Usambaras Part 2: Easter with the Rangwi Sisters

Usambara Mountains Day 3: Easter with the Rangwi Sisters

I’m sitting in a sunbeam outside a church the morning after Easter, listening to the songs and prayers of the Rangwi Sisters. When I came and sat down, fog hanging in our valley and the sun just coming above the hills, it sounded very Roman, with soft voices, long notes, and somber chords. It faded into silence, and then the drum started, and the African melodies and harmonies, and shouts and claps and high soprano accents, trills and ululations, and one word I recognized: Alleluia.

Easter at the convent began innocently enough, but by the end of the evening I was almost ready to take my vows and stay for life.

The day started at Papaa Moze guest house, about an eight-mile walk from here. I was awoken by bird song, a TV blaring, shouts in Swahili, and music from the stereos of motorcycles. Breakfast was nothing to blog about: a couple sweet chapatis and a stale bun with margarine. Worst of all, Nescafe so old that it had crystallized in the packets. The brought out an old can of Africafe that was even harder – impossible to chip free with a spoon.

As we walked up to a ridge overlooking the village of Mlalo, then down a steep hill through farms and gardens, the cries of “Mzungu” rang out, and sometimes a chant of “Wa-zun-gu, wa-zun-gu!” “White peo-ple! White peo-ple!” We crossed a dry stream bed on a smooth-worn log, and up another hill to another ridge. Traditional Samba music floated down – drum, shakers, whistles, and voices. At the next village, the children had a different greeting: “Jambo!” (a greeting often used with tourists) repeated incessantly, along with “Good morning, teacher!” (a phrase they learn in primary school songs).

We stopped for lunch on a grassy hill near some houses, but a few minutes later, Isa said we should find a place to hide, which we did, under an overhang, just as the rain came pouring down. The boys who had been sitting there retreated behind a building and peeked out at us. Soon they were joined by more boys and a couple girls, and I fascinated them by speaking a little Swahili. We talked and laughed, and I showed them the photos on my camera, but they wouldn’t let me take theirs. Conversation, yes; picha, hapana. A shame, because the boys seated up and down and all over a pile of big rocks would’ve made a nice shot.

When the rain ended, we could see the Ranwi Sisters convent shining in the sunlight. It was threatening to rain again where we were, so we donned our raingear and headed down the mountain through another village. The local greeting here was also new: “Giva-a me money! Give-a me money!” with hands held out. Now it was my turn to say “Hapana.”

It was a short walk to the convent, where Isa led us into a big room with nice (relatively) couches and two long tables with seating for 28. Crucifixes hung on the walls, along with photos of John Paul and Benedict, but not Francis. Madalena got a room in a charming cottage, but mine was in a charmless three-story dormitory that looked like it hadn’t been used much.

I relaxed away the afternoon, watching the older sisters in their blue scarves, the younger ones in white, and the novices in a variety of head scarves: one in camouflage, several in red and black bandannas as the Bloods and Crips might wear, and quite a few in Jamaican colors with “One Love” printed on them, along with photos of Bob Marley and cannabis leaves. I’m not sure if they were being ironic or unaware, but I suspect the latter.

We were told that since it was Easter, we would have a special treat: eating with the Sisters. Usually guests and sisters eat separately.

When supper time came, it turned out that Madalena and I, along with three Norwegians and our guides, were the guests of honor, seated at the head table with two priests and the two seniors sisters, or mothers, or whatever you call them. The sisters, who were seated in rows as if for a show, started the evening with an African song that gave me chills and nearly tears. They stood and stepped and swayed to the left and right, while one sister beat time on a drum with a stick and her hand. After a prayer by one of the fathers, we ate slow roasted pork, vegetables, rice, chips, and sauces, and we drank soda or the sisters’ homemade wine.

After we ate we were in fact given a show: two more songs and four plays – not the five-minute sketches I’m used to from Bible camp, but each one 20 minutes or more, full of humor, overacting, and a clear Christian message. I moved over to sit by one of the head sisters, who kept encouraging me to “Drinki more winey!” and held out her own cup saying “Give-a me more!” She tried to tell me what was happening in the plays, but her English was not very good.

The next day Isa summarized three of the four plays. (I couldn’t remember enough of the third one to ask about it.) The first involved a rich family of a priest who hoarded offering money for himself instead of sharing with a poor family. The second, performed by some visiting brothers, showed three young men gambling on the ground in crooked hats and saggy jeans. A priest showed them the error of their ways (after one of them fell asleep during his sermon), and they got converted. (I’m pretty sure I heard John 3:16 in Swahili.) They pulled their pants up, adjusted their hats, and set off on the straight and narrow. The final play showed sick women coming for healing to the sisters, who said they would pray for them, then going to the traditional healers, who tried to charge a million shillings for their services. When they heard the price, the women were miraculously cured.

My summaries don’t do justice to the humor and the detail and the well-rehearsed performances.

Finally the party was over – almost – and I could politely excuse myself. Before I did, though, my sister friend pulled up the tablecloth on a table behind us, revealing a giant sound system. She hit “play,” and loud hiphop rhythms filled the room, and the sisters streamed forward and started dancing with all the joy of secular girls their age. I won’t call it dirty dancing, but they were shaking their tailfeathers like they were in a Harlem nightclub. Isa and Madalena and I stared open-mouthed at each other. Isa, a Muslim who drinks (moderately), was amazed that the sisters were dancing to African pop. He texted his friends, who didn’t believe what he was telling them. Madalena, more accustomed to the nuns of her native Portugal, was equally stunned. I’m used to stories of stern German teachers from Central Minnesota smacking schoolchildren’s knuckles with rulers.

After 20 crazy minutes, it was over, and the sisters came back to earth, politely wishing us “usiku mwema” – “good night.”

I went outside to the glow of the wine and the moon and the stars, but feeling like I’d experienced the hallucinations of an acid trip. It was a bizarre gift of joy and rich life and rhythm and harmony – one of the oddest evenings of my 52 years.

I walked in the moonlight to my room, turned off the light, and lay down in dead silence. A door opened and nun shoes clicked down the hallways. Voices rose and fell in conversation. It didn’t seem to bother them that an old Mzungu was sharing their dorm, or their bathroom.

I’m not very religious (or “spiritual”) anymore, but Easter with the Rangwi sisters was a pearl of great price – a reminder of the value of filling your ears with music and feeding your spirit with stories of high places.

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