway, I hope I haven't stepped on too many toes with this blog, and that everyone will keep reading. I suppose I'm just bitter because religion has managed to corner the marked on expressive forms of belief. How would it go over if we could get the scientists to jump on this bandwagon? "Thank you...Ein-stein! Thank you... Ein-stein! As the mass...uh-goes down...the uh-energy...approaches the spay-eed...of light!"
So, as for this week's pictures. The first is me with my host brother in my first home, Thulani. After a few weeks, he finally warmed up to me, and began calling me "Sisi," meaning "sister,"and making me feel very special. The next is several of our group dressed up at the farewell dinner we had for our host families during training. From L to R are Doug, wearing clothing from Swaziland; Grace, wearing Xhosa; Ntokozo, one of our LCFs, wearing her Zulu outfit; Leah, wearing Ndebele; and Matt--I forget now, but I'll remember later. It's like a veritable African Red Carpet Awards. The next pic is me with a bunch of PCVs at one of our few opportunities to go to a real restaurant, followed by a pic of me with Ntokozo and Bongiwe at our 5K Fun Run we put on. Next is a pic of the kids at the start of our 5K race, followed by a shot of the gorgeous view we had at Newcastle when we were there for a Supervisor's Workshop. Anyway, I love and miss everybody! Hope you're all doing well, and that Mama Jean's finger is doing better. Write me, text me, email me, comment me.