Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Bakuba of Congo

“I will sprinkle new water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you a heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36: 25 – 27)


There is no doubt (in my mind anyway) that God is in the business of transforming lives.  God spoke the above words through the prophet Ezekiel to the house of Israel, words to a wayward people who needed to be redeemed, reclaimed, restored.  In the book Cry the Beloved Country (Paton, 1948), Anglican cleric Msimangu says to his friend Stephen Kamalo, “I am not kind.  I am a selfish and sinful man, but God put his hand on me, that is all.”  Truly, when God puts His hand on a person or a people, there is transformation.  There is change.  There is power.  There is new life. 


On our recent eleven day trip into the hinterland of Congo, Kristi and I visited several villages and village parishes.  One village was Bongo Tshiela.  Bongo Tshiela, we learned, is a Bakuba village.  In our readings of Congo and Presbyterian mission history in Congo, the Bakuba have been a noteworthy people.  More than one hundred years ago, they were a very powerful and feared people, yet aloof, living in the heart of Central Africa (Congo).  They had migrated down from a more northern area, and were known to be particularly hostile to whites and foreigners.  Courageous missionaries such as William Sheppard and later Hezekiah Washburn slowly made inroads into this hostile tribe’s territory.  With love, respect, gentleness and humility, our mission forbearers found ways to demonstrate the realities of God’s kingdom, God’s truth, and God’s love for all peoples.  These missionaries ministered and cared for slaves, women, children, and kings.  The raw perseverance of these missionaries won out, helping to bring transformation to a warring and hostile population whose cultural practices included burying slaves (still alive, mind you) with their deceased king. 

P1090304 Bakuba Warriors dance as they greet us…


I have personally been fascinated by the Bakuba.  Their amazing artwork was a marvel to the western world when William Sheppard began sharing and displaying it in Europe and the States in the late 19th century.  The aloofness and pride of the Bakuba shroud them in mystery.  Bongo Tshiela was the our last stop after visiting half a dozen villages on a 13 hour day trip from Luebo to Mueka (roughly 70k).  If it wasn’t for the sheer surprise and thrill of seeing hundreds of people (the whole village!) waiting and dancing in the road, I would have been loathe to stop again.  The noise when we got out of the car was deafening (we were tempted to put our hands over our ears!).  Hundreds walked the length of the town with us, singing and dancing.  Two or three Bakuba traditional warriors greeted us with their dance rituals.  One woman waved a palm frond on the ground in front of us to and fro, almost as if she were sanctifying the ground we were about to tread.  “BaMamu” (Women) danced and sang as they escorted us to the church.  Being inside the church was an experience in itself.  The interior was laced with the famously distinctive Bakuba art.  The choir all had green robes, which was amazing in that most choirs here in Congo struggle to even have matching clothing.  The church building was jam-packed and alive with singing and energy.  The people were incredibly happy to see us.  There was definitely something distinctive and different about the people of this village.  Their energy and zeal was contagious.  After a time of worship and introductions in the church, we went to a home which also had wonderful Bakuba artistry in the interior.  The food offered was different from that of all the other villages, a refreshing change.  The pastor’s wife was beside herself in making us feel at home, and it almost felt like a comedy act watching her busy herself around, arguing with others about how to best care for us.  The experience was altogether surreal.  We learned later that they also had wanted us to spend the night, but a full day already and more people to see in Mueka pushed us on.

Bongo Tshiala (cropped)Worshippers inside the church (Bongo Tshiela)


The joy of the Bakuba people we experienced in the village of BongoTshiela speaks of the transforming power of Jesus Christ, our Living God.  A once hostile and aloof people welcomed two white foreigners with as much African pomp as one would welcome a visiting king and a queen.  I felt a thrill of God’s joy and peace being with these people.  It makes me want to shed tears of joy just to remember it…

Our God is powerful.     

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

International Women’s Day

Women’s Day is March 8. In Kananga, the CPC (Presbyterian Church of Congo) celebrates the day with a day of prayer for women a few days before the international holiday. In each parish, women spend all night worshipping and praying in the church. In the morning, all the parishes meet together at one church in the presbytery. In the Presbytery of Kananga, it was an ecumenical gathering, including all of the protestant denominations. I decided that I did not have quite the energy to make it through the all-night prayer, but I was excited to participate in the daytime gathering.

At around 9am, I heard women singing, with their voices gradually getting louder as they got closer. From our balcony I could see a large group of perhaps 40 women singing and dancing down our road on their way to the meeting. They were coming from another parish, and in good Congolese fashion, they added some dancing to the journey.

women marching

Although I arrived at the church before the meeting started, most of the seats were already full. Groups of women kept arriving, and the ushers had to get creative about finding seats. At the height of the meeting, there were more than 500 women there! It felt energizing to worship with these women representing the Presbyterians, Methodists, Mennonites, Pentacostal Church, Assemblies of God, and others.


Choirs from several different parishes shared songs, and there was a lot of 'audience participation’ with shakers, cheering, and singing along. This choir (below) from a Presbyterian parish is signing “I am going forward, and you go with me everywhere. Whether I go out or go in, your hand blesses me.”


The program for the time of prayer this year had been prepared by the women of the country of Chile. Their theme was “how much bread do we have?”, from the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. In the sermon, Victorine Manga, the ecumenical women’s director, exhorted everyone that God is calling us to worship Him, to give to Him, and not to be stopped or scared by lack of resources. As a symbol of the international nature of the gathering, they used the local language of Tshiluba and the more national language Lingala  in the singing and preaching.


Mille Voix choir After the sermon, the ecumenical choir sings
the question, “how much bread do we have?”

Women were invited to share how they had seen God at work in their lives in the past year. One woman shared how despite her lack of resources, her daughter had been able to attend university. Another shared about how after wanting for many years to have a child, she had been able to give birth. After hearing the encouraging testimonies, women who were ‘in crisis’ were invited to come forward, share their struggle with the gathering, and then be prayed for. About 15 women came forward, and each were given the opportunity to share her struggle. Some of the women had grown children who had gone to another province to find work, and after several years without any communication, their mother no longer knew if they were alive or well. Other struggles included families who were hungry because a salary payment was several months behind, or an unexplained sickness. After they shared, each woman in the congregation spoke out their prayers together for these women in crisis and for the struggles in the world and in their lives. This ability to add some spontaneity to the service and allow people to speak is one of the things we enjoy about African worship. However, it probably works better here where a 4-hour service is acceptable to the worshippers!

This gathering was a significant event! Each of these women had left their work or their families to come and worship. It reminded me again of the strength of these women to face the challenges of life with perseverance and hope. Many of them also participated in a city-wide parade on Tuesday, the International Day of Women.  It may not be evident in the pictures above, but nearly all of the women were wearing a ‘pagne’ (wrap-skirt) of the same pattern. There is a picture of a kerosene lantern, a picture of an open Bible, and the phrase in several languages “The Christian is light”. This is considered the “Protestant uniform” for women. It is encouraging to see this tangible symbol of unity and witness to our faith!