I am not a religious person. Actually, I consider myself a spiritual person but I believe that being spiritual is different from being religious. I grew up with the Catholic church, saying my prayers and repenting my sins. But I am aware that what I learned in catechism class are only teachings, not necessarily truth. I value my religious upbringing for the lessons and values it gave me and that I use everyday. When religions deem themselves as truth, as superior, and leave no room for learning about and respecting other faiths, they evolve into systems of oppression. They convince other faiths of their inferiority and exploit the minds of the world's most vulnerable populations. I cannot deny that there is a force greater than me. I do not know if this force is God. Is it Jesus? Is it Allah? Is it simply nature? But I do know that I cannot make the sun rise and set over the horizon every day and that faith in a higher power is my spirituality.
A beaming smile came over his face as he stood at the head of the room and extended his arm toward me, signaling for me to rise. I could only make out words of what he was saying; musikana, kuAmerica, kuchikoro, Nyasha. That was me. Ini ndinonzi Nyasha. Whole sentences were lost in the sea of language which stood between us, but I knew he was talking about me. I could decipher from his exaggerated gestures that he was introducing me, that he was enthusiastically welcoming me into his parish. Amai sat beside me, glowing with pride for her new daughter, and nudged me in my side. I stood and the crowd in the room bustled with curiosity; bodies twisting around on their rickety, wooden benches, children keeping one eye on me while whispering and giggling into each other's ears, and the pastor standing tall before his people.
I stood, face hot with embarrassment and fingers fidgeting with the tie of my skirt in self-consciousness. An uproarious laughter and a flood of shiny white smiles came over the entire crowd and I glanced down at Amai, hoping she would signal me to sit down again. Women fervently raised their arms into the air, clapping and slapping hands with each other. A round, buoyant woman sitting two rows in front of me turned, revealed her half-toothlessness in an exaggerated smile, and threw her hand out to me over a row wide-eyed children. "Ayyy! Nyahsa!!!" The fabric of my skirt fell loosely from my fingers and I returned the woman's gesture by raising my hand, slapping my palm against hers, and gripping her in a firm handshake of female camaraderie. This was how church began.
After an enthusiastic welcoming, the parish settled again. Men straightened their ties and patted their hair, while the women adjusted their tan church uniforms and red and white Salvation Army caps. In what seemed like one large exhale, the entire community sat again and refocused their attention to the priest. I wiggled my body back into my seat on the bench between Amai and my oldest sister, Tendai. I sat listening to the sermon, not understanding the rapid Shona passages the priest read from his weathered black book but knowing the joy that my presence in church that day brought to my very pious Amai.
Amai does not speak English, nor do most of the other women of her generation in the village. We communicate with hand gestures, facial expressions, and the half-sentences of mediocre Shona that I manage to spit out. The first time I heard her speak a phrase of English came on this day, in this dusty, hot, crowded schoolroom which doubled as the community church on the weekends. Not only could she speak some English, but she could sing a whole song to me, smiling confidently and proudly in unison with all the other English and non-English speaking women of the village.
"We are soldiers of the gospelÉJesus loves me...Come and join our conquering band," she shouted out emphatically, swaying her body side to side and clapping together with the church youth choir. He nudged me again, as she sang, nodding her head towards me as if to encourage me to join in. I responded with an awkward smile and shook my head, "Handizivi, Amai. I don't know this song."
Understanding enough of my response, she ceased her joyous singing and turned her left shoulder towards me. Stitched onto her khaki dress was a small white patch with a symbol of two rolling, intertwined S's. She pointed to the letters with her crooked finger and said, "Nyasha, S, S. I am saved so that I can save othersÉ" she stuttered in a now familiar, thick Shona accent. She pointed vigorously at the emblem and then patted it down and resumed singing.
These are the first and only English words Amai ever spoke to me. With such confidence, she had made such powerful statements that she herself did not even comprehend. They were words I would hear her softly sing to herself when she swept the kichen floor or pulled water up from the family well. They were words I would hear her sing to my youngest brothers, sisters, and cousins. They were songs I would soon find myself humming during the long, hot days in Chiweshe.
A woman in a small rural land in Zimbabwe rises before the sun every day. This woman gathers firewood and cooks for her husband and ten children. She brings her bucket of dirty clothes to the river, scrubs them, and hangs them to dry in the noonday sun. She visits her neighbors on the way to tending her field. She does not speak English. She goes to church for 6 hours every Sunday, praising, rejoicing, and repenting. A woman wakes and falls to sleep singing the foreign words of the gospel.
Bourdillon, M.F.C. Where Are the Ancestors? Changing Culture in Zimbabwe . (Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications) 1993.
Dangarembga, TsiTsi. Nervous Conditions (Seattle: Seal Press) 1988.
Vera, Yvonne. Nehanda (Toronto: TSAR Publications) 1994.