Friday, January 19, 2007

Joy Amidst Ruins

Some friends and I traveled up-country to Zorzor, to spend New Year's with a friend who helps run a small hospital. Zorzor is in Lofa county, which was one of the areas most destroyed during Liberia's Civil War. We traveled three hours down a bumpy red dust road to get there. As you walk through the dirt streets of Zorzor you can see that it once had nice buildings and businesses, you see steps and foundations, sometimes half crumbled walls peppered with bullet holes. And in these ruins people have remade their homes. The traditional mud, stick, and thatch houses are built in-between and on top of the ruins. Small businesses or homes have been made in bombed out buildings even if they have no roof. But all of that is just the backdrop on which Zorzor is painted. Within that canvas, life goes on. The town teems with activity, people, and bright colors. As we walked through the streets on our way to church on Sunday morning, we were greeted enthusiastically by people along the road. One of my students ran up to us to say hello, so proud that I had come to his home town. I wanted to tell him how much I liked Zorzor, but I couldn't think of the right words to use, because we generally comment on the "niceness" or beauty of a town. The beauty of Zorzor is in the people, and it positively glows.

In church I saw more enthusiasm, and joyfulness than I have yet encountered in Liberia. We were crowded into the only part of the church that had been re-roofed, but they still found room for dancing. During announcements one man stood up to say that he and his wife had been in exile in a neighboring country since the war, and they had just moved home. When he shouted "Praise the Lord" we all shouted, "Amen!" The rhythm of the drum and shakers and the chanting, wailing, joyful sound of the music in the local language, flowed into each of us. The lady in front of me had a baby tied to her back (as is the custom here). The baby slept soundly as her mother danced and clapped, and a very small child standing just outside the door, was swaying to the rhythm. The same rhythm we were all experiencing and joining in, connected us. It was worship and community, joy, frustration, hope, longing. It couldn't be ignored, it was impossible to keep from joining in the stamping and the clapping and the swaying.

At 9:00 at night, we walked back to church for the New Year's eve "watch night service" which is the biggest attended service of the year. The town looked so different by the light of the moon and a few generator powered light bulbs. Everything looked softer, more lived in, less pock marked by bullet holes. The church was already full of people dancing and singing. When they saw us the crowd opened so we could be led to the seats they had saved for us. All the children were in the back of the church dancing, and they came running up to touch our skin, and squeal with laughter. The sanctuary was loosely defined by the crumbling walls, and the ceiling was the night sky. When the music and dancing paused for testimonies or sermons, the speakers had to compete with the boom boxes blaring just across the street, but when the congregation started singing, there was nothing that could compete with it. For the last ten minutes before midnight, we sat in silent prayer. It was a powerful contrast, silence isn't something you find much of around here. Then they rang the bell (an empty propane tank) 12 times, (only someone miscounted and it was 13). Everyone lit candles and processed around the town, chanting and doing a shuffling sort of dance. There was so much hugging, I was amazed that no one's head tie or shirt caught on fire. The pastor warned us before we headed out that the Catholics and Pentecostals would also be processing with candles, and that they were our friends, so if we noticed that any of them had a small fire on them, we should put it out.

My time in Zorzor was peaceful, and joyful. I saw people working together; I saw progress being made. It strengthened me for my return to teaching after the break. I feel like Zorzor has changed me, and I hope that if I look the right way, I can see that same joy other places too.

I hope that the new year brings you more than the post-holiday let down, dieting, and resolutions. I hope that you too will be struck by the abundant joy that can be found in what seems like the most unlikely of places. That's epiphany!