From December 7
Yesterday I though that the leper community was out in the middle of nowhere.
Today we went further: to a tiny village called Kizara up in the mountains. We first had to go up and then around a mountain to get there, about a three-hour drive on dirt roads. We went for the festive opening of the new health center, complete with dancing, liturgical parade, and DIY aspergillium (holy water sprinkler—leave it to Anglicans to conceive of a special device for getting people wet in a ritualistic way): a plastic water bottle with holes cut in the top: amazing and brilliant. Yesterday at Holy Cross when we were blessing stuff we had a “real” one. By the way, I use branches at Christ Church.
The health center has a maternity ward with an unfortunately BRAND NEW 1800’s style delivery table with stirrups and all— I said to the bishop, “Really? We paid for that? Consider gravity. We need to send them a nice big birthing ball. “ I think that’s more of an image than he wanted, but it was that kind of day. Then on to the men’s ward, pediatric ward, etc. Each room could fit four beds. The center was funded with a constellation of grants from the Japanese Government, the Anglican Church in Tanzania, and the Episcopal Church in the US (DioMass Jubilee Funds as well as the parish partnership for Tanga: North Attleborough, All Saints Brookline, and Trinity Melrose and the Episcopal UTO grant program, which is paying for the completion of solar panels).
When we arrived, the choir was already singing and dancing; it seemed like there were several choirs, some with uniforms and some not. I was invited to come and dress up with the rest of the clergy. I was the ONLY woman amongst 12 male priests and 2 bishops and 6 altar servers (not ordained). That’s 20:1. After they got the generator settled (no electric lights, but an amp for the music), we all processed in by twos—crucifer (cross bearer), torches/candles, thurifer (incense), some extra guys, all the priests and both bishops and the choir, separate sections of men and women, which walked in a kind of dancey lock step I couldn’t follow. Twenty one people at the altar today, and I was the only woman.
So today was the day it hit me—women really, really, really are not at the table here.
When we visit a somewhere each person in the visiting group and a few of our hosts all get up and say something. For us, it’s usually a combination of our names and homes and a botched “Bwana Asifiwe,” which means “Praise the Lord.” I don’t particularly every say that at home unless it’s in something I have to read out loud, but I’m a bit flexible here. Just like when I blessed the kindergarten yesterday I accidentally used both a masculine pronoun for God AND bad grammar—“who gathers us to hisself”—mortifying)
Anyway, back on track.
So each of us introduce ourselves, and the bishop and others have remarked to me that the women’s faces all kind of shift when they find out I’m a priest. I always say that I have two children who are at home with their dad, so they won’t think I’m a nun. I stopped saying “and my husband is a priest” when I realized that Tom, the other priest from our group, isn’t able to say “and my spouse is a priest also” in this place. (Side note: both the bishop, Tom Shaw, and Tom Mousin, the priest, are travelling. For extra special, Tom’s spouse is also named Thomas). Tanzania is not as bad as some places for GLBT issues, but it is not Canada, either.
Back on track AGAIN!
Some of the contrast today particularly was that the liturgy in Tanzania is very “high;” incense, bells, extreme ritual piety. So somehow being the only woman in the middle of that kind of show really drove it home: this is not your place. But because I am a priest, it is. I feel that identity in my bones as much as being a mother and being easily sunburned.
I sat next to Tom the priest—all 6’4” of him and me and Canon Peter, our translator, on a very narrow bench, for three hours. Both Tom, our bishop, and Bishop Maimbo preached, and we all had introductions, and the parish council had introductions, phew.
So I was sitting up there with all those men, and when communion came I was not invited to help distribute (though there were so many of us of course not everyone could, but the two ordained men in our group were). So I sat there, in this middle space of “this is not my place/no, this really IS my place” and thought about all the women who get up and cut firewood and cook and clean up with no electricity or running water in their homes,. And the way some of them looked at me—and they weren’t looking at me, they were looking at my collar—was like, “Wow, this is possible.” One of our fellow travellers went for an early run with some African friends of friends, and, again—women see something new, and they see something new about themselves. This whole space of agency that had been closed to them opened, just a little. The French feminist Luce Irigaray calls it a horizon for women’s becoming.
I could see the women there getting just a little piece of it, and I felt transparent and both me and not me. This is so hard to articulate, because I don’t feel as though I, uniquely me (sunburned, mother, etc) have anything to do with it. In the same way as my children are solely themselves and not mine, stepping into this role of being a priest also is me but not mine. Both men and women here have this desire for a different vision of church where half their members aren’t disenfranchised. They’re going to get there. Balancing all that weight through the forest on their heads, surely that skill will translate.
I know so well that getting to that first woman priest will only be the tiniest first step—that we in the American church still have a ways to go. But today-- kids wanting their pictures taken, and random people trying to communicate with their hands they wanted a blessing, and the women who saw me and said, “Yeah, we are going to get a piece of that action.” —whew.
Then we drove back down the mountain through the rain forest, and it was very, very, very bumpy and very, very, very beautiful.
From December 8
Today: Trip to St John’s Kihurio, a smaller group: the area dean, Joseph; Shadrach, driver extraordinaire; Tom Mousin, rector of St John’s in Charlestown; Angelina from the diocese; and Heidi, the youth leader from Duxbury, and I set out for the desert.
