Learning to dance at church

“Move your shoulders forward!” shouts the pastor, as he dances along to the church music.

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Yesterday I hiked Kgale Hill, just on the edge of Gaborone. This is at the top!

Last Sunday, I was invited to church by a local Motswana, a woman my age that I met at the University of Botswana’s cafeteria. I’ve gathered that religion is important here, where asking someone to church is as simple as an invite to a social gathering. So, following my when-in-Rome Watson attitude, I accepted the invitation despite being nonreligious myself. When my new friend asked me what church I go to back home, I mentioned the name of a Presbyterian church in NYC where I attended an hour-long Easter service a few years ago. Throughout the day, I avoided mentioning that I’ve never been a regular churchgoer so as not to insult anyone.

Sunday morning began at the university, where my friend was having a small gathering with the campus chapter of her church, which I learned is called First Love. After an hour, we all got in a combi – a 12-seater van that serves as the main mode of public transportation in Gaborone – and traveled to a big church just outside the city. We were joined by many other First Love chapters from around Gaborone for a congregation of maybe 100 people.

The service started at 11am, and to my surprise it continued until 3pm. The first two hours of the service provided the most lively and interactive church experience I’ve ever had. There was more singing and dancing than I thought possible, and it was fun – the choir sang Christian lyrics to popular beats and melodies, and a whole dance crew of young churchgoers performed a hip-hop set to the crowd. Everyone was standing up and dancing as much as they could between the narrow rows of plastic chairs. The pastor encouraged the dancing as well, and I found myself moving and clapping to the beat with a smile on my face.

After the singing and dancing, though, the more traditional sermon started, and I felt increasingly less comfortable (and increasingly hungry as no one stopped for lunch!). People were treating the sermon as a lecture, even taking notes. My new friend passed me a notebook and a pen, and it was clear that I was expected to take notes, too. Even when the service ended at 3pm, I couldn’t leave right away; I was ushered into a meeting for newcomers where I was asked to provide contact information and given a quick Bible lesson. Apparently I joined the church without exactly intending to.

By the time I got home, I had been out for 8 hours, most of them spent in a religious space, and I was exhausted. I had expected it to be shorter; on the Watson, it’s hard to lose control of your time. Something I’ve noticed this year, with the Watson’s emphasis on complete independence and intrepidity, is that you get used to being your own boss, making your own decisions about where you go and when and how much time you spend there. A few times this year, I’ve been in situations where I’ve lost that control and been at the mercy of other’s people’s schedules. Sitting in church, as the hours ticked on by and I wondered how I would get home, I tried to avoid feeling as though my time had been hijacked, my independence compromised. If all these people did this every Sunday, I thought, it must be okay. And it was.

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Satellites and art atop Kgale Hill.

A couple days later, I was in a car with a Motswana woman as we traveled to a clinic together as part of an ongoing mobile health project. She had a Bible with her all day, and we had to keep moving it around the car. At one point she asked me if I was religious. I said no. I’m worried I offended her, but I can’t lie either. She seemed disappointed, and we didn’t talk about it after that.

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Sunset in Botswana.

I read an article yesterday by a Motswana author, Lauri Kubuitsile, who realized that something she loves about Botswana is the fatalism. In contrast to the US, she says, where we value answers and having control and making your life the way you want it to be – with reasons to point to when things go wrong – her people, the Batswana, have a more fatalist attitude. What will be will be. Kubuitsile says that while it might be frustrating to hear that “it will all turn out okay” when things really aren’t okay, it’s also liberating to be less responsible when things go wrong. Things tend to move slowly here in Botswana, and ascribing that to fatalism made a lot of sense to me. Fatalism also fits well with religion, I think; 80% of the country is Christian (source).

Of course, I wondered how this might apply to medical devices – how fatalism and religion intersect with attitudes towards health and technology. I would guess that preventative health measures and monitoring devices would seem fairly pointless in a more fatalist society. Kubuitsile discusses the effect of fatalism on end-of-life care; in the US, we use technology and hospital services right up until the end, and we expect reasons for cause of death. “The oxygen failed to work,” writes Kubuitsile. “As if death is not a natural part of life.”

This morning, it is Sunday again, and most of the people I’ve walked by today have been dressed for church, clustered together for services. I’ve heard singing and chanting wafting out into the streets. I’m not going to church today, but I still think the music is beautiful.

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There are still so many places I haven’t been.
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