Yay! I finally got to go a village church service! Ian Shelburne, a missionary on the team, and Herbert Wakamoli, a Ugandan who works with the team in Bukedea, the district the town is in, graciously allowed me to go with them as they went to minister at Kotolut village.
The village is not very far from Mbale, perhaps 50 kilometers (oh, all right, say about 30 miles, but it would be helpful if you would learn metric), but I discovered anew there's a reason they call them "villages." I am quite used to the roads in Uganda -- or so I thought. This trip began conventionally enough on a blacktop road, but after leaving the blacktop for a semi-decent dirt road, and then exchanging that for a narrow dirt road with bushes and trees brushing the side of the truck on either side, we literally ended up driving down a footpath with a gentleman walking in front of the truck to lead the way. I asked Ian what would happen if we met a vehicle coming the other way. He and Herbert just laughed, which I took to mean, chances of that were quite slim. Evidently my assumption was correct, because as we parked and got out, already gathering around were a group of small children with big round eyes, staring at the truck, then the Mzungu (Ian and me), then the truck, then the Mzungu...you get the idea. I realized that neither vehicles nor white people were common occurrences here.
Our guide leading us as we enter the village
Once in the village, the church leaders introduced themselves, and then proudly led us to places of honor in the church. The Ugandan people are extremely polite, and I was aware that it is natural for them to show respect to visitors, so I tried not to be embarrassed as they ushered me to one of the few wooden chairs, while elderly Ugandan mamas seated themselves on mats on the dirt floor.
The church building, like all the buildings in the village, is basically a mud hut, but it differs slightly in that, one, it is square (most of the huts were round), and two, the church proudly boasts a roof made of sheet metal, rather than the usual thatched banana leaves. The Mbale Mission Team, as part of its rural ministry, provided the church with its sheet-metal roof once it met certain accreditation requirements. By the way, the roof sits over the building, not on the building. There's a good six-inch gap between the top of the walls and the metal roof. This allows light and air to pass through, not to mention a few lizards. (Which is a good thing because lizards eat bugs, and if there's one thing that Uganda has in abundance, it's bugs, and however much you may not care for lizards, I think you'd not care for the bugs even more. In fact, lizards and geckos are probably my favorite creatures here. I've even named a couple that live over the front door at Welldone Cottage. But I digress.)
Gathering for the service
While Ian, Herbert, and the church leaders stood outside and discussed the order of worship, I enjoyed watching the villagers arrive. I was a little distracted by the fact that Ian had casually mentioned that I would probably be expected to participate in the service. (Why oh why don't they warn us about these things before we climb in the truck?) I knew already that this was going to be a special service. The church was trying to raise funds to finish buying its property, and several village churches were coming the service. There would be a Bible study, worship service, baby dedication and, last of all, an auction. I had a feeling that, being a mzungu mama ("Mama" is a respectful way to address a not-too-young woman in Uganda), I would be asked to do the baby dedication, so I tried not to worry.
Church services proceed a little differently in the village than they do in town. There didn't seem to be a set time to begin. Once enough people were there, we began to worship in song, with lots of great clapping. The singing gives time for people to arrive who have had to walk a long distance. And yes, I was rather chastened to realize that women older than myself were walking for over an hour in the African sun to come to the worship service. But it helped me understand why church in the village can last several hours. As Ian explained, once you've walked for an hour or two to get to there, you'd like something a little more substantial than just an hourlong service.
After some great singing by the church, Herbert Wakamoli taught the Bible study. I was amazed! Before this day, I had seen Herbert only at Messiah Theological Institute, and my impression was of an unassuming, extremely soft-spoken gentleman. Now he was speaking out to the people in a loud, clear voice with wisdom and authority. On the way home I asked him why the big difference. He smiled and said quietly, "There is a time to be loud, and a time to be quiet." Evidently Herbert is one of those rare people who knows which time is which.
Ian preaching (with interpreter)
We had some more wonderful singing by the church and also by a choir, and then Ian preached the sermon. The whole village service probably lasted a little more than two hours. This service was not as long as usual because we were about to have an auction. But just before that came my favorite part of the whole day: Baby dedication!
My previous assumption turned out to be correct, that as the mzungu mama, my part of the service would be to pray for the new mamas and their babies. I was thrilled. So many African babies are "dedicated" by having charms tied around their waist or by being chanted over by a witch doctor. Praise God that these women chose to bring their babies to other Christians to be prayed over. I was incredibly honored to be allowed to pray for them, and when I found out one of the babies was named Jennifer, well, my cup was running over! (For those of you who know me and are wondering, yes, I managed to pray without crying. It's amazing what you can do when you have to.)
Now it was time for the auction. People disappeared briefly, only to reappear at the church door with a bag of maize, or a stalk of bananas, or a chicken, or some firewood. Again, it was humbling to realize that these people were giving a part of their precious harvest to be sold to raise money for the church.
Herbert stepped up and showed his leadership ability again. He turned out to be as good an auctioneer as he had been a teacher. He knew exactly what everything was worth, and he was very good at extending the bidding just a teensy bit longer to get that next 500-shilling raise in the bids. Ian had warned me not to bid too early because as the "rich missionaries," once we began to bid, people might have a tendency to sit back and wait for us to buy everything. I managed to restrain myself until a BIG bag of g-nuts came up for auction. G-nuts is short for ground nuts, which, in American parlance, is good old-fashioned peanuts. Now please don't ask me why I felt it necessary to bid on -- and win! -- a forty-pound bag of peanuts. I guess I got carried away. But, hey, g-nuts is a staple food here, so I knew it wouldn't go to waste. (Note: I'm not sure, but I believe the nuts ended up in the food supply at MTI.) I also bought a pumpkin, which in Uganda, is a large, green, oval squash-type vegetable. I kept asking people, "Are you sure this is a pumpkin?" They would reply, "Of course it is a pumpkin. It is large, it is oval, it is green! What else would it be?" Then they would laugh and say something to each other, probably along the lines of, "Silly mzungu. Doesn't even know a pumpkin when she sees one." And they were right: It was a pumpkin. It made great pumpkin bread.
After Herbert had auctioned off everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING -- I think a couple moms were keeping a pretty tight grip on their children by the end -- the service was over. The village continued their hospitality by giving us a wonderful lunch of chicken and rice (no, not the chicken in the photo), and finally we headed home. I was exhausted, but it was a great day. I'm excited at the thought of going again.
One last photo: Meet Baby Jennifer!
Baby Jennifer, mama, and friends