Monday, March 16, 2009

The Fund-Raiser – Part II: The Show Choirs

Jean Baptiste ushered us into the schoolroom with a wave of his hand. “Karibu,” he said, which is the Swahili word of welcome used here. Welcoming is a very important custom here. If you visit a Burundian friend’s house, you might hear “Karibu” once when you enter the gate, once when you enter the door, and once when you sit down. There were several chairs lining the front of the room, facing the benches. These seats are for the speakers and guests of honor. I’ll explore that custom a bit later. I was preaching that day, so I was given one of these seats. Karri was seated in a bench toward the front and center, and was quickly sandwiched between four or five Burundians all trying to fit onto a piece of wood that would only sit three in the States.

Americans have ideas of privacy and personal space that are quite different than here. In the States, if we want to be alone, we go to our room, or find a quiet place. But in a community where your entire extended family and probably several friends are all living in your house, that kind of privacy is rarely possible, or even desired. This is why you will see buses full of Burundians perfectly content to be practically sitting on top of each other. Where they find their privacy is in their thoughts. Asking a Burundian’s opinion or feelings about something is invading their privacy to a degree, and they may feel rather violated. So we’ve learned to be slow to ask opinions and quick to give grace when someone pushes up against us on the bus.

The gathering commenced soon after we were seated. Jean Baptise’s partner and fellow pastor at their church (the name escapes me) stood to greet the congregation with Jean Baptiste translating. “Hallelujah,” he said. “Amen,” the body answered. “HALLELUJAH!” the pastor shouted. “AMEN!” the body replied. Knowing when to say “Amen” becomes second nature in Burundian gatherings, as the pastor will prompt one almost constantly, and without context. “It’s good to be with you all today. Iman’ashimwe! (Praise God)” “AMEN!” “IMAN’ASHIMWE CANE! (Praise God a lot!)” “AMEN!!!” “Please move forward to make room for others. Yes’ashimwe! (Praise Jesus!)” “AMEN!” Getting people to say “Amen” is basically pastoral filler. If you aren’t sure you’re making sense, if you want to make sure people are still engaged, or if you just don’t have anything better to say, just drop a “Hallelujah” and you’ll be greeted by an enthusiastic response.

Once the pastor had greeted the congregation, the visiting churches and the pastors seated at the front beside me, the singing began. Now, there are two different types of singing at Burundian churches: congregational singing and choirs. We began with a congregational song. This normally involves someone starting a chorus, and then everyone joining in. The sacred musical catalogue of Burundi is fairly wide, but doesn’t change that often. So everyone will know every song, because it is probably the same song you’ve been singing since you were a child.

There is only one volume setting in a Burundian church: deafening. Everyone sings at the top of their lungs, in full harmony, and sustains that volume for the entirety of the gathering, which may last for hours. The volume is supplemented by drummers. In our gathering we had three drummers, because several churches had gathered. Burundi is known for their drummers, and this tradition is nourished in the churches. In the churches I’ve attended, the drummers are generally women, and use foot-long sticks on metal canisters covered by skins to create a “Thump-CLANK-CLANK” underneath the roaring ensemble. The drummers also change frequently; everyone has a different take on what rhythm best suits a particular song. As each drummer plays, their faces screw with exertion as they combine with the congregation to give new meaning to the musical idea forte.

Once we had shouted and clapped and Thump-CLANK-CLANKED through two choruses, the pastor invited the first choir to come and share. A single voice rang out from the crowd with a melodic invocation. It was answered by a drummer and ten voices in unison, repeating the same melody, as the choir rose from their seats and began to process to the front of the room. Now, Burundian choirs are a distinctly different tradition than congregational singing. They have a sort of liturgy all to themselves. They begin with this processional, a call-and-response song to facilitate the choir wading through the mass of humanity to the open floor. They have a simple, choreographed step to do as they walk, a combination of steps forward and backward with basic arm motions, that is unique to each choir. They align themselves into a rehearsed formation at the front of the room and finish their processional song with a THUMP from the drummer.

