Looking Back, Series

Looking Back: The Miracle of Sabbiti

By Nick Twinamatsiko, Uganda:

Sunday was considered the Sabbath, and strictly observed as such. There were no Seventh Day Adventists in the village or neighboring villages to try to dissuade us from this belief. But even if they had been there, and had tried, they would have found it impossible to convince anyone. Unlike the English nomenclature for the days of the week which takes no sides on the Sabbath question, the nomenclature in our language, probably influenced by the early Anglican and Roman catholic missions, takes an obvious position: directly translated, the word for Monday is First day, for Tuesday it's second day, and so forth until Saturday, whose word directly translates to sixth day. Following the pattern, Sunday should be called by a word that translates to seventh day, but it is instead called by the vernacular translation of the word Sabbath. Indeed, that translation, Sabbiti, is often given as a name to babies born on Sundays.

The debate on which day of the week is the Sabbath is one that I encountered much later in life; in the village of my childhood it would have been a non-starter. On Sundays, the adults, in imitation of God, rested from their toils in the fields. If, on a Sunday, you found anyone weeding in the matoke plantations or digging in the fields or picking coffee seeds, you needed no further evidence that he or she was a pagan. If anyone had committed that sacrilege, the event would have quickly become the talk of the village, drawing much consternation and censure. But no one ever desecrated the Sabbath – at least not when I was a child.

Sabbiti was, by far, my favorite day of the week. By the age of four, I had observed enough Sabbitis to firmly associate the day with beauty and serenity and propriety. On this day of rest, everyone wore their best – even the people that, on other days, were to be seen in ragged or patched clothes as they wandered through the village tracks managed to look respectable on Sabbiti as they purposefully strode to or from the house of prayer. Besides looking good, people became good on Sabbiti. The usually shabby man probably doubled as the village bully, and on Sabbiti, he not only dressed decently, but also managed to behave decently. Perhaps it had to do with the suspension of the stress of work, but on Sabbiti, nearly everyone behaved more kindly, and talked more nicely and smiled more liberally than usual. And sworn enemies, notorious for exchanging infernal insults and threats, could, on Sabbiti, stand together before the congregation and announce the burial of the hatchet. People who, on other days, would each be busy with their pursuits, could, on meeting on the roads on Sabbiti, have prolonged pleasantries and spontaneously burst into the Luganda hymn Tukutendereza, which had been the theme of the East African revival of a few decades before.

Whether Sabbiti dawned in a drizzle or a clear sky, it was most welcome. Even amidst the chill of a rainy morning, one could sense its warmth. Even amidst the clatter of raindrops on the tin roof, one could sense the serenity of this day of rest. And when the skies were clear, the first pristine rays that came in through the ventilators weren't an invitation to the toils of the fields, but an invitation to step out and simply behold the glory of creation and join other men in worship of the creator.

At around 8 am, the first throbs of church drums would jig through the village air. Whether it was the power of experience, or that of sheer talent, the drummers always did a fantastic job, sending out rhythms that were as remarkable for their spatial reach as for their musical range. Like other little children getting acclimatized to the realities of life, I savored these early sounds of Sabbiti, and my body sometimes followed my heart in jigging along with the throbs as they came through the air.

The third drums sounded at around 10am, by which time there would be streams of well-dressed people in all the roads and hillside tracks, all of them descending onto the church. The drums had come to us, and we would now be going to them. The next two hours were always the high point of Sabbiti: we prayed, or rather chorused our amens as the leaders prayed for the sick and the president of Uganda and the Queen of England – we listened to sermons that were never short of drama, with the preacher, intent on stressing certain verses, alternating between giving the reader the red light and the green light – we witnessed public confessions and responded with the chorus of Tukundereza – we sang glorious hymns, which had been composed by long dead Englishmen and whose stirring tunes had been preserved in the translation.

Such was the powerful way Sabbiti changed the people and the mood in my village, so different was it from the other days of the week, that I am wholly justified in saying that the day itself was a miracle – as profound a miracle as any we read in the gospels.

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