Spiritual Gorillas in the Mist
It is a singularly unique experience to travel to a remote village with only a few friends, stay there for a few days and experience the love and energy of the people there. It is especially interesting when you are the only muzungu (whitey) in a village of milabulas (Africans). To have people treat you like you are ten years older than you are, and listen to what you say even though you are much younger than they is very fulfilling. However, my trip to Nyagisagara was not about me, it was about the people there, and experiencing their passion and spirit. It was also about financing Baha’i activities that the local Baha’is cannot usually afford.
To begin I will copy a brief blurb about the Baha’i Faith from Wikipedia for those of you who don’t know what it is. I would write the explanation myself but time is money at the internet cafÃ© and it would take a while to write it.
“The BahÃ¡’Ã Faith is the religion founded by BahÃ¡’u’llÃ¡h in 19th century Persia. There are around six million BahÃ¡’Ãs in more than 200 countries around the world.
According to BahÃ¡’Ã teachings, religious history is seen as an evolving educational process for mankind, through God’s messengers, which are termed Manifestations of God. BahÃ¡’u’llÃ¡h is seen as the most recent, pivotal, but not final of these individuals. He claimed to be the expected redeemer and teacher prophesied in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions and that his mission was to establish a firm basis for unity throughout the world, and inaugurate an age of peace and justice, which BahÃ¡’Ãs expect will inevitably arise.
“BahÃ¡’Ã” can be an adjective referring to the BahÃ¡’Ã Faith, or used as term for a follower of BahÃ¡’u’llÃ¡h. (BahÃ¡’Ã is not a noun meaning the religion as a whole.) The word comes from the Arabic word BahÃ¡’ (بهاء), meaning “glory” or “splendour”…
Shoghi Effendi, the appointed head of the religion from 1921 to 1957, wrote the following summary of what he considered to be the distinguishing principles of BahÃ¡’u’llÃ¡h’s teachings, which, he said, together with the laws and ordinances of the KitÃ¡b-i-Aqdas constitute the bed-rock of the BahÃ¡’Ã Faith:
“The independent search after truth, unfettered by superstition or tradition; the oneness of the entire human race, the pivotal principle and fundamental doctrine of the Faith; the basic unity of all religions; the condemnation of all forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class or national; the harmony which must exist between religion and science; the equality of men and women, the two wings on which the bird of humankind is able to soar; the introduction of compulsory education; the adoption of a universal auxiliary language; the abolition of the extremes of wealth and poverty; the institution of a world tribunal for the adjudication of disputes between nations; the exaltation of work, performed in the spirit of service, to the rank of worship; the glorification of justice as the ruling principle in human society, and of religion as a bulwark for the protection of all peoples and nations; and the establishment of a permanent and universal peace as the supreme goal of all mankind—these stand out as the essential elements .””
If you want to know more, check out en.wikipedia.com and search for “Baha’i Faith” or go to www.bahai.org.
So this is how the weekend unfolded: Gad, Fidel, Faustin and I departed at 7am on Saturday from Kigali. Faustin, Fidel and I took the truck, while Gad and Madine (my housekeeper, who came to cook for us) went by bus, as there are only three seats in the truck. About 4 hours later we arrived in Nyagisagara, spoiling for some action. Unfortunately, the phones were down in the town, so the local Baha’is where not informed of our upcoming arrival, and hence were not at the Baha’i Center. So we waited for a few hours, unpacked the things that we had brought from the back of the truck, and I played with some of the children who came flocking at our arrival. They were really excited to get to play with a muzungu, and almost fought to get my attention so that I would take their picture.
After a few hours a few Baha’is showed up, and we sat down, said some prayers and discussed what the weekend plans were. Since this was rather late on Saturday, we just made some plans for Sunday, showed a few home-videos on a small TV powered by the truck battery (to the great enjoyment of the children, over 60 of whom showed up to watch), and then called it a day, as most people had to get home to start cooking dinner.
Once Gad and Madine showed up (it took them several hours longer than me and the other two, as the bus had some mechanical problems), I went shopping in the town for food for the weekend, and then Madine made dinner. While in town buying food I took a picture of the main street in the city, and was promptly stopped by a police officer who told me in broken English that taking pictures is illegal. Yeah, right. As it turned out, and as I guessed from the beginning, he wanted me to pay him for a “permit” to take pictures. So I told him instead of paying for a “permit” I would just delete the photo I had taken and not take any others, neither of which I did. So I have many pictures. Oddly enough, John (the police officer) and I ended up being rather friendly by the end of the weekend. Which goes to show that just because they are a bit corrupt doesn’t mean that the police are all bad. In fact, by the end of the weekend I was chummy not only with John but Ismael, his co-officer and their commanding officer. White skin opens a few doors I guess.
