It's Saturday and I’ve slept most of the day. Don’t judge me, you’d be tired too if you had been with me the last two days. My congregation has given a significant sum of money to help build a brick and mortar church in the Walungu area, so Flory and I decided to head out there to have a look at the progress. Along for the ride were three other pastors: Charles, pastor of the REMAC church in Uvira, Congo DR; Timothy, pastor of the REMAC church in Rugombo, Burundi; and Brother Rabbit, pastor of the REMAC church we were going to visit.
There is a story behind the name. Prior to my second visit to Africa, I had downloaded some Kindle children’s books in Swahili as a language-learning strategy. I mean, after all, they teach children that way, so it might work for me. The first book was of the “run, rabbit, run” variety. It just so happens that rabbit in Swahili is sungura. On that trip I met Pastor Sunga and made a joke about his name. I promptly changed it to rabbit. He’s been known as Rabbit inside REMAC ever since.
You might think that a cruel thing to do to a person of dignity (for such is Brother Rabbit), but he brags about the name. He had to look up what a “rabbit” was. The burrowing, gregarious, plant-eating mammal with long ears, long hind legs, and short tail indigenous to North America has no cousin here in Central Africa. In his research, he read of the rabbit’s insatiable appetite for grass. He then decided the name fit him, for he had an insatiable appetite for the Word of God. So whenever I’m around, and he stands to speak, he brags about the name I gave him.
At any rate, we left from Bujumbura for the trip. This involves leaving Burundi and entering Congo DR, arriving in Uvira and traveling north. Then leaving Congo DR and entering Burundi along the road, then leaving…well, you get the idea. You can see the border crossings on the map to the left. Just remember each crossing entails leaving one country and entering another. In other words, dealing with officials and paper work for the country your leaving and doing it again for the country your entering. Coming back involved a similar process.
It was at the Rwanda crossing near Bukavu that I realized how serious the Ebola scare is here in Africa. It was about 20 years ago that the first Ebola case was diagnosed. It was found in Congo DR. Since that time it has moved from country to country, wreaking havoc wherever it appears.
Even though Liberia is far away (Africa is a big, big place), no one here is taking any chances. At the airport in Addis Ababa, all the shop keepers were wearing latex gloves. When I inquired I was told that people pass through from all over Africa and nobody wanted Ebola.
You might find this a bit surprising, but I kind of…stand out…as I move through the crowds. I’m guessing my sunburned face brought alarm to the Rwandan border official because he shoved an Ebola form at me. After I filled it out, he took my temperature with a laser heat sensor of some sort. The readout came up yellow with the word Caution! in bold type. I looked concerned, but he just smiled and said I was normal.
When we got to the church, we were greeted with song. “Karibu” means "welcome" and the chorus was “karibu, karibu, karibu, karibu,” with other words thrown in the verses themselves. The drums were banging out the complicated rhythms that I’ve come to love, and some of the excited women would shout out the high-pitched “lululululu” that is common here (and in the Middle East) as a expression of excitement and joy. The song continued as we made our way down from the street to Brother Rabbit’s house. The congregation followed us inside, and the singing continued. (Note: I intend to post a video of this later on, but the internet connection here in Africa just won’t handle the strain.) I was surprised how many people could fit inside such a small space. When the song of welcome finally subsided, the choir was asked to sing. Just to be clear, the choir of any church is always asked to sing here. Then came the words of welcome from members of the congregation. They were genuinely moved that Pastor Flory (a very important man) and I would make the long trip to visit them.
I suppose I should make mention of the road to Walungu. I was genuinely concerned that the road would be terrible and an ordeal for my bad back. That, as it turns out, describes perfectly the road to Kazekazi that we traveled earlier. (That report must wait for another day.) This road was much better. Not good, but definitely better. It was like most dirt roads in America. Note I didn’t say most gravel roads. No, this was nothing but dirt. That means that the hills (a mountain range runs through this part of Congo DR and Rwanda—“the land of a thousand hills.”) were like washboards, and each passing car threw up a shroud of dust. The 80-kilometer trip from Bukavu wasn’t good for my lungs to be sure, but my back held up pretty well.
At any rate, I was asked to deliver a short message to the church. I spoke to them of the unity of the body of Christ and how when one member hurt, the entire body hurt. That is why, I told them, that our congregation was eager to assist them with their church. Once again the women exclaimed “lululululululu.” I told them how our church was praying for them and asked them to pray for us as well as part of the same body. Then it was time to see the church.
Walking to the church involved “climbing Mt. Calvary.” Actually it was just a big hill and I did pretty good for a white guy not used to scurrying around the African countryside. The church had the foundation laid and the walls about chest high. I discovered a significant amount of money had to be placed into the foundation. Since the land was on a hill, there was an enormous expense in stones and cement in order to build up the foundation to level. As the pastors toured the construction site, the people continued to sing. When we pastors retired to Brother Rabbit’s house to eat lunch (chicken and some sort of “forest goat” with Foo Foo) the congregation was outside singing. When we spoke of how to move forward with the construction, they continued their songs. In fact, the only time the congregation stopped singing was when we were meeting inside before the tour. For the rest of the visit, they were nearby singing and singing and singing.
When it came time to leave, the congregation was called back inside. Again, members of the congregation stood up to wish us goodbye. As a final act, they brought out a rooster and a chicken. The rooster was for me and the chicken was for Flory. Fortunately, having raised chickens, I knew how to handle the rooster. Let’s just say my sister Amy would have had a more difficult time. We placed the fowl in the back of the minivan and headed back to sounds of singing. Upon my return, I magnanimously gave my rooster to Flory. It’s just the big-hearted sorta guy that I am.
At the hotel, I spoke with Joel, one of the African managers. He was very impressed that I was given a rooster and noted that it was a great honor. Roosters are only given as a sign of great love and affection. The groom will give the parents of his bride-to-be a rooster when he asks for her hand. Thus, such a gift is not to be taken lightly.
For those of you who have never been to such a poverty-stricken country, it's hard to comprehend the joy displayed by these people. (“Funny” and her husband raise their children on less that $200 a month—and they are considered firmly middle class). You have to be here to see the smiles, to hear the songs, to feel the love they have for the body of Christ. No words of mine can do justice to the simple delight these people have in the Lord. As I listened to their songs in Walungu, I thought to myself, “No wonder I love coming back here.”