I guess I haven’t said, exactly, who’s travelling in the wider group.
For the first few days in Tanzania, we also had Bishop Mark Hollingsworth of Ohio, and the diocesan chancellor, Bill. Ohio has very strong partnerships in the region, and has for a long time.
Other folks in the group—Tom Shaw, Bishop of Massachusetts; Tom’s sister, Penny, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky; Jackie Drapeau, Tom’s assistant; Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, a lawyer and executive director for Health Care for All, a nonprofit advocacy group in Boston; and Colin Johnstone, one of the key lay leaders in the Massachusetts parish partnership “Friends of Tanzania” (he’s from All Saints Brookline). Colin is English and retired to Brookline 5 or 10 years ago with his partner. He’s been here four times and really knows his stuff.
Can I say a word about having a driver? Yes, it sounds like a luxury. But driving here is an incredible skill, and Shadrach is an expert, not only at driving but also translating both English/Swahili and cultural Tanzanian/American. He lives in Arusha and takes safari tours through the parks on assignment for 7-15 days, and has three kids: Wesley (since he and his wife were watching a Wesley Snipes movie when she went into labor), Shapiro (a daughter born when he was on safari, named after one of the tourists who came with him to the hospital to see her for the first time so he could get there as soon as possible—I hope they stayed in the car), and Chelsea. For Chelsea Clinton, naturally.
We drove way out—again, way out—this time not up into the mountains but to what looked like the desert. You could see how all the culverts and brooks would fill with water when the rain comes, but for now everything is dry, dry, dry.
Let’s talk about water for a moment:
Tanzania receives enough rainfall to fulfill all its water needs. Even in places like we were today, people can still go up into the mountains to get clean water from the springs there. The problem is one of distribution; for places that aren’t near water, like the leper community we visited on Wednesday, there needs to be a way to harvest and keep the rainwater. Up in the mountain village where we were yesterday, the water needed to be piped in from higher up, again, to ensure continuous access, and that’s another project in progress. As I mentioned before, this year the rainy season did not fulfill its promises, which throws a wrench into the principle of abundance. The long rains will come in March, hopefully.
So we drove out through a valley of thorn bushes, and got out of the car and into the welcoming custom that just cracks me open and fills me with light. Everyone comes out to meet you, singing and dancing, and as you walk into the church everyone shakes your hand or kisses your cheeks. And people are so happy to have visitors. In more than one place someone has talked about the story in Genesis where Abraham and Sarah are visited by strangers who turn out to be angels, because you never know. And it cuts through all of my cynical posturing; yes, people really do believe that others are a blessing. And their thanksgiving is a blessing. During my little intro today I embarrassed myself completely and cried a teensy bit when I said that they have treated us like angels but that they are the angels in how lovely they’ve been to us. Sentimental! But I meant it. Travelling far from home is always like that—putting yourself in the midst of uncertainty always has a mystical quality in which holiness seems to ensue whether you expect it or not.
Today’s visit was different from our other parish visits because we were a smaller group and the “teams,” as it were, were more even; we had three Africans and three Muzungu coming from outside the community, so we weren’t quite so disruptive. After the singing and introductions, we went out into the village to meet some of the widows. One lived in a thatched roof two room house with three chairs and some chickens, one lived in a brick house, with a large bed (which she kindly invited Heidi and me to sit down on with her—it filled most of the room), and one in a somewhat fancier concrete block compound style house with her daughter in law and grandchildren. In each home we introduced ourselves and prayed a little. The dean kept assuring us that they were chosen randomly and were people that would have been visited anyway. All had dirt floors, which brings me back to the church conversation—the floor.
After our introductions, one of the members of the parish council read a history of the church (it’s been there since the 1920’s, but the current structure was started in 1998). He then offered a comprehensive list, with prices, of all the work they hoped to do; the church (unlike the one yesterday) has electricity, but a dirt floor. So they want to level it with concrete and put tile down, as well as plaster it and put in windows.
We were then invited to make a response; I said there were over 180 parishes in our diocese and we would look forward to telling the story of their church, and hopefully it could become even more beautiful. I didn’t want to promise anything since I’m totally confused by the exchange rate and the very high numbers (one dollar is 1,500 shillings, so one million shillings is $667).
Driving, back, we pulled out a calculator and figured out that the floor project would cost about $2,000. Even shooting for the moon and doing everything they asked for was around $6,500, though I’d probably give some pushback on the windows. None of the churches we’ve seen have had them. The walls are thick concrete block, so it keeps rain out and allows air in. Plus St John’s had a lovely lattice pattern in the bricks and you could see the flowers planted outside.
So that kind of floored us and I immediately started thinking about who I could hit up for some money. It’s not large-scale social change, but it’s what they asked for. There are relationships to be built and transformation and dreaming to ensue on all sides, but whether Heidi succeeds in getting her youth group here to lay the tile herself or if we just find the funds to do it, something will happen.
Dear readers, this part will be continued.
editing note: I have not forgotten about doing some theology about candy! I’ve also been ruminating over sin and inequality today and the impossibility of all of this, so that may also come. But I’m preaching tomorrow in Amboni and we leave at 7:30 AM so I should go get myself a little more organized. Tonight we went out for barbeque and ordered pork by the kilo, so I will sleep with a very full belly.