Night was falling as we hoped onto the motorbike. While we were not really supposed to go out at night this was a special occasion and we were just going 15 min away to the church. As we would up a small dirt road lined with pine trees we could hear a chorus of children’s voices singing. As we parked the bike and walked towards the brick church the chorus was almost a roar. As we walked through the wooden doors we were surrounded by about a thousand jubilant voices. In the midst of singing and dancing children were immediately taken aback and delighted as we made our way to an open pew. As we joined in with the singing and clapping we were surrounded by hundreds of children gazing at the Muzugus dancing and some pulling at our clothes. We were immediately the main attraction and as the majority of the congregation turned away from the priest ending the Christmas Eve mass we felt badly that we were the distraction. As the service ended there was no end in sight for us we were still on full display. At least next time we know to walk into the front of the church so that people look at the priest too!
When we were finally able to make our way outside we went to greet the priest a friend of Amy’s. We were invited back to their quarters to have a beer with the priests and the nuns. As we entered the sitting room we sat on chairs covered in green and white doilies like my grandmother used to make. The fireplace was adorned by a huge pine wreath and four banana plants. As, we sat back and shared a “Primus” (the local beer) with the priest I figured he must not be to upset with our distraction at the end of mass.
We spent a while speaking with the nuns and the brothers. They were joking about their students at the school. They told us there was a children’s services and that we should come back in the morning. Really? Don’t you care that we are distracting them? “No it is great it makes them excited for you to come sing and dance”. We agreed and bid them a goodnight.
Christmas morning we were greeted with wonderful omelets and I treated myself to some of my Starbucks reserves (yes I am drinking coffee again). This time we sat off on foot for the church 20 min away. Along the path everyone was dressed in his or her Sunday best. Boys in oversized silver suits and girls in beautiful dresses. Children gawked and laughed with glee when we yelled local greetings. At the church our plan was for Amy to go into the front and for me to slip quietly into the back to film. The two hour mass was still going strong and we could hear the voices singing at the top of their lungs as we entered. The plan did not go quite as expected and before I could even set up my gear I had become the main attraction at the back of the church. As nuns shooed the children and pulled them back to their benches one of the sisters we had met the night before pleaded with me to go to the front of the church to film. That way the children would look at the priest! I obliged her and set up my gear at the front of the church. It was another hour of a very kind and humorous priest serving communion to hordes of children as alter boys and girls danced. It was the most fun and dynamic church function I had ever been to. Children of all ages with almost no adults. Five year olds with infants strapped to their back. Crying three year olds being comforted by only slightly older children and a few teenagers for good measure.
Filming in the middle of the isle I turned around unexpectedly found myself in the middle of the alter kids dancing on either side of me as they headed up the isle back to the alter. Unsure what was really going on one of the nuns headed over to the manger flanked with banana trees and lifted something into her arms. Instantaneously, a few hundred children ran to the front of the church to catch a glimpse of the baby Jesus she was cradling in her arms and the other 700 continued to just stare at us. After about 20 min I made it out of the church to find Amy surrounded by ½ of the congregation. She was leading them in a round of “We wish you a Merry Christmas”. They thing I love about the kids in Congo is that they are so thirsty to interact with people from another place so curious about your skin, your voice, your hair, and what you may pull out of your bag. It is probably how wild apes feel when tourists take their binoculars and cameras to just go stare at them. Temped to pull out the Aerobie I feared a stampede. We settled on trying to form a circle to do a round of the Hokey Poky. Organizing the children turned out to be impossible with out the help of the nuns. We abandoned the Hokey Pokey plan and someone pulled out a drum. Two older girls stepped forward and began to drum as the children sang. They were performing for us! We stayed for 20 more min to listen to the drumming and singing before we decided it was time to head home.
As we passed “the monument” we were greeted by our friend John de Noel – Johnny Christmas- dressed head to toe in his boy scout uniform and ranger hat! He had just opened up a restaurant and wanted to invite us for a Coca Cola. His restaurant consisted of one wall of about 20 – 14’ high poles, draped with a white tarp the read “UNHCR Refugee” for the roof. As we sat at the plastic table and chairs (undoubtedly from china) children gathered to stare from all directions. I felt terrible drinking a Coke in front of them, but I am sure if we offered to buy them one we would end up paying for about 1,000 Cokes! We stayed and chatted with Johnny, stared at the kids, played some Aerobie, and were ushered home by a little parade of children. We bid them a safe journey home when we reached the path to our cabin and headed home to feed the baby monkey.
As night is falling again in the Congo, echoes of children’s laughter and the singing from another church service are drifting into my room. The Congo is such a different place than I expected. While I miss my family I am so happy to have experienced Christmas here. In the midst of a civil war, starvation, a corrupt and crumbling government, multiple rebel armies, and a no mans land where men can do whatever they like with no repercussions there is an almost overwhelming amount of joy and lust for life. The people of the DR Congo have greeted me with open arms, laughed with us, boldly show me the good and bad of their country, and it has been a pleasure and honor to share Christmas with them in this small mountain village.