Next, the choir begins their main piece. The drummer sets the rhythm, at a more moderate volume usually, and after a measure or two, the choir begins to do their dance. This dance exists somewhere between a gospel choir’s sway, sign language, and a hand-jive. It sometimes mirrors the words they sing, sometimes simply exists as a unified motion, but whatever its purpose, all choirs will dance. After a few moments of establishing the choreography, they begin to sing.

Burundi is an oral culture. In schools, lessons are taught by speaking the information over and over. Theology, however, is taught mainly through song. Burundian choir songs are expositions, concepts set to music to be repeated and remembered. Sometimes they are Bible stories, sometimes they are cautionary tales against drunkenness or debauchery, sometimes they are simply accumulations of spiritual ideas, but they become creedal statements in the Burundian church. Unfortunately, not all of these songs are based on sound theology, and since learning through rote produces memorization, but not comprehension or critical thought, a bad theology can be perpetuated simply because a song is written about it. This is a pervasive problem in the church of Burundi, where faulty understandings of the Kingdom of God are pounded into the basic understandings of the faith, like bottle caps that are simply stepped on until they become part of the Bujumbura sidewalk. Pastors wield enormous formative power over the theology of their people, and many misuse that power. But again, I’ll say more on that later.

The choir swayed, signed, and sang through their story-song, their drummer underneath them all the way. Once finished, they did a recessional song just like the processional, a call-and-response number where the choir shuffles and sways their way back to their seats. Once their recessional ended and they had retaken their seats, a new voice soared out over the room, and the sequence began all over with choir number two. Choirs compete with each other in a way, trying to please the crowd and earn the approval of the pastors. Sometimes, a pastor might invite a choir to sing again, which is the closest thing to victory in this musical competition. And choirs can take it quite personally if they “lose.”

It reminds me of my days at show choir competitions in high school, the singing, the dancing, the muted animosity against the other musicians. I’m not sure I love the idea of that level of competition mixed into worship in the body of Christ, but it’s a part of Burundi’s ecclesial heritage. Every rural church will have a choir, sometimes several. They can be all older ladies, or all children, as I once saw, or a mixed bag of men and women of different generations. And there is one more thing that is common across the rural choirs and churches I’ve seen. They are passionate in their worship. They give all they have to singing and dancing for God. They might not comprehend complex theological ideas or have the opportunity to sample from the rich global banquet of faith traditions like I do, but they understand joy. There’s something beautiful and right about the ear-splitting praise we heard in that room. Widows and orphans, poor and hungry, when that drummer starts to Thump-CLANK-CLANK, they throw back their heads and sing like the hope-filled believers they are.

Next: Part III: The Shod and the Shoeless

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Fund-Raiser - Part 1: The Rent Party

Two weeks ago, Karri and I drove out with our friend, Jean Baptiste, to the neighborhood in Bujumbura where he was born, called Cibitoke (pronounced CheebeeTOHkay). We were on our way to a gathering/fund raiser for his small community. You may remember this community from an earlier post, one that talked about Sandrene, the widow and mother of five who is HIV positive. This community of less than twenty people met in living rooms for many months. A few months ago, they found a school willing to rent them a classroom for their gatherings. This was an answer to their prayers. But recently, a community ordinance has been passed where churches can no longer meet in schools. No one has been able to explain to us the reason for this ordinance, but this puts many, many churches out of their worship space. There are three other churches who meet in that school alone. Yet, this kind of hardship is simply a fact of life in neighborhoods like Cibitoke. And there are traditions in place to deal with these kinds of problems. And Karri and I were on our way to this classroom, to witness and participate in one of those traditions, the African fund-raiser.

