One year in Nyabihanga village in Rulenge Diocese in
western Tanzania our Christmas week went like this:
Thursday, 23 December: Aurelia, Nchabukoroka’s first wife, gave birth to twin
boys two homesteads from where I lived. There was great rejoicing in our
neighborhood in Nyabihanga village. The neighbors said that the children born
near Christmas are a special blessing from God our Great Elder.
Friday, 24 December: Since I was in Rulenge town,
Nchabukoroka (a member of an African traditional religion) called the catechist
Salvatori Buhuwimbuye to baptize the twins. The local church custom was to
baptize the twins immediately, since many of them died right after birth. For
the local people this Christian tradition was combined with the custom of the
African traditional religion of having a "naming ceremony." Among the Washubi
ethnic group the birth of twins was a sign of bad fortune, but giving the babies
names could protect them from the evil spirits. Since it was right before
Christmas the two boys were given the names Emmanuel and John.
Saturday, 25 December: The rejoicing and celebrating at
the twins’ birth continued. Many people came to see the babies and congratulate
the parents. Friends and neighbors brought gifts such as beer, beans, bananas
and money. The women helped Aurelia by fetching water and firewood. The women
also liked to hold and carry the two baby boys.
In my Christmas homily I commented on the close parallel
between the birth of Jesus and the birth of the twins for the Washubi people. I
stressed the meaning of the name "Emmanuel" "God is with us." I congratulated
everyone on the double joy of this particular Christmas. First, the great joy at
the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ our savior and redeemer. He is our
Elder Brother who has ‘pitched his tent among us’ (John 1:14). His birth is
"news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people" (Luke 2:9). Second,
the great joy at the birth of Emmanuel and John. Here in Africa children are
life. Children are hope. Children are the future.
Sunday, 26 December: The celebrating and drinking
continued. Friends and relatives continued to visit Aurelia and Nchabukoroka.
Everyone was caught up in the happiness of this season of new life. I visited
some other neighbors for a lively Christmas beer party.
Monday, 27 December: The feast of St. John the Apostle.
The second twin, John, died late in the evening on his feast day. We were all
very sad. But the local people expressed a certain resignation and a patient
endurance knowing how few twins survive the uncertainties of rural Africa.
Tuesday, 28 December: Early in the morning we go to
Nchabukoroka’s home to give him and Aurelia "pole" (the Swahili word for
“sympathy”). I sit outside with the other men. Later in the morning John was
buried in the banana plantation behind his father’s hut. In the Washubi
tradition, burial always takes place a day after a person dies. The men took
turns digging the grave. The women sat at a distance wailing. Young people were
not allowed to attend the burial of a twin. A tall, stately man from Bukiriro
village named Bikeba conducted the burial ceremony. He officiated at the burial
of all twins. With his gaunt frame, white beard and rhythmic stride he made one
think of a prophet. He first painted the walls of the grave with a dark mud, a
special Washubi custom to appease and ward off evil spirits afterwards. The dead
baby was wrapped in a reed mat of the kind the people sleep on in their homes.
As the people sleep in life, so they sleep after death.
That afternoon I celebrated the Eucharist of the
Resurrection for the dead infant John. How poignant that it was the feast of the
Holy Innocents. About 30 people, including Nchabukoroka, attended the liturgy.
Leaders of Nyabuliga Small Christian Community led the singing and did the
readings. We prayed for John’s last safari back to the Father, the Creator and
Source of all life. I pointed out that in our African tradition John was now one
of our living dead.
Late that same evening Emmanuel died. We sat numbed with
Wednesday, 29 December: Emmanuel was buried in the
morning. After the late afternoon Eucharist I blessed the two graves with holy
water. We walked away silent and downcast, trying to fathom the great mystery of
life and death.
Death comes suddenly in Africa especially to children. The twins Emmanuel and
John probably died of pneumonia, since they were not sufficiently protected from
the night cold. Many African mothers lay their babies near the warmth of a wood
fire. But at night the fire goes down and the babies easily catch cold.
Thursday, 30 December: We awoke to a bright, sunshine
filled day. But our hearts were heavy with the memory of the short lives of
Emmanuel and John. I truly believe that the twins had returned to our
everlasting home, to the eternal embrace of God, Father and Mother of us all.
But like others in the village, I was held by a deep, clinging sadness. Amid
this paradox of life and death I recalled the words of a Tanzanian priest when
asked what color vestments he wanted to wear at a funeral liturgy. He said, "My
head says white, but my heart says purple."