At some point in my theocratic career I had failed to see it. I had never noticed how happy the sight of a convention badge can make someone, really, everyone. As we walked into the Bethel dining room the Friday morning of our convention, every face that saw us lit up like the dawn itself. We were the first in the family to go to the biggest event of the year, and everyone knew it.
I had been so busy with work that the day seemed to sneak up on me. Jes was ready though, and had all of our books and lunch ready to go out the door the night before. She never forgets anything.
Despite my absentmindedness, I had been looking forward to this convention for a long time. We had listened to a recording but it just wasn’t the same. All of the other internationals had gone home this year to enjoy the convention with their families. They came back with lots of good news, new publications and a few extra pounds. Frisco, our resident Spaniard, even brought back a 15 lb. Serrano ham – yum! Now there’s a man with priorities.
Additionally, Jes and I have found that in a place with no discernible change in seasons, it’s good to have things to look forward to, to mark the passage of time. On the world’s waistline, sunrise and sunset move by only a few minutes through the year. We have a dry season and a rainy season, but nothing really changes except the amount of rain; both are incredibly humid. We left the United States when spring was waking up and winter was putting on its pajamas, so the last nine months have felt like one long, bland summer. The constant sweat and grime and the feeling that you’re camping all the time begins to wear on you. I miss the changing leaves and the return to cool weather. I miss hot chocolate and fireplaces, but most of all, I miss snow. I miss the feeling of it on my face and catching it on my tongue. I miss the way it humbles New York City and glistens in Jesenia’s hair when we walk on the Heights Promenade. Maybe that’s why they are called “seasons”, because they give life such delicious flavor.
Conventions here are held in December. By then the torrential rains have stopped, and it’s a little cooler in the morning. Cooler is a relative term; it was already very muggy, and the sun was hot. We had taken measures to deal with the heat and the mosquitoes: neem oil and lots of powder and cologne. I never used to wear cologne before I came here, but heaven knows – I do now.
To enter the property, you must first pass through the neighborhood market. When we arrived, it was just waking up. Women were placing their vegetables and hand-made soap in neat rows. Others were tying up bundles of manioc leaves, sweet carrots and bunches of garlic. The market generates a lot of trash, and much of it gets piled in front of our property. Brothers are constantly out there to collect it and dispose of it properly. The market is loud and disorderly; in contrast, you feel like you’ve entered paradise when you pass through the gates. The lawn is full of hibiscus and perfumed roses and plenty of palms. There’s no shortage of shade and a steady stream of butterflies, hummingbirds and egrets visit through the day. The atmosphere is truly family-like; everyone greeted us with smiles of cheer and blessing and the typical Central African snapping handshake and headbutt. Yes, you read that correctly. Watch and see.
Our Assembly Hall is typical of what you’ll find in many tropical countries with limited resources. Since its only purpose is to keep the sun and rain out while letting the light and breeze in, it is an open-air structure. There is no auditorium lighting. It seats about 2,000 on long wooden benches. The Hall makes no apologies for a lack of amenities. If it’s too hot, drink more. If the bench it too hard, eat more. Note – the latter solution will make the first problem worse. There is also a Kingdom Hall and a few offices that are mainly used for storage. An area up front is set aside for signing ASL, and the nursing mothers’ section is the whole auditorium.
The sanitary block is waterless. All of the toilets are squat type, with raised blocks for your feet and a hole in the middle. Below is a large room where the waste disposal is done entirely by bacteria. Behind each stall is a tall vent pipe that is painted black and heats in the sun. This solar powered ventilation creates an upward draft through the pipe and pulls air in through the squat holes. En principe, you should never “get wind” of the process going on below. There is an access door in case you drop your sunglasses.
Sinks are mounted on the wall outside. The spigot handles are used primarily for holding little plastic cups, since city water is very irregular out here. Two barrels provide water for washing and drinking. The local soap is made from fatty tallow and requires some skill to rinse it off and juggle the cup at the same time. Dry your hands with the sun and the wind. Mercifully, there are no mirrors.
The hall has a metal roof that heats and radiates downward, like a broiler. By 8:00 a.m. the heat was stifling. I felt like I was wearing a polyester cap and mittens and sitting in a vat of hot, melted cheese. By 8:30 I felt like I was trying to breathe the hot melted cheese. I tried to maintain an appreciative attitude. All around the world, people are paying money to sit in saunas to enjoy heat like this. No doubt few of them are dressed in their Sunday best.
The Sango badge cards have an interesting translation. It says “Ala lango pëpe!” which literally means “Don’t you sleep!” and sounds like it should be followed by a rap on the forehead. In the somnolent warmth it was good to see this reminder on every person we met.
