Sunday I got to attend church for the first time here in GaMaja, and boy was it fun! One of the very first people I met when moving to GaMaja is a gal named, Tiny. She is as her name describes, a very petite woman, about 24, who has been a wonderful friend to me. She has shown me how to take the bus to town, cooked me dinner and always reminds me of people’s names when I forget them. Well Sunday was a big day for Tiny, she was getting engaged! Her fiancé and his family were coming down from “Tzaneen side” and it was going to be a big celebration.
Now, South Africans approach church with the same amount of enthusiasm as Americans have, for say, a basketball game against a big rival. So let me give you the play-by-play:
People begin to arrive, church has been moved to the tribal offices to accommodate the number of people expected. Season ticket holders take their usual seats, and chat with friends and neighbors. Everyone is wearing team colors, which seem to be anything but earth tones or pastels. Sharp black and white pinstriped suits with pink shirts and patterned ties for the men; beautiful silk blouses, pencil skirts and serious high heels for the young women and traditional dresses and head wraps in pink, orange and gold lame for the older women. As the crowd gathers, they begin to sing. Everyone knows all the words, to all the songs. There are no musical instruments or any type of sound system, so each song is kept in time by complex base lines stomped and clapped out. With each song, the enthusiasm and volume builds. Several times women jump out into the aisle to do a few steps of a traditional dance, never losing the beat. At the point when I think it couldn’t get much louder, the guests make their entrance. The fiancé and his family throw open the doors at the back of the room and dance their way up the aisle while singing, and blowing whistles and plastic horns. The visiting family is from the northern part of the Limpopo Province and several women are wearing traditional clothing of the Xtonga and Venda people. They have on black skirts, white shirts, with a black clothe pinned at one shoulder (toga/plaid style). They also have on dozens of beautiful beaded bracelets, belts, headbands and armbands. They take their seats of honor at the front of the church, and we get down to business.
Any good basketball player knows this quarter is for getting down to business while you still have the crowd with you. Our coach this quarter is a younger preacher, whose hefty stature matched his voice. After a personal prayer time (when everyone prays out loud at the same time until they are done, and one by one sit down. You end up listening to the very last person’s prayers for a very long time), the singing starts up again at full volume. This time we are singing “Sisters lets walk…. Lets walk in the Light.” All of the young, unmarried women (including me) make their way out the doors at the back of the room and we dance down the aisle and around the table at the front, leaving Tiny at the alter. Next it’s the young men’s turn, and they do a little line dancing looking thing down the aisle as we sang “Brother’s let walk…”, leaving Moses (the fiancé) at the alter also. Now, I am not 100% sure what the preacher said, as it was in Sepedi, but he did point out several beautiful women to see if any of the other young men were interested in getting married and he made a point of introducing me to the congregation. He said, “This is Sister Leah from El Dorado…”. (I think he was trying to say Colorado. But El Dorado does seem fitting, considering everyone thinks the streets in America are paved in gold).
Then came the big engagement moment! Moses pulled out a gold band, and took Tiny’s hand (the first time they had ever touched- greeted with a BIG cheer from the crowd) and asked her to marry him. Tiny (bless her demure heart) looked completely embarrassed and finally squeaked out a “yes”. And the crowd went wild! The families of each partner then stood up and greeted each other. The preacher quieted us down enough to bless the couple; we all threw up our hands (free throw shot style) and asked God to blessed the couple.
It was time to get serious, so our coach for this half was an older more serious preacher. He looked a lot like someone who would be coaching at big Texas school; he had on a white pinstriped suit, pink shirt, and white crocodile cowboy boots. He gave a very intense sermon, some of which Tiny, who was sitting next to me, interpreted for me. Mostly I just listen for words I know and try to interpret gesticulations, like I do for every conversation held in Sepedi that I am a part of.
To wrap us up and bring it home, one of the old women (who I love!), wearing a beautiful orange traditional dress, lead us in the tithe. Having not remembered to bring any money myself, a few rand was pressed into my hand from my wonderful host mother. Everyone took turns dropping a few cents into the bowls on the table in the front. I am repeatedly impressed with how generous people here are, especially when I know they struggle to feed their families.
The service was wrapped up by a few more songs, and I am not kidding when I say they absolutely sound every bit as good as you could imagine an African gospel choir sounding.
To celebrate Tiny and Moses’ engagement, Tiny and her family had stayed up all night cooking a huge meal for everyone. We all walked up the hill to Tiny’s house and had wonderful food and cold-drink (i.e. soda). As the visiting family was getting ready to leave, someone turned on traditional music and everyone streamed out in to the street to dance. Their traditional dances look a little like line dances, but with more rhythm and spirit. I got pulled in a few times, and did my best to keep up. I am not terribly good, but it was so fun!
I stayed on and helped the church women wash all the dishes, and then headed back home. Tiny walked me home and asked if I wanted to be a bridesmaid! And Mma Pheladi said she would get me a traditional dress to wear to the wedding! I am so excited! It was a wonderful celebration, and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the support of the community and their enthusiasm. You’ve got to hand it to them; they sure know how to do church!
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