I don’t think I have ever seen my ‘M’e happier than when I asked her if we could go to church together. In fact, after I first breached the topic, she mentioned it every single morning: “Do you remember that we’re going to church this week? Do you still want to go? Are you going to wear a dress? You should wear a nice dress.”
I don’t usually go to church, and I don’t even believe in God, but I was looking forward to the outing. As I try to integrate into my new village, I know that participating in community events is one of the best ways to meet people and make a good impression. More than that, I was just curious. I’ve had a lot of free time this month to sit in my house, and this seemed like a chance to get out and experience something new.
Most Basotho – something like 95% – are Christian. This is due to some heavy-duty European missionary work starting in the 1820s. Missionaries aren’t just a thing of the past, though. My ‘M’e remembers one (either British or American, she can’t remember) living in a nearby village when she was a child.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of missionary work, though I’m certainly no expert on the topic – it just seems to me that a lot of time and money is poured into conversion efforts rather than poverty-reduction efforts. That said, conversion wasn’t the only impact of early missionaries. For example, they also introduced new agricultural practices (like growing potatoes!) and created a system for writing Sesotho (which was previously only spoken). Apparently, missionaries also gave candy to everyone they encountered – we’ve been told that this is why children still ask white people for sweets when they see them on the streets.
My village has churches of several different denominations, and I plan on making a visit to each of them before my time here ends. My ‘M’e attends the LEC (Lesotho Evangelical Church), so this was the first stop on my holy tour.
Every day since we made the plan to go together, my ‘M’e reminded me that we would leave at 10. Promptly at 10, I knocked on her door, wearing my carefully ironed seshoeshoe skirt and a bo-‘m’e-esque floppy black hat to channel my inner Mosotho. She opened the door completely naked, and (unnecessarily) told me that she wasn’t ready yet – “Basotho time” in action. At 10:30, she was ready to go, and we headed off with my little brother.
My ‘M’e has bad arthritis in one knee, so she doesn’t go to church every week. It’s not hard to see why – the LEC is housed in the school where I’ll be teaching, located one mile steeply downhill from our home, a tough walk even for someone healthy. We carefully tread down the gravel road, waited for another 45 minutes outside the building, and finally, a bell rang to signal the beginning of the service.
I grew up going to Catholic mass in New England, and I’ve gone to mass in both Jamaica and Ecuador, so I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the range of church services, but this was definitely new.
Seven women stood at the front of the room, leading a congregation of about 60 in prayers, bible readings, songs, and emphatic shouting. There was no priest or pastor, just the women from the community who guided the proceedings. In fact, only 5 men were present at all. Everything was conducted in Sesotho, so I had a hard time grasping the nuances, but I heard “Molimo” (God) and “Jeso” (Jesus) enough to get the gist of the thing.
If the Basotho love one thing, it’s singing. Every 5-10 minutes, we sang (or in my case, hummed and swayed along to) a new song. If there was a moment of silence as one of the leaders looked for a page in her Bible, someone from the congregation would begin to sing and everyone would join in. My ‘M’e started one of these impromptu songs, and when it finished, she stood and spoke about her hope that 2016 would bring health and happiness.
At one point, one of the bo-‘m’e leading the service introduced me, and everyone clapped in welcome. It was a sweet moment, one that I spent terrified that she would put me on the spot to ask me a question in Sesotho that I wouldn’t understand. Luckily, I was allowed to sit down without any such embarrassment.
This portion of the service lasted about an hour, and the second hour was dedicated to collection. My ‘M’e had told me that I should “do as Romans are doing” (her words) and bring some coins to donate, but I was totally unprepared for how this part of the service unfolded.
One of the leaders called a group – children, women, or men – and the rest of us sang and danced while they approached the front of the room and put their offering on the table. After the group and the song had finished, someone counted the money and announced the amount they had collected. Then, the next group was called. This happened 12 or 15 times, and each group approached the front several times to the leaders’ urging for more donations. Later, I asked my ‘M’e where the money went, and while she wasn’t positive, she thought it funded priests’ salaries (although our church doesn’t have one, other LEC churches do).
After two hours of praying, singing, dancing, and pretending not to notice that every single child was staring at the only white girl in the room, we went outside. There, we stood in a circle, shook hands, and said one last prayer before making the long uphill walk home.
By the end of mass, I was hot, hungry, and felt a bit like the fidgety toddler in the pew in front of me. I was also so happy I’d come. I made small talk (about all I can do with my language proficiency at the moment) with dozens of new people, and these will no longer be new faces when I see them around town. Religion is monumentally important to most Basotho, and it was incredible to be welcomed with open arms into one of my community’s most important events. I can’t say I’ll be there every week, but the LEC will certainly see me from time to time – whenever I’m in the mood to put on a nice dress and sing my heart out with a bunch of middle-aged ladies.