Monday, October 26, 2009

Out of Africa, trying to be “just like us”, “Are you Catholic?”, and may be offensive to some

There is a scene in Sydney’ Pollack’s 1985 film Out of Africa whereby the Karen Blixen character (Meryl Streep) goes to the manager of her coffee plantation and says, “Give me work.”

I find the scene very poignant because the woman seems to be getting on her own last nerve and turns to physical labor to remove herself from her mental/emotional troubles.

Since the late 90s, I’ve worked professionally (usually) in the “white collar” world of computers, business dress, writing, and in work that almost always involves general, all-around thinking tasks.

I noticed that when I’d come home from “the office,” I usually dreaded making dinner (yet, another thing to do!) when I realized that something quite meditative occurred in the motions involved in meal preparation: rinsing vegetables, chopping food to be cooked, measuring ingredients, heating pans, etc. It seemed the physical activity of the chore restored my spirit after thinking all day. I’ve come to love—and appreciate—working with my hands.

Over the years, I have come to love gardening in this way: the physical activity and having my hands in the soil seems meditative. I’ve read in Julia Cameron’s work, The Artist’s Way, that artists and anyone in the creative process will move into this kind of “meditative zone” while in the process of creating. As a writer (very much a thinking occupation for me), my creative process doesn’t usually take me into this meditative zone, and often feels difficult, exhausting, and draining. Because I feel driven to write, as most writers do, I cannot leave it. So I have turned to gardening as a restorative way to counterbalance my thinking, writing ways.

When I was living with my host family in the village, I assumed the role of water hauler and dish washer because I needed this physical meditation to help me feel grounded in all of the thinking activity required of pre-service training. (Truthfully, it was also a form of “trade” because I didn’t want to do the cooking.) The dish washing I did after the evening meal, outside on the porch under the brilliant stars of the South Africa with the water I had hauled that very morning. The water-hauling I did very early, before the start of my work day, when the vividly-colored birds of South Africa were drinking from the puddles surrounding the community water tap. When asked, “How can you do that hard work? Aren’t you too tired?” I’d reply, “It is the highlight of my day.” Indeed it was.

I was later told that my willingness to do these chores (along with hand washing my clothes) made quite a hit among the village women: it was said, I’m told, “She is just like us.” This is the most meaningful compliment I’ve ever received.

This is all a long way to go about saying that I’ve gone to the members of my community garden and have said, “Give me work.” I am getting on my own last nerve and I need to be doing some physical activity to get myself restored.

Yesterday, (Sunday), I went to the garden where this lovely woman was weeding her onion bed and graciously allowed me to help. I was using some type of homemade tool that may have once been a bracket of some sort (it reminded me of the remnants of a tent stake) that proceeded to rip the skin on my hands to shreds. I couldn’t have been happier!

I weeded with her for about three hours, came home, muscles aching, hands bleeding, and having the red dirt of Africa under my fingernails. It was the highlight of my week! (I will pick up a pair of work gloves in town this week!)

I have several motives for working in the community garden: the first has just been mentioned, the second is just as selfish, I hope to learn how to garden in South Africa, and third, I hope my willingness to work in the garden will help me wiggle my way “into” my community (in the same way that hauling water helped me be appreciated in my former village). Learning how to garden in South Africa isn’t 100% selfish, as I hope to help resurrect the currently defunct garden at the primary school.

Another way I’m trying to wiggle my way into the village community is by going to church. To date, I’ve been invited to 3 different churches and have gone, so far to 2 and will try the third this Saturday (Seventh-day Adventist).

In each visit, I am warmly welcomed and the congregation seems thrilled to have me. Usually, I’m pointed out, asked to stand, etc. (It’s very embarrassing to be acknowledged in such a way, but again, I’m seen here somewhat as a celebrity.)

Please note that the following may be offensive to some. Also note that I’m speaking from my own limited experience and am certain to be far, far from what many of you hold as sacred truth. I’m not trying to be offensive to anyone but am certain the following certainly could. For this offense, I apologize.

In my first weeks here at my permanent site, I visited a church here on campus: World of Faith. Now, I’m no church expert (if you keep reading as you certainly will see) but this church seems to be of the Protestant, apostolic variety, and may even engage in the practice of “speaking in tongues.” I was told of this before my first service and was somewhat alarmed, as the only “speaking of tongues” I’m familiar with (through reading) resembles that of a seizure or fit (with or without the venomous snakes): bodies flailing about uncontrollably, unintelligible utterings with or without drool, etc.

