Tuesday, October 17, 2006

10 year church anniversary - West Africa style!

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In case any of you are curious how a church in West Africa puts on its 10th anniversary shin dig, I have given you all of the details for your reading pleasure!

The celebration was the morning service followed by a big afternoon-long feed. The service had a bunch of invited guests, people who had a hand in the church at some point along the way, several area pastors, and several missionaries from the interior of the country we all invited to be at the celebration. So after service ended, the several women who had been outside cooking over fires the whole service brought in a bunch of huge serving plates. They served the pastors and missionaries first, so I went up and was handed a plate. (Sidenote: It's odd to be served first... we are given seats whenever we walk in and others asked to move, which seems odd to me. This shuffling process happens every Sunday morning as people come in though, more able-bodied people are swapped out of the seats in preference to elderly, women, and other guests. At first we were givens seats because we were guests at the church, but we've been there a month now, so I'm not sure now if it's that we're missionaries or that we're white, lol. At any rate, it feels very strange but it's rude to refuse, so...)

So anyway, I was handed a plate by one of the women. Before I tell you what it was on the plate, I must tell you that we don't eat meat very often here, so when I saw a bowl of curried chicken come in, I was really excited. Big beautiful pieces of meat (unlike the wings we've bought before)! So I was handed a plate of... pig spine. Mmmm... I smiled and took it and went to sit down feeling guilty for not being greatful for what I was given as an honored guest at the celebration. I flipped it over, eyed it up good, and couldn't find any meat on it except a think layer of fat on the back. Hmmm... Anyway, I ate the rice and sauce that came with it, which were quite good! I had a few pieces of the sweet bread that was being passed around, listened to the music, and was starting to forget how much of a bad missionary I felt like for not wanting to eat this nasty meat, lol. Then a friend of mine, who sings at the church and works at the youth center, came over with the food he'd just gotten and sat by me. He's a skinny guy so we always joke with him about needing to eat more than his share of meat out of the community lunch bowl at the youth center. Anyway, I looked at his plate and noticed he didn't get any meat at all, so I said "Fernando, I'm getting full, why don't you eat this?" It may sound like I was passing off the meat I didn't want (which I was), but they eat a lot of meat that you wouldn't think of touching in the States, so usually anything you offer is received as if it were prime rib. So, as I sat there feeling like a bad missionary for not being able to eat this meat I had been given, offering it to Fernando, wrinkled up his nose and said: "Umm.. thanks, but I can't eat that... too hard on my stomach." HAH!!! Vindication! Even the local wouldn't eat this nasty piece of pig-back fat! Lol... I felt much better about things, haha... The celebration went on into the afternoon, they had fried potato snacks, later had a whole pig roasted in pieces on a spit, cut it up and everyone had a couple of pieces (really tasty), and a good time was had by all.

So, if you ever wondered how a church in a really poor country puts on it's 10th anniversary celebration, there it is. Now, as Paul Harvey would say, for the rest of the story. There is a whole cultural thing about celebrations (weddings, naming ceremonies, etc) which is kind of sad, and a big part of what keeps this country so poor. For big events, it is absolutely expected that the person putting on the event will spend much more than they can afford in order to put on a big celebration. (I start to notice a bit of a parallel to many weddings in the States here...) Weddings here would typically cost around $1000 for the ceremony and party. Just to give some scale to that, rice is $.25 a pound, a loaf of bread $.20, etc. The people who work at the center are paid well and make about $120 a month. So the ceremony is basically a year's decent income. I'm not sure if it's that they feel like they deserve a good ceremony because things are otherwise so bad financially, or if it's that they are culturally shamed if their celebration isn't as impressive as the last person who got married, though I suspect much more of the latter. So anyway, a new groom will beg or borrow whatever he has to in order to put on a big ceremony (and pay the bride's parents the bride-price for the loss of her labor). So they start out being married with a debt they won't be able to pay back, basically forever. In the best case scenario if they're lucky and relatives gave them money for the ceremony, then they have used up in one day a huge sum of money which would have kept them financially secure for a long time if it had been used more (to my Western way of thinking) "wisely".

The way the whole thing played out in the church celebration's case was that the Sunday before each member of the church drew a piece of paper with the thing they were supposed to provide. My buddy Fernando, for example, was supposed to bring two chickens. (Funny note, I took him out on the scooter to find them, and we couldn't find any that day, but I would have been excited to be able to say I had driven a scooter with a rider holding two live chickens, hahah..) Fernando makes $60 a month teaching half time at the youth center, and half of that goes straight to his tuition at university. Another $10 goes to pay for his share of the lunch that the employees at the center share (the center buys the rice and their money pays for the meat). So Fernando gets around, buys school supplies, clothes, and everything else on $20 a month. The two chickens he was asked to bring cost $6 - more than his money for the week. With an 80% unemployment rate in the country (which I don't think is any different in the church we go to) his situation was easier than many of the other church members. I talked to him about the whole thing while we were out on the scooter that day, and he understood that it seems silly to me, but basically said it's just how things are here.

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