SUNDAY, MARCH 4, LENDEM, GUINEA-BISSAU — Today I had the opportunity to visit a local Balanta church in Guinea-Bissau, out in the countryside where I am working with the Kriol translation team, near the town of Bissora. Let me describe it, but preface that by saying it is always a privilege to be able to experience something outside my own culture. Lynn and I have visited this church before. I knew before going that church would be long and hot and a bit uncomfortable, but it could have been longer or hotter or more uncomfortable. The temperature here today got up to about 104 degrees, but it wasn’t that hot yet in the morning. There was no air conditioning, of course, and no fans. The straight-back wooden pews could each hold about six people shoulder-to-shoulder. Forget about our American inhibitions aginst touching each other (other than family) when sitting in church. These pews could hold six people, touching side-by-side, but there were more people than that, fortunately, and they put about seven people on each pew, so we had to scrunch up. The church was packed, and they had to keep bringing in chairs. That’s a good problem to have.
The first hour and a half of the church service was just music. It was all different groups going up to the front to sing. There was a mixed youth group, a group of little children, a group of young women, a couple of different women’s groups. There was nothing what we would call congregational singing, but it was all kinetic and participatory. The singing up front was accompanied by swaying and clapping and waving of arms and turning of bodies in a coordinated fashion, and stepping and sometimes stomping. Sometimes members of the congregation would spontaneously stand and join in on the action. It was great to see a large group of little children singing so enthusiastically.Click on the picture above to see a video of them. All the singing was energetic and full volume. Most of the singing was in Creole, which is basically the language of the church in Guinea-Bissau. But my favorite group was the women singing in Balanta.
I could tell that the words being sung were Balanta, not English, but what made it really distinctive was the non-western tonality. I’m not an ethnomusicologist and can’t analyze it, but it is definitely distinctive. The Balanta women also had an interesting way of punctuating their song at points with a certain kind of stomping. My impression was that they were telling a story in their song. Click here to see a video of Balanta women singing in church. I would have uploaded more videos of singing that I took on my cell phone, but my internet bandwidth here is limited. Here is another video of the Balanta women singing from last year.
While all of this was going on, I sat still with my hands folded and felt conspicuous, but I tried to keep an approving expression on my face. I did enjoy it.
After the first hour and a half of the service, announcements were given in Creole, and that went on for 15 minutes. Then a man came up and spoke in Balanta for about 10 minutes, and my impression was that he was giving some kind of testimony. I could see that they were asking visitors to introduce themselves, and one man did, but I kept quiet. But I got singled out, and was asked to come up to the front to say a few words, maybe give a little testimony. I hadn’t mentally prepared for this, but if I was going to say anything, I wanted to say it in Creole. So I reluctantly went from my place toward the back corner up to the front and said about five sentences, starting with my name and why I was here, and ending with Es i tudu ku N misti fala, ‘That’s all I want to say.’
Then the sermon began. The rest of the service lasted about half an hour more, and most of that time was the sermon. It was a bilingual presentation like we have seen many times. The local preacher gave his sermon in Balanta, but he took turns speaking with another man interpreting into Creole.
At 12:30, after we had been in church for 2½ hours, some people started going outside, and I understand that was the beginning of Sunday School. I took that opportunity to get up and walk back to the translation center where I am staying. I wish you all could experience this.