There was in at least one part of the service that there was indeed, some unintelligible utterings, but these were far from what was just described: the congregation bowed there heads and began speaking: it sounded more like a group of people praying together, but praying different prayers together (so it was unintelligible). It was all very calm and undramatic, and I remember thinking, “Is this speaking in tongues? They very well could be reciting the Lord’s Prayer out-of-sync.”

What was uncomfortable for me in this church service was the decibel level of the celebratory music.

One of the things I love the most about the Tswana people is that each and every one of them is full of music. They are so full of music that songs bubble up out of them and spill out of them beautifully all over Africa. In fact, as I’m always asked, “Will you take me with you to America?” I always think to myself: Get there yourself as you will certainly unseat our current Beyonce/Brittany/Maria (whomever the pop diva is for the day is) and the guys could certainly do the same… but perhaps they might become versed in rap.

Now, Tswana people, when singing, need NO amplification.

My discomfort at the World of Faith church service came in the musical interludes as their song was electronically enhanced: loud speakers, microphones, drums, and very bad acoustics (of the lecture hall of the campus where the service is held). I am very sensitive to loud noises and generally take ear-plugs with me to musical concerts.

The decibel level of the service was quite painful for me because I didn’t feel it appropriate to insert my earplugs at a church service. But other than than, I felt very comfortable and welcome in the congregation.

For my second church “outing,” I’ve visited the Catholic Church of the village: St. Konrad’s. (Yes, Konrad with a “k.”) When I was invited, I was told it was the “Roman” church, instead of the more familiar designation (to me): Roman Catholic.

I felt much more comfortable at the Roman Catholic service. Although the mass was given in Tswana, could somewhat follow along. Also, while these people were full of music, the kind that would spill out of them all over Africa, they were not amplified. The music was absolutely beautiful and many times moved to tears. I felt so much more at home at this church perhaps because it was more familiar to me. However, I was pained, because I must be spoiled by the padded kneelers in American churches; the kneelers here are unpadded--straight, hard, flat, wood--and kneeling on them makes me feel like my knee caps are popping off!

As with the other church, the congregation seemed very pleased to have me (and yes, had me stand before them to be acknowledged—yikes!) and I felt very welcome.

Now what happened with my attendance at the Catholic church seemed to cause quite a stir: everyone in the community, everyone, knew I went to the Catholic Church on Sunday. Even at the primary school staff meeting, it was noted that I had attended the Catholic Church. (Perhaps this news made the circuit because the Catholic Church was located off campus? In contrast to the Protestant Church located on campus? I do not know…)

So now I am greeted with, “You go to the Roman Church. Are you Catholic?” Er, uh, ummm, uh… This is a tricky question for me. It’s a tricky question for me even in the United States. Let’s just say that earlier in my life the Catholic Church meant a great deal to me and I considered myself, in every way, a practicing, devoted Catholic. Then, for complicated, personal reasons, I started to have doubt. The reasons are several, and again personal, but it mostly had to do with: There are many world religions: Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, etc. All believe in their version of the truth, all versions of truth are different, who is right?

This wouldn’t feel so problematic to me except that ALL churches I’ve attended seem to think theirs' is the right way and for me to participate (or be accepted) in the Church, I must believe as they do and practice their form of truth.

In my stubbornness, since I don’t know who is right, why prescribe to any particular one? Why not avail yourself to them all?

What I do know is that there is a Higher Power in my life (God, or my favorite way of thinking, “That which we think of as God”), and I can feel connected to God in many ways, but a favorite way is to be with other people praying, who are easiest found together in a church. So I like going to church. I like visiting different churches. I do not participate in communion or other sacraments because these are, well, sacred and reserved for the devoted.

So after this very public attendance of a Catholic Mass, everyone I met asked, “Are you Catholic?” I was troubled with this question and didn’t quite know how to respond, so I, well, prayed about it.

I now know to say, “I go to church where I am invited,” which seems to work very well and will certainly help me better to “wiggle my way” into the community! And I will, indeed, be visiting a "new" church, new to me, on Saturday.
Soon, Karen/Molebogeng
PS. I'm beginning to like my African name again.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Moleboeng! We need a new picture. You can't expect us to survive with only letters and blogs and old pictures....can you?
    Love from home. We miss you. Your writing is most welcome! Keep it coming.