Now, to understand this gathering, a little cultural exposition has to take place. In the US, we have expressions like, “He’s a self-made man,” and “She pulled herself up by her bootstraps,” and “I never asked nothing from no one.” This demonstrates a cultural value we Americans hold, that asking for help means admitting weakness. The main reason this value evolved in the West is the ample opportunity for self-improvement without much fear of discouragement. An immigrant off the boat could be a tycoon in five years if she simply had the gumption to see it through. In the same vein, asking for help from a friend made you not just weak, but a needy friend. We have ideas like “Never lend money to friends and family,” because, at the root, we don’t like the feeling of being asked for money. And we are extremely cautious and systematic when we do give money, because we expect debts to be reimbursed. If they are not, the result is a broken relationship.

In much of Africa, the idea of a “self-made” person is totally foreign. Individualism is viewed as the plague of the West. There’s a high dependency on one’s community, friends and family. This evolved from a history where poverty, hunger, and destitution were always just around the corner. You may have enough for today, but tomorrow might be a completely different story. I could spend pages detailing the ways this perspective fleshes out in everyday life, but one main outcome is the pervasive norm of asking for money. As an African, you expect to be asked for money, and if you have it, you are socially required to give it. This expectation exists because you expect to be the one in need tomorrow, and the community must support you in your need in the same way you supported someone else in theirs. Refusal to participate in this give and take results in expulsion from the community, and expulsion from the community could mean starvation. Another facet of this idea is the nature of friendship. You are not a friend with someone if you are not financially indebted to them, and vice versa. Indebtedness shows solidarity, and to a certain degree, paying off all of your debts to someone is a way of communicating the end of your relationship. So family members and friends are the first people you would ask for money, and you would never be expected to repay that debt, except in the form of supporting that lender when they were, in turn, in need. And aggressive extension of your network of friends isn’t just due to amiability; it’s creating lifelines for survival.

Now, we in the West might look at this and say, “But it’s so exploitative. That’s not a real friendship if there’s an expectation of money.” But Africans see their communities as beautiful webs of support, and see Western friendships as purely self-serving and isolated. This is also why it’s incredibly difficult for Westerners and Africans to have meaningful relationships. Most Westerners become quickly aggravated by constant requests for money by their African friends. And even if they weren’t and were happy to give to anyone who asked, the African would know there will be no circumstance where the Westerner will need to ask them for money, so there’s no reciprocation, no solidarity. It’s a deep cultural rift and my expat friends and I frequently discuss if there is a way to bridge it.

So the gathering Karri and I were about to attend is something done by many churches. As Jean Baptiste put it, “We invite all of our friends to come and pray for us.” What this means is, an invitation is extended to all of the contacts Jean Baptiste has made over the years. These pastors and leaders then bring their church communities with them to a huge blowout, an African rent party. And, as I’ve learned, in the Burundian church, “prayer” is often code for “donation,” as in “Please pray that we might find be able to buy a sound system,” which I heard even this week. So this church is in need, in this case, of a building to meet in. (The actual reality of that need is something I struggle with, but more on that later.) So these “friends” (who westerners might simply call acquaintances) gather to “pray” (what westerners might call donate) for the needs of Jean Baptiste’s church.

Again, a westerner might say, “Ugh! How deceptive and exploitative!” But the churches understood this for exactly what it was, and they came anyway. They came in the tens and twenties. So when Karri and I arrived for what I thought was another quiet afternoon with Jean Baptiste’s church, with Sandrene and the other seven or eight people gathered in that living room, what we found instead was a buzzing schoolroom, packed to overflowing with nearly a hundred Burundians and even a church from neighboring Congo. They squeezed into school benches, stood in corners, peered through windows. They talked, laughed, sang, and clapped, and they all came prepared, hands clutching their wadded bills, ready to drop them in the basket when the time came. I suppose they knew that next week, when it came time for their rent party, Jean Baptiste, Sandrene, and friends would all be there for them as well.

Next: Part 2: The Show Choirs