Today was one of the more powerful days I have ever spent in Maun. Another first for this trip, we had all of the students and chaperones visit a small group of local volunteers, mainly BBL staff, in the churches. Religion is a major factor in the lives of many Motswana, my goal here was again, to teach the kids as much as possible about the culture and daily lives of not only the BBL children, but the members of this amazing community. While I am embarrassed to say that I do not know all of the churches we visited, I can share my personal experience and the brief reactions I got from our kids.
One group visited a relatively new and small congregation that met under a tent at a nearby hotel. They started with an hour or so of prayer. Songs were sung lead by various YouTube clips (they had no choir) and the sermon was lead by our host, Beauty – the very same woman who led our cultural activities the day before and would be leading us on one of our projects for the next two weeks. I plan to spend one blog sharing as much as I can about some of the amazing people that we have encountered, but Beauty certainly deserves special mention. This woman is tireless. There is no limit to what she can do, and, it seems, even fewer limits to what she will try.
Our second group visited Onks in his church. Onks is normally the head of his choir, but on this day he chose to stay in the back to share his passion with the students. They sang, they danced, and they played with the many kids attending the service, which was greatly appreciated by all. This was probably the closest to what our kids know of church. There were a hundred or more people in the congregation and the service was fairly traditional. Song and dance was a major part of the service, but the sermons apparently followed a similar pattern to what we might be accustomed to in the States.
The third group visited a small congregation in one of the older churches in Maun. Sitting on a dirt road in the center of a small neighborhood, Nfo (BBL’s matron and cook) hosted the students in a more grass roots celebration of God. They sang and prayed, mainly in Setswana, but did their best to assist their guests (we nearly doubled the congregation) by translating the service into English.
Finally, our fourth group went to a traditional service. All of the services lasted approximately two hours, though ours did not start until two hours after the others. While the few of us were happy to have the slightly later sleep – we would ultimately need the strength to make it through. The service was held in a small neighborhood, not far from our hotel. It is actually on a plot of land where a previous trip group built an outhouse for a family with several members suffering from AIDS-related diseases. The church was a small, corrugated tin shed held together by wooden poles and rope. As we approached the church we were greeted by several people in robes of varying colors and design, each with different coverings and all singing loudly. We joined what felt like a Conga line, straining to learn the rhythmic and repetitive Setswana song being sung as walked inside the church. We knelt briefly for a prayer and then were given some quick instructions on how the service would proceed. They split the congregation by gender and a woman and young man led us through a series of songs that we clapped to in various rhythms. The same young man then led us through some bible readings, but was interrupted every time someone entered the church. The newcomer would stand outside and loudly sing in Setswana – the congregation would sing in response welcoming them in and would continue to sing as this person would find a corner to recite a quick prayer and then join the group. This occurred every time someone new came in, regardless of what was happening inside. The bible prayer continued and was followed by individuals who got to present problems or concerns that they were having in their life. This person stood and shared with the rest of the group, who then in turn prayed for this person – vaguely reminding me of a Quaker ceremony. After this was done, two new gentlemen joined us – up until this point a woman, who was later identified as the village elder, had lead the proceedings – and begin reciting prayers and leading us in song. I should point out that it had been about an hour since our arrival and we had been standing, signing, and clapping this entire time. We were thrilled to welcome these two men in a similar fashion to how we were welcomed in by walking out to greet them, returning inside, kneeling (which was a wonderful feeling after standing for an hour), and singing. The next phase involved a group prayer/blessing. The women went first, mainly in order of age. The young girls sat on benches while four teenagers and the elder stood over them with their hands on the bowed heads and prayed over them. This continued through the rest of the women in the congregation and we were invited in. Our girls went first (though, I did try to join, not picking up on the gender distinctions, and got quickly snatched back), sitting on the benches and receiving the blessing of the prayer leaders, followed by the men in the same order. We all agreed that this was an incredibly powerful experience that moved many of us to tears. It was an incredible experience that I don’t think any of us will ever forget and we were especially grateful to them for welcoming us with such open arms and making us feel as if we were a part of their community.
After the church visits we returned to our hotel to meet with Onks and learn about the projects we would tackle the next day. We then took a long and much deserved siesta and jumped into what would officially be our last piece of orientation. Using the Sustained Dialogue model, we had a wonderful discussion on gender roles in Botswana and whether or not the US is a patriarchal society. It was a terrific discussion, filled with many great opinions, but it was only a start of the discussion. We hope to explore these issues further as we continue to learn about this new culture and compare it to how we act as Americans both at home and abroad.