Expedition to Yapleu
Trip Start Sep 15, 2011
26Trip End Oct 21, 2011
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We turned off the main road to the right onto a dirt road, heading west. Five minutes on the dirt road brought us to a tiny village where there is a group of people interested in the Church. Séussié Bleu was well known in his previous church community, so when he began keeping the seventh day Sabbath, and changing various other practices, it attracted the attention of others who knew and respected him. The core of this small group is in that category of people.
We parked and met with those interested, under an open-sided thatched roof in a small clearing. One of the interested people was the village chief who had granted this group a parcel of ground on which to build a church hall. It is being cleared now, and will soon hold a mud brick structure in which these villagers can hold their services. One of the ladies asked for financial assistance to build their structure, there is always such a request. I smiled and said we would see.
The visit only lasted about 20 minutes, but it was important to them to meet the white pastor. Whether it should be that way or not, it gives them a sense of legitimacy about what they're doing. It means they’re not alone in believing and practicing what they do. There are people, even in the west, that believe as they do. Also, many if not most churches in Africa are sponsored by groups someplace else, and people have come to expect that backing and support. This is true of Muslim as well as Christian groups. So local people want to see that some group is backing local work. I spoke to them briefly and encouraged them to continue studying the Bible. I was told most of them don’t have Bibles of their own. That is something with which I will help them. For about $10 each, we can get them French Bibles and a zippered cases to protect them from dirt and the elements. When one lives in a mud-brick, thatched roof house, the Bible case is very important.
When I was 19 and a volunteer teacher in a refugee camp in northern Thailand, I clearly remember a Thai soldier’s M16 going off unexpectedly near me because he wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing; carrying a chambered round and the safety off. No one was hit, but it could easily have happened. I’ve been very muzzle-conscious ever since.
The soldiers also ride their motorcycles at pretty high speed. We came close to having one as a hood ornament, when he came whipping around a blind corner and just missed us. Not far from Yapleu we come to an impressively chancy-looking bridge made simply from tree trunks laid side by side and covered with dirt.
We finally arrived in Yapleu a little after 09:00. Most of the congregation was at their newly repaired church hall. It is done in mud brick but very neatly, with much more attention to quality than one usually sees in such structures. The banana leaf roof was very sharply done. Two drummers were beating their instruments which are locally called tam-tams, and members formed two parallel lines so we could walk between then and shake hands with each person as we did.
We sat in the shade of the thatched roof and the members sang and danced to the drums to welcome us. After an appropriate time, they ended the music and Séussié, Paul and I took turns speaking. I talked about the blessing of unity and also briefly about the fall festivals, to encourage them to observe and learn about them.
Following our brief addresses to the congregation, we began baptismal counseling. 10 people has requested help in preparing to be baptized and 3 more added their names at the last minute. For about the next five hours without a break, we talked with one person after the other. We were only able to counsel 9 of the 13, it was not possible to do more with the time we had. I was happy to see that two men understood the commitment and meaning of the rite, and had fulfilled the conditions mentioned in the Bible.
So, between 2:30 and 3:00 pm, I changed into some shorts and we headed down to the stream where I had previously conducted baptisms. We drive a km or so and then walk about 10 minutes on a narrow path through fields and trees to the stream. Tropical sunlight filtered through the trees spread over the gently running water, which was slightly brown and red with tannins leached from the trees, some of which grow in the stream itself
Word has gone out that something usual is happening, so more and more children arrive all the time. By the time the church members arrive there must be 50 curious children gathered to watch, on both banks of the stream and even up in the trees. One member of about my shoe size offers to lend me his plastic sandals, which I accept for the ceremony. When it is time to begin we ask everyone to be quiet. I first ask a blessing on the ceremony, which is translated phrase by phrase. Then Paul and step down into the surprisingly cold water and baptize Vincent Dion, and Séraphim Dina. As we come out of the water, the ladies want to start celebrating already, but I ask them to wait until I have laid hands on the men in prayer and ask God to give them the gift of His Holy Spirit. I asked that the prayer be translated. Both Vincent and Séraphim understand French quite well, but most of the church members do not.
