Saturday, September 20, 2014

Church in Rwanda

20th Sept 2014

You may have heard that church is different in Africa.  It’s true.

Pastor Martin (my 71-year-old host grandpa) and I departed on his motorbike at 9:15am, riding just over a kilometer down the banana tree-lined dirt road of Rukira to the Lutheran Church.  The building is one large room, a sanctuary built of concrete and mud bricks, perhaps 150-200 feet long and 70 feet wide by my shoddy estimates.  It is not yet complete— there are still bricks to be laid at the highest-most points of the metal roof (about thirty feet high), the dirt floor and the brick walls have yet to be coated with concrete and plaster, and the two-foot high wooden benches to replace with taller benches with backrests.  Yet it is enough.  In fact, seeing the people sing and dance and worship in the unfinished building was something beautiful.  In a physical way, it seemed to offer a statement of belief: that God’s work is not complete, and living in faith means dwelling in the mystery of that incompletion— trusting that that there is enough, and that the future is a bright future in store.  (I wish I could find better words to describe it; how can you catch a cloud and pin it down?)

Two special events last Sunday extended the length of the service from one-and-a-half to two hours (normal) to approximately three hours and fifty-two minutes (but who’s counting?)  One of those events, of course, was my introduction; and the other was the formal installation of Pastor Emmanuel, the young man who has replaced Martin as the official leader of the parish.  These events warranted the coming of two other congregations from nearby towns to join us, and to bring their choirs.

The festivities began at 9:30 with dancing.  A young man blared repetitive chord progressions from an electric keyboard as children (and some adults) boogied across a tarp-covered rectangle in front of the altar.  After fifteen or twenty minutes, three men in white robes emerged from the small sacristy near the altar: Pastor Martin, Pastor Emmanuel, and Philip the Evangelist (a title used for young men and women who plan to become pastors.)  We sang a hymn from the Kinyarwanda hymnal, did a short liturgy of Confession and Forgiveness, and had the formal installation of Pastor Emmanuel.

Then, after a few Bible readings, I was invited forward.  I had to pee, very badly.  Pastor Emmanuel explained the YAGM program to the congregation and introduced me in Kinyarwanda.  “This is Ruka Hahn-sohn, from America.  He is a good man.  I brought him from Kigali on the bus, and he asked me many questions the whole way [not the whole way!].  I know he is very excited to learn about Rwanda, and to live life as we live it here.  He has agreed to teach English and music to the small children in the nursery school [true], and he will lead an English club for adults and teach guitar and piano [also true.]  He is also an expert on food security! [Excuse me?]  He has brought seeds to plant vegetables by the church as an educational project. [Yes.]

Then he invited me to say something.  I think I did pretty well, considering my limited Kinyarwanda.  “Hello!  My name is Luke.  I am from America.  I work as partner with the Lutheran Church.  I want to learn.  My Kinyarwanda is few, but, one year…. my Kinyarwanda is BIG!”  There was thunderous applause.  “Thank you very much.”  I hastily marched to the toilet.


The remaining duration of the service was taken by a long and charismatic sermon by Emmanuel (partially translated to me by my friend Edward), communion and offering, and— most lengthy of all— choral performances.  There were three choirs instead of one, and each of them had written original songs with lyrics regarding Pastor Emmanuel’s installation— verses and verses of lyrics.  Each song was probably ten minutes long.  You can imagine how this added up to a long service.  Thankfully, there was time for dancing during the songs, so I had fun with the kiddos.  Church may be long in Rwanda, but at least we have some fun.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Rwanda: Language

13 September 2014

For our first two weeks in Rwanda, my fellow Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) and I stayed at a guest house in Kigali studying Kinyarwanda, the national language.  Though we certainly took time to explore the city— to glide around the winding switchbacks of the city’s hillside roads on public buses, to search for the tastiest samosas in local shops, to visit historic sites and genocide memorials— we spent most of our days struggling through unfamiliar sounds and confusing grammar rules, and drilling lists of vocabulary words.

Our teacher, a youthful and goofy 33-year-old Rwandan called Peter, could usually sense when we were overwhelmed by the messy lists of words and grammar taped to the walls of our classroom.  In those moments he would say “Let us relax!” and lead us outside to the lawn, where we would do more language practice.  (We told him that we did not understand the word “relax” the same way he did.)  We would stand in a circle, rehearsing our greetings in Kinyarwanda or reciting vocabulary or basic math problems with hand motions (“Rimwe! Guteranyaho! Rimwe! Bingana! KABIRI!” “One! Plus! One! Equals! TWO!”)  

Best of all (though I thought it least practical), Peter taught us a few simple songs.  The first was “Ujire Umunsi Mwisa,” the Kinyarwanda version of the tune “Happy Birthday” (the literal meaning is more general: “Have a good day.”)  Later we learned “Nzakagendana” and “Tuzataha,” two simple one-verse hymns well-known to children; and finally “Mbega ukwe mwiza cyane,” a slightly longer and more complicated song.  Eventually, when I or any of my fellow YAGM was starting to lose focus or become exhausted during a lesson, we would spontaneously break into song.  If they would serve no other purpose, these songs would make for an effective de-compressor.

Little did I know, these silly songs would quickly become the most important nuggets of knowledge I have acquired so far: they have helped me connect with children!

On Wednesday, I arrived in Rukera, a remote village nestled in the thick banana tree fields of the Eastern Province of Rwanda, where I will spend the rest of the year.  Each day when I go for a walk with Pastor Martin, my 71-year-old host father, we are swarmed by scores of little kiddos who have just finished school.  Feeling no rush to return home, the kids follow us (or walk in front of us), staring at me and whispering to each other and giggling.  They call me “muzungu,” which loosely translates to “white man.” Some brave kids come forward to shake my hand; others sneak close to poke me and run away.  It has happened the same way each day, and I have found it to be a bit uncomfortable. 
But yesterday, as the children gathered around me and Martin, I realized that they were the best people to help me practice my elementary Kinyarwanda.  I started reciting things I knew how to say: “Ufite umupira, na ijipo, na inkweto” (“You have a t-shirt, a skirt, and shoes”); “Ukunda imineke?” (“Do you like bananas?”)  I have never been so pleased to have been understood as when they responded, “Yes, we do like bananas.”


And then we started to sing.  I began: “Nzakagendana, nzakagendana, agakiza k’Imana we, nzakagendana!” (“I will go with the salvation of God.”)  Before I’d finished the second word, all the children joyfully joined in, clapping and singing.  Their songs shimmered with delight, with some element that signaled to me a connection somehow deeper than the words of the songs, deeper than any eloquent phrase I could memorize in their language.  I was overwhelmed, and happy.  It was the first time since arriving that I felt like I really shared something important with other people that wasn’t in my own language, own familiar terrain.  I am certainly excited to be able to communicate through Kinyarwanda; but thankfully, I know that meaning can be shared in simpler, more profound ways than spoken word, if only in short, unpredictable moments.