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Ethnoarts Open a Door For the Gospel in the DR Congo

Adventures in facilitating the composition of Scripture-based songs in the local music, language and style.

It’s only early afternoon, but as clouds roll in it gets dark in the mud and wattle church. Someone digs out a flashlight and illuminates the words of Psalm 145:18, scrawled in white chalk on the makeshift blackboard. Several hundred voices repeat the verse in unison. Some start humming song ideas, and soon a man stands to sing; Yekova du mbembedi na aguyo . . . . People catch on and the melody swells. I pick out the two words I know: Yekova (God) and mbembedi (near). God is near to us! God is WITH us!

That’s how my three month internship in the ethnoarts started — with a music composition workshop in the small village of Mapedi. “Ethnoarts” is one word that encompasses all the specific ways a people has for expressing themselves or communicating.

One month later, I am burning. My temperature steadily rises. This is malaria. A Congolese doctor comes to hook me up on an IV. I’ve never been on an IV before. I’ve never been sick without my family here. Night and day merge into one dreamless stupor. I don’t have the strength to move. God, I whisper, where are You? He answers with Psalm 23, “When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. FOR YOU ARE WITH ME. . . .” I remember the melody from Mapedi. This is what I rest in and lean on: God is with me.

God has often reminded me of his presence during this internship. When I travelled alone in international airports; when I was fed up with fighting cockroaches and titanic spiders; when I had no love left for the people around me; when I stood under a star-filled night and felt my heart could burst for missing my family; when the laidback style of doing things in Congo frustrated me; each time God reminded me that he is always with me. Always he is closer than my frustrations and needs; always he is the first one I can turn to for help.

And then I leave for a Gospel and Culture workshop. This time the location is Bangadi.

Rebels and Rituals

It is an hour flight before we land on the red dirt airstrip. A few men with motorbikes wait for us. I clamber onto the back of one. My driver kick-starts the cranky machine. As we roll down a steep hill I try to close my eyes to the rocks and the ditches — souvenirs from frequent rainstorms. The engine chokes and sputters. We stop outside a small shop. The driver yells something and a young man hurriedly brings a soda bottle with petrol to re-fill our tank.

We zip past large brick buildings with rusty tin roofs. During the colonial days, Bangadi was an important town. After independence things enterprise and infrastructure steadily deteriorated across the nation and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) claimed Bangadi for a post from which to raid other villages. Only recently were the LRA expelled, and residents recall their cruelty vividly. Later we heard local Christians tell of scenes seared into their memory: a girl shot dead before her sister’s eyes; people tied to trees and burned alive; tree trunks used to crush living children. How does one put such suffering in words?

We arrive at the church and find over one hundred people gathered. Throughout the week, eleven small groups chose to discuss the rituals involved in these areas of life: taboo meats, birth rituals, hunting, gardening, polygamy, mourning and burial. What they describe sounds so bizarre to my ears. Planting a field naked gives better crops? Burning body parts (stolen from people when you shake their hand) ensures good hunting? Some of it is just too confusing. How can I believe that many of these are practiced today by Christians as they say?

What will it take?

As they speak I am reminded that just like everyone in this country, Christians are faced each day with hunger, with the desire to succeed, with dangers, with uncertainty. In the animistic worldview spirits are always present, indwelling all physical objects. The right rituals or magic can always be found to control the spirits. God, however, is far away. When trouble comes it is quicker and more effective to get help from evil spirits.

I sit in my chair and listen to these groups present and the question burns hot in my heart: What will it take for Congolese Christians to know the intimacy of God who counts hairs, who has more compassion than a nursing mother for her baby, who writes each of their days in his book and catches each of their tears in his bottle?

Each group in the workshop writes prayers declaring God’s truth and exposing Satan’s lies. They compose new songs that speak Scripture to their situation.

For truth to become a liveable reality it needs to travel from the head to the heart. And art (prayers and songs) opens the doors of the heart in unique ways for the Word of God to enter and permeate their lives.

This is shown in a wonderful way as one group discusses the taboo foods their clan avoids out of fear of what the spirits will do. As they stand to sing 1 Timothy 4:3-5 in their traditional style, everyone jumps to their feet to sing and dance together the freeing truth that what God has made is good and we may receive it all with gratitude.

Ethnoarts and Transformation

I started by taking you with me to Mapedi. There I was introduced to the how of ethnoarts: facilitating the composition of Scripture-based songs in the local music, language and style. Then we went to Bangadi where I saw the why of ethnoarts: because it takes what is head knowledge and makes it heart knowledge to be lived out of. Throughout this internship God has been burdening my heart to see worldviews transformed by his truth.

My time is drawing to a close. I dread stepping onto the little plane that will take me away from this beautiful country. I’ll miss my Congolese friends. But I go with a vision. I go to pursue further studies in ethnoarts. And then, Lord willing, I’ll be back in this country for what is left of my life, back to communicate the Word of God through arts that touch the hearts of the Congolese.

  • Maaike is a freelance writer from Ontario and raised in Africa, where her heart stayed. Her degree is in Intercultural Service and World Arts.

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