Monday, February 19, 2007

Celestial Celebrations

Church services on the campus in Mbarara are held in several sites. Behind the flat where I am staying, evangelical services continue through most of the day in the Development Sciences building. I have been attending the Catholic services in the Pharmacology theatre at the edge of the football field. The Pharmacology theatre is a tradition medical theatre with a tier of benches rising up from the pit at the front. Fluorescent lamps dangle from the ceiling but the windows high on the side walls provide enough of the wonderful African sun that lights aren’t needed. Long wooden counters stretch in front of each row of benches. Thirty of so mimeographed copies of hymns are scattered throughout the theatre..

When full the theatre holds about 250. On Sundays, it is jam-packed with more than 400. I am late and although others behind me manage to squeeze in, I can see no opening, so I follow the stream heading for the blue plastic chairs left in a pile outside the cafeteria next door. I place my chair right against the back wall, where I am the only white or muzungu in the congregation. When we rise to sing, a line of spotless white handkies become visible on the concrete riser in front of me where mostly men are sitting. Ah, I think, this is why they always have a handkerchief with them.

I love the singing. So it seems do they. One Sunday the priest was delayed. The congregation were still belting out the hymns non-stop when I left an hour later with still no sign of the priest. There are usually 3 or more drums down front, several large stout engoma and one tall drum covered with monitor lizard skin. There is also an electric synthesizer but the drums carry the day. That and the choir. The choir leader, with a wonderfully nuanced tenor voice, makes up for the scarcity of mimeographed hymns books, by singing out the chorus line by line in advance for us.

Since I began singing barbershop, I have been endeavouring to pick out the harmonies in songs. I can’t quit figure out what the choir director is doing. His overarching tenor seems almost to be in a different key, tune and cadence with the melody being robustly sustained by the rest of the choir. Whatever he is doing, it ensures the actual words seem to float eerily out over the whole room. I fathom that this is the complexity others have noticed in the call and response technique.

Today the university congregation is welcoming a new chaplain, a personable East German who jokingly hopes that we don’t come to associate his name, Rudi, with the English “rude”. He appears to appreciate that the service has included more than 15 songs. He can’t even elevate the host but the choir breaks into glorious song.

One Sunday, the youth group came to the front to sing a hymn complete with arm, hand and body movements from the Ankole culture that activated the whole room. Soon everyone was joining in, mirroring the children’s movements with evangelical zeal and energy. I had heard about evangelical Catholic churches before I came to Uganda but it seemed a contradiction in terms, but here it is fittingly appropriate.

I meet a couple of the students at the service, who are now in their final year. It is good to see them and find out what they are doing. They did their community field placements last year with our project. University is a temporary community for many but in medicine it creates life long connections which stretch across countries and times.

Photo: Dev ScBldg, MUST



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