Sunday, July 15, 2007.
From a sartorial standpoint, there’s a lot that a ragged traveler like me can learn from the developing world. Even here, in this remote Maasai village, where people live in cow-dung manyattas and crap in the bush, I’m woefully underdressed for Sunday service. David is hunched over on the edge of the bed, running a rag over his shoes with great gravity. Little Lanoi – his bald, bright-eyed eight-year-old – has put on a rustling skirt and a red gingham blouse. For my part, I’m wearing a pair of pants that look like they’ve spent the past week wrapped around a muffler. There’s dirt caked to the bottom of my hiking boots; David clucks his tongue with disapproval. Outside he breaks a leafy branch from a tree and thwacks at my pant legs, partly to get at the dust, partly, I suspect, to teach me a lesson about what is and isn’t appropriate in the house of the Lord.
It’s a three-mile walk to the nearest church; along the way, David points out hyena tracks and prodigious piles of elephant dung. “At night, this road is like an elephant highway,” he notes. We pass a few of the neighboring villages, where two or three huts sit in a small clearing, hemmed in by a fence of thorn-studded branches. Now and then someone will pedal by in a blue blazer and gray slacks, a Bible tucked beneath his arm, and he’ll exchange a few greetings with David as he passes, calling back well-wishes over his shoulder.
We stop to pay our respects to some local families. David conducts himself with great diplomacy, shaking hands and patting heads and generally carrying on like he’s up for office. We duck our heads into a smoky hut, where a small, bent woman is making rice over a fire-pit. She’s chattering away and laughing shrilly and stirring the rice with a long wooden spoon, dishing it out into plastic bowls that she passes around the room. A few grave old men come in and shake my hand. Everyone’s wearing jackets and neckties and their fancy Sunday shoes. The woman talks with great animation, turning to pour a mug of chai or rinse a bowl in a bucket of gray water without pausing for breath. There’s a boy sitting on a stool in the next room, dipping his hands into a wash basin and scrubbing his face. Thin bolts of light are coming in from a small window above him. The water is gleaming on his shoulders and his long, corded arms.
Outside an old man waits for us in the yard. He has fat yellow teeth and long, drooping earlobes; he’s wearing a blue blazer and gray linen pants that taper off above the ankle. David introduces him as a pastor from a neighboring village – I’ve met a half-dozen of these already – and he takes my hand, pressing it solemnly. He walks with us to the church, taking measured steps while they fall into conversation. The pastor speaks calmly, forcefully, for the twenty-minute walk. More bikes pedal past, more waves and greetings. We pass through a clearing and then down a narrow path winding through the trees. Birds chatter and chirp all around us. The sky is low and gray, and a cold wind is blowing.
When we get to the church a young mother is waiting outside with her two sons. The front door is bolted and padlocked, and we have to wait for someone to show up with the keys. The church is like a giant tool shed made from sheets of corrugated tin, about the size of a suburban garage. While we’re waiting David and the pastor pull a few branches from a tree and pick between their teeth. There are men pedaling bikes over bumpy dirt paths, some in their Sunday clothes and some with the red-checked blankets of the Maasai wrapped around their shoulders. Gazelles bound across a field nearby, and a dozen zebra are trotting and rolling in the dirt. More people gather: packs of kids clutching at their mother’s skirt, solemn old men on rickety bicycles.
A young guy pedals up and unlocks the door, and there’s a commotion of handshakes and greetings as we file in, taking our places on long wooden planks. Three men in smart blazers sit at the front of the room, crucifixes carved into their chairs. They take out their Bibles and lean forward over a table draped with purple cloth, bookmarking passages and conferring under their breaths. A calendar from Narok Bible College hangs on the wall. Beside it is a single, frayed length of garland – gold and red and green, shimmering dully and drooping toward the floor. David leafs through his King James, his forehead furrowed, his fingers moving busily over the pages. Someone gives my shoulder an affectionate squeeze and hands me a Bible of my own, giving me a look that suggests I know exactly what to do with it.
David asks if I might like to read a favorite passage to the congregation – sort of like asking a deaf man to sing his favorite song. I think back to my years of Sunday school, when I dutifully colored page after page of well-tended sheep and avuncular Messiahs and dreamed of a lazy afternoon on the couch watching football. Then inspiration hits me. How often had I seen those divine words scrawled onto posterboard, held aloft in end zones and carrying with them the collective longing of the sporting world’s faithful? Never mind the inscrutable message they deliver; I dog-ear the one passage burnt into the years of my youth: John 3:16.
