When I arrived in my village one of most common inquiries from new acquaintances was about the church I would attend. Many of the people I know best here are Catholic and some go to mass every day. In fact the first church I did attend was the Catholic church, for the wedding mass for my community homologue’s daughter. There are a couple of European priests and a Burkinebé priest as well as at least one African brother, who happens to speak very good English. All of the Masses are in Moore, the local language, of which I now understand about 10 words beyond the simple automatic greetings you say over and ever every day, so that would not be a good choice for me, either from the religious stand point or from the stand point of having a clue about what was being said.
Protestant church #1
My homologue was very concerned that I get connected with one of the protestant churches so she took me to meet the pastor of a church that is not too far from my house. They have a three hour service each Sunday. The first hour, 8-9, is billed as the sermon, the second hour, 9-10, is for singing and the third hour, 10-11, is for prayers. I said in the US church services tend to last about an hour, not three, and the Pastor assured me it would be fine if I just came for part of the morning so I said I would attend the middle part, with the singing. He promised to have someone to translate for me. I arrived about 8:50 and they had put a chair for me way up in the front of the church. I indicated I would rather sit in the back, thank you, and they moved the chair. All the members of the congregation, which was not very large at this point, were seated on benches, men on one side, women and children on the other. A man came and sat next to me on a bench. A woman was reading, in Moore, from a booklet. My translator had a copy and he translated very rapidly into French, but it was too fast for me to follow and I have trouble hearing two things at the same time, especially when I don’t understand either of them.. There was a lot of room on the benches, but after the sermon part of the service the children, who had been having a Sunday School lesson or choir practice under the trees, came in, along with a lot of other people, and it was pretty crowded. Once the singing started the man again tried to translate the words for me, but I told him to forget it. I could not hear him because the volume of the singing and drumming was too loud, and I could not understand most of his French even when I could hear him.
There were several groups who sang: a group of teen aged girls, the Sunday School kids, a group of women, a group of boys, and so on. The choir director sang, as did a woman soloist. For all the singing the only accompaniment was drumming, which was loud and enthusiastic. The little church was packed and when everybody sang, the sound was overpowering. The kind of singing that is considered good for choirs here is the kind of sound every American choir director tries to get rid of, that is to say, singing as loud as possible, in a rather nasal tone. When they are on the last verse of a song, the director had them sing more softly, which sounded great to my ear, but on the last line they return to the usual loud, sing-out-at-the-top-of-your voice sound. In addition to the voices, there was a lot of clapping and swaying. One of the children’s groups had a little dance to go with one song. It was dancing in place, but resembled the kind of movements I have seen in the traditional dances.
After an hour I decided I had had enough and left. The pastor came out to say good bye and I thanked him for trying to have a translator for me, but explained that I could not hear clearly with two things going on at once. I attributed it to a hearing problem and apologized, but said I would not be back until I understood more of the local language.
Protestant Church #2
Next my homologue took me to meet the pastor of the big church in the center of the neighboring town. I say big, but it is not as large a building as the Catholic church. They have a service that starts at 7:30 on Sunday morning, in French, which I have a chance of understanding, so that is the place I have been going. They use a book that is the same as the one they were using at the other church, but in French. It is essentially a Bible study book, put out by the national church office here, or maybe it is for all of West Africa. The church clearly produces these lessons both in French and some of the local languages. In any case, I understand a bit of what is being said, and it is good practice for trying to understand spoken French. Both of these churches are Assembly of God, quite a bit more conservative than my comfort zone, but which seems to be the only protestant church in this area, and maybe in all of Burkina Faso.
I asked the pastor if I could get a copy of the book they were using, thinking I might understand better if I could follow along, and he came up with one for me. He also loaned me a copy of the Bible in French, too. Interestingly it is a study Bible, translated by Catholic missionaries, so the Old Testament has the books of the apocrypha interspersed with the books in the protestant Old Testament. In this church there are several men who participate in leading the service. I found out that they are something like lay ministers, and have had three years of training. They not only help with the service but visit the sick and help deal with problems in the congregation. In addition to reading the little book, the lay ministers, and sometimes the pastor, sermonize a bit about each section. I do OK when they are reading from the book and I can see what they are saying, but still have trouble understanding what they say when I can’t see it.
Before and after the reading from this book and the sermonizing there are prayers. I have yet to figure out if all the people are just saying their own prayer or if they are all reciting the same prayer, just at different speeds. Sometimes I think they are saying the same prayer and it is a race to see who can finish first. At other times the leader rings a little bell to indicate it is time to stop. In any case, I can’t understand a bit of it. There is also some singing by the congregation, from a song book that has the words in French. Some have familiar tunes, and one of the lay ministers who sits near me shares his copy of the song book if he can find the page. There is also a small choir, that arrives piecemeal throughout the sermon time. They have a drum to accompany them, but there is also a girl who has a half of a gourd (a calabash) with a bunch of shells around the edge. She tosses it in the air and catches it, in rhythm with the beat of the drums. The choir director and two young men usually sing a trio, with a guitar! It is the only musical instrument I have seen in either of these churches. There is sometimes another group who sings, usually with the lay minister who shares his book with me leading the group. I am not sure how much of a religious experience this is, but it puts my face in the community and helps people place me as a protestant. I think it may improve my French listening skills so I don’t mind biking 20 minutes each way to attend.
One other thing is worth mentioning about this church. At the service I attend, most of the people who come are what they call functionaries, that is, they have jobs with a salary. In this service they pass a basket for the offering, much like in the states. There is, however a table at the front of the church, and as people are entering for the next service, in Moore, some bring a bag of grain or whatever they grow, or a casserole dish, which I assume has food in it as well. I have also seen poles with little mesh baskets, like fish nets, on the ends which I assume get passed in the Moore service as well.
I realized I had contacted the Protestants and Catholics, but not the Muslims and I did not want to neglect them. It took a little while, but eventually my homologue found a Muslim neighbor who was willing to introduce me to the Imam. He seemed like a very nice fellow and happy enough to meet me, although the whole conversation was in Moore except what I had to say in French, with my homologue translating for me.