Religion in Rwanda is fairly diverse. Granted, most of that diversity consists of the many veins of Christianity, including Adventists, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses [I refuse their tracts here too], and Roman Catholics, among others (although I’m wondering where the Mormons are?). Islam also has a place in Rwanda, and even though Muslims make up a minority in this country, I have seen more of them here than I have in America with all of its diversity. It seems inevitable to run into many of them while staying in a country the size of the state of Maryland which is home to about 11 million people. Strangely, there are no Jews or atheists—besides Peace Corps Volunteers.
Church is always interesting in Rwanda. It differs in every church. My first experience with church was during training. It was fun at first, but I didn’t realize it would continue for four hours. I can only handle being squeezed onto a bench (half my rear hanging off) and being touched by dirty children for so long.
My second church experience was during Christmas. There was no special Christmas service. In a way it was refreshing to get away from the three-month commercial build up to what consumer America has turned Christmas into. But at the same time it leaves me with that feeling you get when you’re pulling away from your house and you’re wondering if you locked the door or not. When I have my music library on shuffle I don’t skip over the Christmas songs. It’s as if Christmas never came last year.
I tried going to the Catholic church in my village because I heard that they have really short services. Too short, I guess. I made it just in time for the announcements. Mass ended five minutes later. It’s the thought that counts, right?
One of my friends in the village invited me to his church, so I went. I found out that he is also a pastor there. I had so much fun dancing to the music and I even gave a short introduction to myself in Kinyarwanda. Four hours didn’t seem so long after that day. I arrived at 9:00 in the morning and left at 5:00 in the evening, with a short break in between for lunch. Even after the service I played the radio on my phone outside and danced with the village children until the sun went down. That day was truly a Peace Corps experience.
My favorite place to attend church so far has been with my students at school. Late each evening, several groups gather in different classrooms “to pray.” [In Rwanda, they do not say that they are “going to church.” They say that they are “going to pray”, which always sounds like “play” of course]. Occasionally I will pop in for a bit when I am invited. Tonight was one of those nights.
I walked from my dorm room to the classrooms. I moved cautiously through the moonless night. I arrived to a small classroom that was absolutely crammed with students and a choir of about a dozen swaying back and forth in front. They had already begun singing and dancing. This school church is Pentecostal, headed by a student pastor who looks like a teenaged Obama. The singing and dancing gets very intense.
Pentecostalism seems a natural fit for Africa. The tribal beats of the music and traditional dancing mesh perfectly with the enthusiasm of the charismatic movement. The students sang songs about Imana, the Kinyarwanda name for God. Rwanda’s people are historically monotheistic, and Imana is the name of their traditional God. This made conversion to Christianity very simple when missionaries came to share their good news. Today the majority of Rwandans are Christian, believing that their traditional god Imana and the God of the bible are one and the same.
The songs are very repetitive, but I somehow don’t get bored with them. As they continue singing, the students’ voices rise as if they are trying to be heard from heaven itself. The cramped room pulses with energy as the students sway back and forth and jump up and down. You can’t help but be pulled into the excitement. This is my favorite part. And that’s why I leave when the music stops.