God with us on the Love Boat

Sometimes I’m too clever for my own good. When I was new here and one of the guards introduced himself as Immanuel, I said, “God with us.” He taught me how to say it in Kiswahili, “Mungu pomoja nasi,” which I later saw on the windshield of a dala-dala, one of the many Toyota Hiace vans that serve as public transportation.

After my two weeks away, I still remembered the phrase, so when I saw Immanuel I said, “Mungu pomoja nasi.” I’m not sure if he knew I was riffing on his name, but his eyes lit up, and he invited me to church — kanisa. “Sure,” I said. “Sawa.”

So he told me he’d pick me up at 7 a.m. He was at my gate at 6:50, which meant I didn’t even finish my instant coffee before we were walking out to the main road and flagging down a car. Immanuel is a soft-spoken fellow, but he visited with the driver and his family, who he said were friends of his. They parked in town, said goodbye, and filed into their own church building.

Immanuel had told me his church was out by TPC, a giant sugar cane plantation with a sugar factory and miles of fields and houses and villages for the people who worked there. I wasn’t sure why he’d go to church so far away, but I didn’t know how to ask.

We walked a couple blocks to a row of dala dalas — one of the few means of transportation I hadn’t yet experienced in Tanzania. These things are everywhere, and they all look like they’ve been through a war, and they’re always packed to the gills, and most of them have strange names like “Mungu pomoja nasi” or “Neema something Mungu” (Grace of God) or “Mungu ni Mwema” (God is Good) or (if it’s owned by a Muslim) “Maashallah” or some other Arabic phrase. I’ve seen Mother Mary on the back windows, and Fidel Castro, and “Paradigm” and many soccer players from the English Premier League on rigs named “Chelsea” or “Arsenal” or “Manchester United.

Our chariot was called “The Love Boat,” and we were the first aboard, which meant it wouldn’t be leaving for a while. Rather than running on a schedule, they wait until they’re full before departing. So after we sat there for a few minutes, Immanuel led me into a little restaurant and bought me chai and a couple chapatis. While we were sitting there we were joined by a guy named Simon, who is from Immanuel’s home district. Simon is a Lutheran minister, and Immanuel invited him along on our trip to be the translator. I was happy to have him there, since his English was quite a bit better than my host’s.

Finally the Love Boat shipped off, and along the way we picked up Immanuel’s wife, Miriam. I gathered that Immanuel had made the long journey to my house in the morning just to be my escort. Every seat was full, but there weren’t a lot of people out, so it didn’t stop to take on more passengers, thankfully. I noticed that Immanuel was reading parts of Genesis and Isaiah in his Bible.

We got out in a place that looked like the end of the road, a small sandy village up against a row of green mountains. We were the first ones at the church, which said “Assembly of God,” and Simon and I were given a place of honor beside the small raised platform at the front. On the pulpit were the words “Jesu anaweza yote,” “Jesus can do all.” The back of the church was full of junk, and many of the colored “stained plastic” windows were broken out. The chairs were plastic.

I figured it would be a while before the service started, since there were only about five of us in the room, but this was not the case. Immanuel went outside, and his wife started talking to the “crowd.” Simon said she was telling them to pray for Tanzania, because the Muslims are trying to get Sharia law recognized in the new Constitution.

After her speech, everyone except Simon and me got down on hands and knees and started praying loudly. As I sat with my eyes closed, another voice joined the chorus, a loud, authoritative, impassioned man moving back and forth on the little stage. I peeked, and it was Immanuel, my shy and soft-spoken friend. Of course, I thought. He travels all the way out here because he’s the pastor, an evangelist to this little village.

Long, long story short, we were there for four hours. After the initial prayer and a couple nice songs, we had about an hour of “Sunday school” led by a guy with a big smile and a habit of swinging his fist with his arm cocked at the elbow, like a coach giving a pep talk. He spoke about Abraham and Lot, and Simon whispered impromptu translations in my ear.

