Church Sunday

This was chagga singing—a traditional, cultural expression of what it feels like to believe in something higher than yourself.
By Ishani D. Premaratne

MOSHI, Tanzania—I have been Buddhist all my life, at least for as long as I can remember.

And yet, on our first Sunday morning in Moshi, Tanzania, I decided to go to church.

Moshi on a Sunday morning was hardly recognizable. The market stalls were tucked away like closedkitchen cabinets and no salesman was shouting about his wares with impressive gusto. Our footsteps echoed on the ground as we made our way to the second roundabout—about a mile’s walk from our hotel. The church was something spectacular to behold, mostly because its walls and edifice were formed by the swaying arms and hands of the people, not a pristinely kept altar or mahogany pews.

It was 8:27 a.m. Perfect. The mass would start at 8:30am, and my Lonely Planet Guide had promised thatall were welcome and that, religious or not, the traditional “chagga” singing is something we wouldn’t want to miss. We made our way through the white gates and down the elongated pathway towards the building. The church’s seating area consisted of many thin wooden benches and multicolored plastic chairs set up in concentric circles around the trees. We spotted a shady spot under a nearby birch and plopped down, excited for what was to come in approximately two—no, one minute.

An hour passed.

Perhaps I should interject here with a brief explanation about punctuality in Tanzania. It is more of anamorphous concept that is politely nodded at, rather than something actually observed. But if one hour should always bring as much awe and appreciation as it brought us, than maybe all events and ceremonies should begin with an expected one hour delay. We soaked in everything. Music floated from a nearby speaker system and wrapped itself around the brightly colored orange, yellow, and white flags hanging over our heads. As the minutes passed by, more and more small children began to surround our little section of wooden benches. The girls turned their beautifully shaved heads toward us and swished past with their yellow, blue, and red pleated skirts. The boys sported mischievous grins and threw furtive glances in our direction. Though they sat in their seats as their mothers had directed them, I could tell that their minds were positively whirring with curiosity. As we soon realized, we had inadvertently sat down in the children’s section. Fortuitous, I guess.

When the service began, I rose to my feet with the rest of the Tanzanian congregation and tapped my feet and clapped my hands to music that had no care in the world whether I was Christian or Buddhist or whatever. It wrapped its arms around me as I stood there swaying and clapping my hands with a rhythmthat felt familiar though I had never heard it before. This was chagga singing—a traditional, cultural expression of what it feels like to believe in something higher than yourself.

Embraced by chagga singing and a common sense of humanity and humility, I couldn’t describe the way I felt during my time at the church in Moshi other than as simply and inexplicably blessed.

Summer Postcards 2012