After eating a rather big dinner (since we hadn’t eaten lunch or very much breakfast), we bedded down in the main room of the Baha’i Center. This in itself was an experience, as I had no mosquito net, and hence got bitten many times. I pump myself full of anti-malarial meds everyday though, so I should be OK. If not, I guess there’s nothing more genuinely African than getting malaria. It’s all part of the experience.
So on Sunday morning we woke up, packed up our beds and set up the benches we had moved to make room for the mattresses, ate breakfast, and waited for the Baha’is to show up for the morning program. Show up they did, at 9am, and we sat down again and said prayers. Then one gentleman (whose name is unpronounceable to me, so I don’t know how to spell it) gave a very passionate speech about equality and unity, which of course included comparing my very white hand to his very dark hand. Though I couldn’t understand a word he said, as I don’t speak a word of Kinyarwanda, I got the gist of his speech, and when he gestured cutting his hand and mine, I assumed that he was saying that despite our skin color, we both have red blood. His speech was followed by several others, some by local Baha’is, some by my companions, and a few words from me about me and Canada.
The Baha’is in Nyagisagara are amazing. Despite their unfortunately poor situation and remoteness from the rest of the country, they are happy, energetic and sing almost constantly. Nyagisagara was the first Baha’i community in Rwanda, and its Baha’i Center is the first one built, officially opened in 2001. They have a Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA, 9 member local governing body), as well as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly (NSA) residing there. Their activities have spawned several other Baha’i communities in nearby villages, including Mukinki, which I visited.
After the prayers and speeches everybody started singing, along with accompanying drums and shakers, and though I couldn’t sing with them I clapped along and got up and started dancing. Apparently dancing muzungus are funny as they all laughed, and then got up to join me. After what seemed like ages, and not before my hands were killing me from clapping so hard for so long, we finished singing, sat back down and said a prayer in closing. Then everyone piled into the truck (which isn’t actually too big), taking the drums and other instruments and we headed off up to mountain to Mukinki, singing the whole way.
The road to Mukinki is, to say the least, frightening. At times it was barely wider than the truck, with a cliff on one side. At others, we had to drive over chasms on “bridges” made of logs with their top side shaved down to make a flat surface, also not much wider than the truck. Pretty much the whole way there we were going 5 km/h, dodging around potholes, boulders, goats, sheep, people, landslides and fallen trees.
When we arrived in Mukinki we were greeted by a few adults and about 60-80 kids, the latter screaming and shouting because there was a muzungu in their town. The Baha’i Center in Mukinki is not as fancy as the one in Nyagisagara, and only had benches around the outside walls. So while the adults sat on the benches the kids sat on a tarp pulled out of the truck and spread on the dirt floor. There followed another two hours of prayers, talks, singing, dancing and general discussion, in which I did my utmost to try to say something intelligent in French. I failed to a large extent to say much of any importance, but my presence was enough to attract sufficient numbers of people to make the trip a success. When words fail, rely on skin color. Excellent plan. After many thanks from the local people, we piled back into the truck and headed back down the mountain.
The rest of the afternoon in Nyagisagara was spent talking with people and showing a few more videos for the children, who didn’t say a single word of complaint when I accidentally played the same video from the day before. This was followed by another big dinner, a while talking with my companions, then bed. Fingers crossed that I didn’t get malaria. Please please please please don’t let me get malaria!
I learned on Monday morning just how diligent and active the BahÃ¡’Ãs are in Nyagisagara. Not only do they sing and dance and teach their fellow villagers, but they walk up the mountain to Mukinki regularly when there is no muzungu with a truck, and meet every morning of the week at 6am for morning prayers. Mondays and Fridays they meet at the Center, the other three week days they meet at the houses of various individuals. So Monday morning I was shook awake at 5am to pack up my bed, replace the benches in the Center and eat a quick breakfast before people showed up. They showed up ensemble at exactly 6am, we prayed for half and hour, and then after packing the truck and bidding farewell to the people of Nyagisagara, my companions and I headed off to Kigali and home. The trip home was mostly uneventful, and what things did happen aren’t worth mentioning.
All in all, it was an amazing weekend. The plan was to go to the villages and energize the people, do some teaching and hopefully make them feel less isolated. What actually happened was that the people energized me, and I came home feeling more enthusiastic and happy, ready to tackle another few villages and whatever other challenges I face here in Rwanda. This raises the question: who got more out of my trip; me or the villagers? And who is supposed to? I wish I had had more time with them, and had asked them to tell me what they thought of my visit. I hope to return their before going home to Canada, possibly for a longer period of time.
Despite all of their hardships – poverty, isolation, livelihoods based mostly on subsistence farming – the Baha’is of Nyagisagara and Mukinki have become leaders in their area and are truly spiritual gorillas in the mist.