The beauty and ugliness of Christianity in Salone

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This won’t be a detailed post, as I know very little about Christianity in Sierra Leone and haven’t had much experience with it. I thought I’d just write about two different times I’ve brushed up against it, one ugly and one beautiful.

One evening not long after I arrived in Sierra Leone I was riding on a the shared van/taxi they call a poda poda. The man I was sitting next to stood up, holding a heavy Bible in his hands. For a minute I thought he was getting off – but no. It was time for a sermon.

He launched into a formulaic routine for all the passengers. It went something like, “Are you a murderer? In the eyes of the Lord, that is a sin and you are a sinner. Repent in the name of Jesus Christ before it is too late.” And then, using that as a template, he proceeded to rail against all the “sins” you can think of: theft, rape, corruption, cross-dressing, , drunkenness, using tobacco, marijuana, or cocaine, homosexuality, masturbation, pornography, unmarried couples living together…and I’m probably forgetting a few. As you can see, for every actual reprehensible act he mentioned — corruption, theft, rape — there was a matching one that’s totally harmless. I was almost expecting him to say that men and women talking to each other was a sin, or something — it would have fit right in.

He would constantly say, “I don’t know the sin you are into,” and “I’m repenting — what about you?” He really emphasized the immanence of the Rapture, and how you don’t want to be left behind. At times he would say “Amen,” and several people in the bus echoed it. At one point he asked people to repeat after him. “Jesus, I pray for your strength…” etc. One man repeated, sounding a bit obligatory.

At the time, it was actually really annoying because I wasn’t feeling great, and more noise was exactly the last thing I wanted. I wonder if most of the people who said “Amen” also believe that homosexuality and all the rest are sins? What would it be like to be an LGBTQ Sierra Leonean — or anyone who was even slightly a social nonconformist — in an environment where these sentiments are as common as air? I can’t imagine.

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As mentioned, I also had a more positive encounter with Christianity. It was soon after the poda poda sermon that I visited St. John’s Maroon Church in Freetown. It was originally built in 1820 by the Jamaican Maroons, one of several groups of freed black people brought to Sierra Leone, whose descendants are known as the Krio minority (who were originally in conflict with the indigenous Temne and Mende tribes which most Sierra Leoneans belong to). Other groups included freed slaves from Britain (including some who had fought on the British side during the American war of independence), Nova Scotia and other African countries.

The church and greenery around the Maroon Church are enclosed in a metal fence, like a bubble surrounded by the gritty city outside. It was beautiful inside. When I visited, one of the church caretakers showed me around, pointing out places in the rafters and some church pews that were made out of the timber of a slave ship. The man said there are plans to try to reinforce the integrity of the building, but they’re very careful not to change it too much, as it’s a historical site. The church gets a lot of visitors on Sunday services, he said.

I’m fascinated by religion in Sierra Leone. Most of the country is Muslim, with a large Christian minority, and there’s basically no religious conflict between them whatsoever. I was surprised to learn that someone with a name like Abu Bakr can be a Christian. I wonder if the lack of conflict is partly because so far, extremist versions of Christianity and Islam haven’t penetrated into Sierra Leone too much like they are in so many places (Nigeria being a good example), polarizing people and destroying religious harmony.

At the same time, most of the population subscribes to traditional beliefs, including light and black magic, and many people are members of secret societies like the Poro hunting society. In rural areas, these extremely secretive clubs (the punishment for spilling secrets is death) are the bedrock of society, according to Tim Butcher in his book Chasing the Devil. But the secret societies aren’t necessarily confined to the bush where they originated. A Spanish grad student staying in my hostel told me he heard that most political figures in Sierra Leone are members of these societies — in fact, they would never have gotten where they are otherwise — even if they live in urban Freetown.

There has been a rise in “born again” Christianity in Sierra Leone — the billboard you see in the first image is a good example. I’m not sure if that means more fundamentalist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the poda poda preacher was born again, given how much he talked about the coming Rapture. There’s a couple staying in my hostel while they work on finding housing for a year in Freetown. They follow some new, alternative form of Christianity they want to help spread in Sierra Leone.

This is yet another subject I wish I could learn more about — and I’m curious how it will change in the future.

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