Over the fence lives a poulterer. Mid-afternoon he burns a big pile of chicken feathers. You know he’s started when a giant plume of acrid smoke rolls over the wall and through the crowd. That has got to be one of the worst smells ever imagined. As usual it was Jes to the rescue. She had brought a pack of watermelon bubblegum, sent in a care package by my mother. I don’t normally recommend chewing gum during a District Convention, but desperate times call for desperate measures. It wasn’t all bad, though. Every cloud has a silver lining, even the smelly ones. The mosquitoes didn’t like the smoke either. Later, the Catholic Church down the road fired up a calliope and a thunderous bass and played carousel music all afternoon. Through the vehicle entrance, I could see a group of teenage girls practicing a traditional dance with the typical elbow-flapping, chest-thrusting, and pelvic gyrations. Later I inquired as to what they were rehearsing. Of course, I should have known – it was a dance for Sunday Mass.
Africa is a continent of superlatives and Africans like to do things large and loud. Backstage, we only had one speaker to listen to the program, but it was enough. All three days it blasted the talks and music at an ear-shattering volume; the auditorium was no different. I thought about going to the sound booth to help the brother adjust it, but no doubt he was very proud that everyone, perhaps even a few miles away, could hear the program clearly. And why diminish his joy over a job well done? In any case, after a few minutes I had lost enough hearing to make the volume almost comfortable. In Bangui, problems just seem to fix themselves.
Of utmost importance in Central African culture is how you appear when you dress up. Poverty is no excuse for looking dirty, disheveled, or undignified. Everyone makes new garments for the occasion. The more colors, sequins and beads you can combine, the better; there’s no such thing as too much color or embellishment. Everything is scrubbed spotless and immaculately pressed. Then there’s the hair – O, the hair! It’s braided, beaded, straightened, colored, ironed and woven into astonishingly elaborate creations. For some this process might take an entire day and can be quite painful. Others take a shortcut and buy a ready-made coif and pin it in place. Why all the fuss? It’s not to attract attention, but to tell everyone you meet “I’m so happy that I’m here.”
Central Africans use the word “sape” (sah-pay) like we would say “decked-out” and it literally means “complete”. This does not necessarily mean that brothers must wear a full suit. Few have the means, so a sport coat is acceptable for talks. I even saw a tuxedo, a velvet smoking jacket, and some checkered double-knit over the course of the program. It does however include shoes that shine brilliantly, no easy task in a country where you walk ankle deep in mud seven months out of the year and ankle deep in dust the other five months. The backstage area may be sparingly furnished and dimly lit, but it has a bench with several colors of shoe polish on it – including white! It also has a foot level mirror, the only mirror on the whole property. This had me a little worried. Since we came with just a few suitcases and our effects have not yet arrived, all I had were the two pairs of shoes I brought that favored field service and were barely passable for the meetings. Neither pair would shine, and they looked more like tennis shoes than dress shoes. Not to worry. This was one place where the humidity really helped me out. Before I went on stage, I glanced down one last time at my dowdy, unshiny shoes, only to discover that they were completely enshrouded. My pants legs had grown a few inches and were now piled in concertina-like folds about my ankles. I waddled out on stage, and the talk went fine.
We had a wonderful surprise the last day of the convention. Saturday night, I called one of my studies, De Rossi, to remind him that I would be at the convention and we would have to wait until next week to continue the study. I had also promised him a Bible which would have to wait as well. I had invited him to the convention before, but he was noncommittal. This time his interested piqued. He asked the time and place again and assured me he would come. Sunday morning, while waiting for Jesenia outside the bathrooms, I felt a hand on my arm and turned around to see De Rossi’s broad smile. He sat with us the whole day and looked up every scripture in his new Bible. It both pleased and surprised him to discover that several of his friends from the university are studying the Bible as well. He paid rapt attention to the talks on prophecy, and the drama was a home run. Play the video to hear how the audience gets into it.
Afterward, I mused over our first District Convention on the equator. Through the dust and the sweat, I think I enjoyed this assembly as much or more than any other. The drama was a tremendous success, and in spite of the boiler room weather, I think all 2,528 had goosebumps when the new songs were sung. Thirty-two were baptized at this convention and two at the French convention. The figures are encouraging from Chad as well. The season has come and gone and we have more big things to anticipate. We have three more couples and two single brothers coming in January to help with the construction. All are Aussies, so you know they’ll be fun. Another bethelite-in-foreign-service will come from France as well. After that, a sister will visit from Sweden who is a hairstylist – the sisters are beside themselves with this news! February brings the Zone Visit; in March we have the Project Overseer visit and finally our Circuit Assembly, when the weather will be twenty degrees hotter. Big things are on the horizon. Life is beginning to feel “seasoned”.
Later in the week, as I mentally thumbed the pages of our calendar, I looked up and caught sight of a few small white butterflies. Then another appeared, and another, until there were probably ten thousand in the air all at once. It was their migration and they were headed south to the top of the mountain to mate. Someone had told me we were entering the butterfly season, but I didn’t know what that meant until this very moment. I couldn’t pull myself away from the phenomena to get my camera so I just stood there dumbstruck and drank it up. It was absolutely beautiful and lasted only about twenty minutes. It may not have been a blizzard and there was no fireplace or hot chocolate, but in my heart, it was snow.
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