Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Khanimambo Jesus!

I am not Catholic by any stretch of the imagination.

But somehow, Catholicism has been a surprisingly prominent part of my Peace Corps service, even before joining the Catholic University. The Portuguese started converting Mozambicans to Roman Catholicism when they arrived in the 1500s. Around 28 percent of the population currently follows Catholicism to some degree, according to the CIA World Factbook. You can find mission compounds for various orders in almost every town, which often run schools and orphanages with an effeciency that makes NGOs green with envy.

I personally encountered this on my second day in Moz, I was woken up far too early for being so jetlagged to Mama C chanting “Igreja! Igreja!” at me. As I had been studying Portuguese for a grand total of three days, it was not until Junior brought me to the large steepled building that I connected the word with “church.”
In Chokwe, as part of that much-preached “community integration” I attended every church I was invited to. And after a few Sundays of shouted group prayers, live exorcisms, mandatory dancing with hands on head, etc., I found myself willing retreating to the comparatively familiar and drastically calmer rituals of the Catholic mass.
Somewhere along the way, one of the Brazilian priests got my phone number and for a few months I taught basic English lessons to Padres Armando and Jose, two of the most chipper and friendly Catholic priests you’ll ever meet.

At the university, it’s inescapable. Every meeting starts with a prayer and every major gathering includes a mass. I once walked into my office to find a plastic bag of twenty 3-in plastic Virgin Marys (actually intended for the pastoral head and food science teacher in the office down the hall). In the communication department alone, Sister Esperança teaches Portuguese, Brother Bambo teaches Ethics, Father Juliasse teaches Methodology and Father Jorge teaches Theories of Communication. Since they’ve fixed the projectors to point directly above the chalkboard in some classrooms, there’s now a crucifix smack dab in the middle of every PowerPoint presentation.

I’ve seen some pretty cool Catholic churches.

National Cathedral, USA

Notre Dame, France

Sacre Couer, France

Catedral de Segovia, Spain

Catedral de Santo Domingo, Peru
But Moz churches are a little different.

Catholic church, Chimoio

Catholic church, Namaacha

The structures themselves are incredibly simple. Painted concrete, exposed lights, clear glass windows (when there are windows), and pews made of 2x4s, with a few inches of wood across your upper back and, if you sit up straight, a few more across your lower back. The pews on the sides don’t have backs, and some of the mothers sit here so their babies can stay in the capulanas on their backs. The older ladies sit on reed mats at the front to stretch out their legs.
The altar is usually a wooden table covered with a white table cloth. Unlike the gilded statues in some churches, there’s usually nothing behind the altar but wooden chairs for the priests and a wooden cross. In the Namaacha church, there were blue paper die-cuts sticky-tacked to the wall in an arch that read “Adorai o Coração de Jesus.” For the congregation’s wardrobe, anything goes. Shiny silky pink prom dresses, blue jeans with sweaters, capulanas, t-shirts from Huntington’s Science Camp in 2002.

Padre Jorge and Brother Bambo, who both teach in the communication department

And then there’s the actual worship. Of course there are no hymnals. Instead, one single voice in the choir starts, a capella, and establishes the melody. Others in the choir pick it up if they know it, and by the second line most of the congregation has joined in. Then the maraca-type instruments start, and then the drums. If you’re at a really fancy church, they might also have an electric keyboard that chimes in around now. By the third line, everyone is clapping, swaying, and singing together. If the song really heats up, a few of the ladies might let loose the celebratory Mozambican yell that I can only equate to what you hear on Xena: Warrior Princess. There’s no such thing as a bad singer in church here. You just belt it out and it’s beautiful.

Most of the songs and the sermon are in Portuguese, but every church has a varying level of the local dialect. In Chokwe, the Brazilian priest would give the sermon and was immediately followed, line by line, by a Mozambican translator into Xangana. All the readings from the Bible were done first in Portuguese, then in Xangana. Missionaries are the absolute best at integrating and adapting to new languages, and Catholics are the most die-hard of all. The only book I’ve ever seen in Xangana is the Bible. Those people are determined.

In Chimoio, a slightly more metropolitan setting, most of the service is in Portuguese, but the songs go back and forth. Some of the melodies are distinctly African. But at least once a mass I’ll get chill bumps when I hear the melody of “How Great Thou Art” or “Great is Thy Faithfulness” with words I can’t understand and accompanied only by drums. Sometimes I sing along in English anyway.


The offering is much more enjoyable – and sometimes downright entertaining – than the services I’m accustomed to. Of course, there’s a few people who stand alongside the priest in front of the altar with baskets waiting to receive the coin and small bills (no envelopes here!) that people give. But then there’s also the procession. Usually it’s led by girls in matching capulanas doing an orchestrated dance down the aisle, stepping forward, raising hands, bowing, stepping back, spinning, all together. After them comes the actual offerings – the ones which must be carried on heads: 25 kilo bags of rice and beans, baskets of vegetables, bottles of oil, boxes of bolachas. They actually bring in the best of the harvest. And on really good days (usually Easter or Christmas), there’s also the lucky kids who gets to drag in the goats. Just try to give them plenty of space. And watch where you step when you leave. But everyone is still belting it out, dancing going down the aisle, and you just kind of want to jump in like a congo line and join in the praise. Just ahead of the goats.

Though there’s still the excessive amount of standing and kneeling, the mass is one of the most beautiful ways to experience Moz culture. So much so that you can’t help yourself but worship.


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