Looking Back, Series

Looking Back: The House of God

By Nick Twinamatsiko, Uganda:

The white-washed, oblong structure snugly nestled at the common foot of the village hills was the church. It had narrow, stained-glass windows, timber doors and a pitched roof of rusty iron sheets. On the upper side of it ran the village feeder road, and on the lower side was a large compound which was used as a break-time playground by pupils of the adjacent primary school, and on the opposite side of which was the home of the catechist. The church had two doors, one opening into the 10 metre track that connected to the feeder road, and the other opening into the compound. A few meters away from the door that opened into the compound was a huge, ancient tree. It's probable that the first village converts had gathered under that tree for the maiden services.

The construction of the physical church had been a drawn out process, with the believers contributing the construction materials in modest installments Sunday after Sunday, and worshipping in the designated space even before the commencement of bricklaying. Even now, when the iron sheets had been on for so long that they were developing pores, and walls had stood for so long that one could perceive cracks in the whitewash, the construction was incomplete: appeals were regularly made for bags of cement so that a screed could be laid on the ground floor which was still of compacted earth and on which pupils often spread a layer of diluted cow dung.

Many years later, when the construction finally got complete, it was time to demolish, for the Christians could no longer fit in the structure, and a new one had to be erected in the erstwhile compound, on the other side of the ancient tree.

On weekdays, the church was usually closed and empty. Every morning we were baptized in its quiet spiritual ambience as we approached our classrooms. It’s strange that, even after such baptisms, we still became rowdy as the day wore on, and made such a din during break time that it was though we were defying the serenity of the sacred place. Stranger still is that whenever, by some complete coincidence of breaks in conversations, the whole class happened to become quiet in a teacher’s absence, the explanation rendered, on the resumption of chatter, was that the devil had just slipped past. Apparently the devil hated sound and managed to make everyone quiet as he stole past. But what would the devil have been doing in such sacred quarters? After school, we would again get washed in the spiritual aura as we scurried homeward, and cessation of juvenile bustle would, it seemed, leave the holy place and its environs to evenings and nights of utter desolation.

The desolation would reign throughout Saturdays. But, on Sunday mornings, it would give way to bursts of vibrant life as the drummers ardently struck away on the instruments that were hooked onto a low branch of the great tree in the church compound. The throbs would radiate up every hill, and worshippers would begin to make their way down the footpaths on the hillsides and to enter through the doors that would have been flung wide open.

The construction of the church was a matter of collective effort, but, with furniture, every family had had to make individual arrangements – to bring their own furniture to the church. This means that the furniture was almost as varied as the worshippers, and that the sitting positions were permanent. Anyone that entered through the doors had a clear sense of direction – knew exactly which chair they had to make a bee-line for. The differences in financial circumstances of the villagers were reflected in the differences of the furniture they had brought to the church. There were even those who could not afford to bring furniture to the church and these always took their humble places on mats laid out on the ground in front of the pulpit.

The vestry was adjacent to the entrance at the door that opened towards the feeder road. A long aisle ran from that entrance to the other end of the church, terminating at the altar, behind which was a high chair which was used by the catechist or the retired Reverend. High on the wall against which the back of the high chair pressed was a nail from which was hooked a wooden board on which was chalked the index numbers of the hymns to be sang. On both sides of the aisle in front of the altar were the forms used by choir members.

At around 10 am, there would be a measure of noise in the church as clothes rustled and furniture was moved and little pleasantries were exchanged and some babies squealed, as the congregants settled in. It's the loud voice of the catechist at the doorway of the vestry inaugurating the service that always established order and silence. The congregants would stand and their voices would collectively rise in a hymn as the clergy made their procession to the other end of the church.

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