Day 139: An African prayer

Daniel and I met while I was staying with the Van Jaarsveld family. He worked on their smallholding and his face popped up among the produce for sale at the little farm stall next to the road. When he invited me to stay with his family he had no way of letting his wife know that I was coming, because his cellphone was broken.

It is dusk in Utlwanang79 township near Christiana in the North West Province. I am walking with Daniel Dire. We are on our way to church on this Thursday evening. Those people who are lucky to have a job are busy arriving home after a day’s work.

The occasional comment is flung in Daniel’s direction – his out-of-place companion arouses some curiosity. We cast long shadows on the reddish brown African soil. Children are playing in the streets – coffee tins stacked high; a tennis ball; two teams; boys and girls welcome to join in the fun.

Here we are. We approach a building made of corrugated iron. Brand new and old, shiny and dull, boisterous corrugated iron. Daniel’s church. He is studying part-time to become a minister. We enter. There are four other men inside. Two more arrive with us. ‘The women are not joining us tonight. They are preparing food for the funeral tomorrow.’

A prayer is said in Setswana, a language I do not understand, yet it seems vaguely familiar.

Praying in Africa is not a monotone affair.

It starts softly.

Slowly . . .

Reaching a point – at the centre.

It picks up pace as it picks up rhythm. A rhythm that seems to come from beyond the people standing there praying.

It spirals from that point.

It is like those in prayer are merely conduits.

Posts that hold together a spiritual pen.

Working towards an ancestor-fetching crescendo.

Raw emotions – the human form gone as feeling crests, crumbles and falls.


It crashes – He answers.

The passion ebbs – recedes – and calms.

The service is to ask for guidance to assist the weeping widow and others in this loss of their loved one. When we leave the church the men allow me to go first. I look at Daniel, ‘But in your culture, the men walk first?’

‘You are our guest,’ he says simply.

It is dark when we make our way towards the house with the big red-and-white-striped tent set up next to it. Daniel gestures for us to wait on the lawn while he enters the home. The sounds of family life can be heard. Utlwanang township surrounds us. Tonight this house emits a strong sense of loss.

Daniel comes to fetch us. The family is ready. The house has been prepared to receive a large number of mourners tomorrow. For now, there are more chairs than people. Daniel introduces me to the widow in English and Setswana. She nods. The empty chairs, the house . . . seem somehow more emotional than she is.

Daniel and one of the other men from his congregation go to the front of the room. Each with a bible. We start with prayer, followed by singing. The rhythm of it is all the same to me. Then Daniel introduces me to the whole room and explains that the widow has granted me permission to attend and for them to translate their sermon into English. I gasp. Daniel also explains that they must please not feel stifled by my presence, as I am here to learn.

I make eye contact with the widow. She nods. The next three hours we pay tribute to a man I have never met and the honour of being there washes over me. I cannot help feeling sad. It is a sadness bigger than I am.

When it is time to leave I bow in front of the widow, extending my right arm, holding my right elbow with my left hand, lowering my body and avoiding eye contact. To show my respect. I feel her approval and need to see her eyes. She looks less stern now and is smiling a little. Then she says something in Setswana. The person to her left translates, ‘She says thank you for your presence, for paying your respect. Her husband is happy.’