A young preacher in a denim jacket stands up and flashes a broad smile of wide, evenly spaced teeth. There’s a joyous chorus from across the room, where the women are clapping their hands and stomping their feet and carrying on like the Second Coming should be waltzing through the door at any minute. They wear headscarves and bright red gowns and colorful, beaded jewelry dangling from their ears and necks. David’s mother, a tough old bird with knots on her smoothly shaven head, bobs and stoops in a dance football fans might recall from the memorable Super Bowl run of Icky Woods and the Cincinnati Bengals. Another woman in a blue skirt imprinted with orange blossoms has a look of fierce repentance on her face, her eyelids trembling as she wags the palms of her hands toward the ceiling. Then a girl marches in with a drum slung over her shoulder, beating it like she caught it with its hand in the poor box, and it’s at exactly this moment that I know high holy hell is about to break loose. A reasonable approximation of “rapture” ensues, with the women waving their hands and the men awkwardly shuffling their feet, and a certain American bobbing his head once or twice, as if the spirit of the Lord has come to him in rhythmic, 4/4 time.
We carry on like this for ten minutes, and then the preacher wrings his hands and says a few words, and then he sits down and we burst into song again. Little girls are clapping their hands and little boys have snot all over their faces, and it’s a beautiful, joyful day all around. When our praise and thanks have been exhausted, the preacher again rises to address us. Beside him is a young, effeminate kid in a neatly pressed shirt, who’s translating into English with little flourishes of his hands. They thank the Lord that we’re all gathered today (Amen!), and thank the Lord that we’re all in good health and high spirits (Amen!), and thank the Lord that we have visitors who have come from so far away to be here today (Hallelujah!). Then the preacher gestures with his outstretched hands, that maybe the visitors would like to say a few words to the congregation. And suddenly there are fifty pairs of eyes fixed on my dusty pants and bewildered grin, wondering what words of faith and wisdom I’ve come all the way from America to share.
I smile a beatific smile and David claps my knee, as if we’re both in on a dirty little secret that involves the salvation of a certain two you-know-who’s. I stand and give a little wag of my hand – either “’Allelujah!” or “Gee, it’s hot in here,” depending on your point of view – and offer thanks to the pastor and the congregation for having me. I gesture to David’s beaming mug and offer him as exhibit A-number-one of the goodness of the Maasai people. There are a few nods and Amens. Then I point indiscriminately around the room, implicating others in the veritable smorgasbord of kindness I’ve encountered since coming to the area. I thump the Bible once or twice and wave it, as if to say, “We all know I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for this book.” But when it comes to the reading, I waver. Instead I offer a strange benediction – “You’ve all been so good to me and thanks for everything and good luck” – which practically rends the air like a thunderbolt. There are more “’Allelujahs!” and a few rapturous “Amens!” As an afterthought, I add, “Um, God bless you,” and a few faces are puffy and glistening with inspiration.
Emboldened, some others get up to follow my lead. They’ve come from villages five or ten or twenty kilometers away, and they offer thanks and well-wishes to the congregation. A stout woman heaves herself toward the front of the room and testifies that she’s fine and her husband’s fine, and her children – thank the Lord – are all doing fine, as if she’s just popped in on the neighbors for coffee and danishes. A kid in a big, boxy jacket gestures in my direction, noting how happy he is to see that “even the white man has found God” – a curious bit of revisionist history, if ever there was one.
The pastor gets up and nods solemnly and shuffles forward a bit. He’s wearing a crisp olive suit and spiffy brown loafers, his pudgy stomach testifying to the fact that the work of the Lord is gratifying in more ways than one. His voice rattles the rafters, an honest-to-goodness clarion call of spiritual whoop-ass.
Before long he’s picked up such frightful momentum that the translator can’t keep up, and with a few apologetic words to the congregation, he squeezes onto the bench beside me, whispering, “I will write down what he says and give you the notes later.”
Later, after a fiery sermon full of thunder and brimstone, after we’ve jangled through our purses and dug into our pockets and dropped our modest offerings into a cloth sack at the front of the room, Evans, the translator, corners me outside. He hands me a sheet of ruled paper torn from a notebook. At the top he’s written, “Topic: Spiritual circumcision,” and what follows is a hastily improvised summary of the day’s lecture.
“Just as we circumcise the body the spirit is also circumcised,” he begins. “Circumcision on the body helps to remove dirty parts and makes one clean and acceptable. The spiritual circumcision also helps to remove things regarded as dirty in the spiritual world.” These things include immorality, adultery, idolatry, and – in one quizzical, illegible scrawl – what seems to be the world “halva.” How that sweet treat could offend anyone – including the Lord – is lost on me. But I fold the notes into my pocket and thank Evans for all his help, and he’s still bless my backside as I collect the girls and start our long trudge home.