After that more people showed up, about 50 or so, and what followed was a lot of singing — much of it, unfortunately, accompanied by a karaoke-style soundtrack on a fancy sound system that was out of place in the run-down church. Immanuel gave a long sermon, which was fun, because I could try to pick up Swahili words from Simon’s translations. The theme was “Do not fear,” “Siogopi.” Following was another prayer, with all 50 kneeling and crying out and practically rending their garments. Simon told me some of them were speaking in tongues, but I couldn’t tell. After that, Miriam spoke for a while, and they invited me and Simon up to introduce ourselves. I spoke in Swahili, and the crowd went wild with cheers and ululations.

Simon gave a prayer and the benediction, and he told me later with a subversive grin that he did parts of the Lutheran liturgy. He said the Pentecostals at the church would be intrigued that a Lutheran minister had participated in their service.

As things wound down, I was glad I’d be heading home to get some work done, but we sat there for another 45 minutes as the Sunday school teacher begged, pleaded, and cajoled the parishioners to pledge food for a meeting of churches that would be taking place at the church.

And then someone brought pop, so we sat there for another 20 minutes before slowly wandering back to the dala dala stop, and waiting for it to leave, and rattling back through the sugar cane, this time stopping along the way until there were 26 of us crammed in the 15-passenger van. Immanuel told me he wants me to help him start a school for orphans at the church. I smiled and nodded.

Along the way, Simon gave me some troubling news: We would not be heading home right away because Immanuel and his wife wanted us to come to their house to eat. I was not about to be an ungrateful American, so I didn’t say anything. We got off in a little slum between TPC and Moshi and walked along winding paths through small stucco houses with metal roofs, and goats and chickens and children and dirty water running in ditches.

As we walked, Simon said, “No hurry in Africa,” a saying you hear a lot in these parts. I asked for the Swahili translation, which is “hakuna haraka.” I’d heard both words before: “Hakuna matata” (made famous by Disney) or “hakuna shida” means “no problem,” and “haraka haraka” means quickly, the opposite of the more acceptable pace of “pole pole.”

Their house was small and simple but well appointed with matching sofa and chairs and a bed crammed in the living room, and an entertainment center with broken glass and handles, and a small Panasonic TV. After we sat down, Immanuel put in a DVD, and what followed might have been the longest two hours of my life.

The DVD showed a tent meeting hosted by Immanuel’s church in a Maasai village. It started off with singing — beautiful songs sullied by the cheesy soundtrack. The recording was bad, and so was the speaker on the Panasonic, so my ears were bleeding after ten minutes.

Unfortunately, it only got worse. The music was followed by a sermon by Miriam, an old-school Pentacostal shouting and testifying, translated by a skinny guy in a suit, just as loud and passionate as Miriam. It went on for a full hour, sounding like two people hollering at each other in two languages I didn’t know, while Immanuel talked on his cell phone in Swahili and Simon listened quietly, occasionally letting me know what they were talking about.

I couldn’t imagine what was taking the food so long, and I was having a hard time keeping my impatience to myself. Finally, two interminable hours later, the house girl brought a bowl of rice, a small dish of spinach, and three bowls of fish stew. Immanuel and Simon got catfish, and I got something that looked like a rock bass but with less meat on its bones. It was delicious, because every bite meant I would soon be on my way.

After we’d eaten, I leaned over to Simon and told him I really needed to go home because I was supposed to talk to my family on the phone, and I asked him to help me excuse myself politely. He confessed that he’d also been looking for an exit, and he gave a long speech in Kiswahili to our hosts. Miriam escorted us part way to the dala dala, and Simon took his leave to visit an uncle. Immanuel and I sat waiting in another dala dala for 20 minutes, which brought us to the city center. Immanuel got me situated in another dala dala to get home and we said goodbye.

I got home at dark, which is too late for me to be out walking, but I couldn’t resist. I headed down to Woodland for a beer.

I’m not sure which of my friends coined the term “sweetest beer of the week” for the one we’d drink after attending church back in the old days. But I do know I’ve never tasted sweeter.

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