Once we have finished and I congratulate our two new brothers, I motion to the ladies that they can start celebrating, and the drumming and singing and dancing starts.
The ladies from the congregation put their best pagnes around our necks as celebratory decoration. The pagne used to be literally speaking a loincloth for both sexes, but has taken on other meanings and uses, some of them as in this case ceremonial. We all walk back up the footpath to the main dirt road that goes through the village. Vincent and Séraphim and I are directed to walk three abreast, with ladies dancing in front of us, men on both sides and behind, and children running all over the place. Everyone is singing, some ladies are ululating, all with great enthusiasm in the particular, natural harmonies of Africa. It is a sort of victory celebration and the joy on people’s faces is evident. Villagers along the way stop what they’re doing and stare at us; some other women even join in the songs.
We arrive at Séussié’s home, and the dancing and singing continues as the ladies move in undulating circles. We are ushered in under a roof, and offered chairs. As we sit, we are served chicken in greens on rice. A woman brings plates. They are plastic and deeply scarred and long past the point where they can be cleaned very well. Someone notices and scoots off to borrow better plates. She returns with two in stainless steel. They have been washed, and are still wet, as is the flatware. I dry them off on a cloth; the water would almost certainly cause me problems here. I eat enough to be polite. It is an honor to be served chicken, which is a rare and expensive luxury.
We eat and chat and I congratulate Vincent and Séraphim again, and take their photo. Soon it is almost 16:00, and time to head back so we can be through off the dangerous section of road before darkness.
We renegotiate the dirt road in a light rain and make it back to the pavement in good time. The drive back to Man is uneventful. At the customs checkpoint and the intersection just before Man, it is obvious that the soldiers have been celebrating their Sunday. One of them comes to the driver’s side, a little unsteady on his feet. He respectfully pulls his red beret off his head with both hands and a smile, and introduces himself very politely in slurred French. He rambles, but the obvious point is that he would like us to contribute toward his next beer. At least he’s a happy drunk, not another kind.
Séussié makes a non-committal reply about how we’re in a hurry now, but we’ll see him again sometime, we’ll be around, and so on. This sinks in slowly, and the soldier salutes us and waves us on. We can see other soldiers chasing each other around and jumping on each other’s backs with loud laughter. Some are still wearing their assault rifles….
Back at the hotel, I have a meeting with Paul and Séussié about some local issues. One was something I observed as we met in Yapleu. They used a phrase in French “acclamons le Seigneur” which means to “cheer, acclaim or applaud” the Lord. In English the phrase is translated “joyfully shout”, “make a joyful noise” or “extol with music and song.” But in evangelical circles here in Ivory Coast they construe acclamer as applaud, which it can mean in French the context of a theater or a performance of some kind. So several times in their services the speaker will ask everyone to do so, and they all applaud. I explain the meaning of the Hebrew expression and how we believe it should be understood. They were very happy to learn something they didn’t know. “We have been through other churches before” said Paul “sometimes we assume that things we learned there are right, but we don’t want to assume, so we are happy you are clarifying these things.”
This opened the door for other questions they had, and they ask quite a number. What about saying “amen” and “hallelujah” during services? What kind of music should be used, how should it be chosen? It is ok to use drums for the music during services? What does it mean to “raise your voice” (Isa 13:2), when is that appropriate and how is it different from “shouting for joy” or “making a joyful noise” which are mentioned is the Psalms? Is it acceptable to go to funeral wakes, what general rules should apply? We had a very helpful practical discussion for about an hour. They were able to ask many questions and we covered quite a number of issues that are important locally.
As the sun set we headed back to our maquis. The food took even longer than usual to prepare. We were all tired. The drive was tiring, and the long counseling sessions were tiring too. Concentrating for that many hours without a break, working through translation and so on is work. While we waited we noticed that there were quite a few inebriated soldiers and policemen around, and even several UN soldiers were in the thick of it. When our food finally arrived we eagerly fell on it, and made pretty short work of it. It was a pleasant end to a long, but useful day.