While working in rural Zambia, I used to enjoy the sight of families walking along the roadside to church on Sunday mornings. Everyone dressed in their best clothes, father in a dark suit several sizes too big, mother holding a large umbrella as a sunshade, and the children often carrying their prayer books and bibles on their heads. I am now working in urban Swaziland, so this Sunday I decided to take a walk around the churches in Manzini town centre.
Just like in Zambia, Christianity takes many forms in Swaziland. There must be over a dozen different denominations. The first churchgoers I met were a trio of officials in the Zion Church. They were dressed in very fetching turquoise vestments (lab coats) with extravagant white epaulettes. Even thought they had just finished their service, the pastor offered to go back for second helpings if I would praise the Lord with him. I declined, “Church of England, you understand.” And he did.
When I brought out my camera and asked about taking a picture, they became concerned about their appearance. They dug out their dog collars and threaded them under their shirt collars. One man had to get a white apron from his pickup truck. They posed in full sunlight and looking through the viewfinder, all I could see was three featureless black faces. I didn’t feel I could ask them to move into the shade, so I dialled in a couple of stops of extra exposure to counter the back light. All I got was one picture. It would have to do. At least you can see their features.
As I wandered further down Nkoseluhlaza Street, I could hear strains of gospel music coming from several locations. I thought one gathering was taking place under a marquee in a car park, but the alleyway was blocked by two heavily built men in suits. I have never seen “bouncers” at church before. I thought they might be charging for admission, so I walked on.
As I walked under a hotel balcony, I could hear an amplified dialogue between preacher and congregation. I didn’t understand what uplifting words he was saying, but they brought the response “Amen”, in unison, not close-harmony. As I was thinking of climbing the steps to the balcony, a pretty young girl asked me if I wanted to attend her church. It was very tempting, but I didn’t want to spend the next two hours worshipping.
Just across the road from a newly-built mosque is the Roman Catholic cathedral. It has a stolid campanile arising from the car park. Above the front doors, there is a massive mosaic frieze of the Virgin Mary. Perhaps a bit excessive, verging on Collyridianism, if you ask me.
The service was in full swing to a packed house. It was standing-room only at the back and a team of ushers was slotting late-comers into the rare empty places in the pews. An usher beckoned to be but I declined to join in, for the third time. Instead, I walked over to chat to a lady eating cake in the shade of the cloister.
She asked me what I was doing in Swaziland, so I explained that I was an British doctor working in a clinic. “Ahha,” she said, “I am from British stock. In fact, I am related to your future queen.” It took me a few seconds to realise that she was talking about the Duchess of Cambridge, not Camilla.
“My name is Mabel Middleton,” she said.
“Are you a close relative?” I asked.
She said she was, related by a tenuous link between her father’s cousin’s cousin and Kate’s family.
“So you didn’t get an invite to the wedding, then?”
She scowled back at me and asked me about my religion. As she was Catholic, I didn’t use my usual Church of England reply. I said I was a humanist. I believed in helping people and not doing harm.
“So help me, then. Give me 20 Rand.” I told her that I was helping people by treating them in the clinic, not by giving them money.
“You are Satan!” she said. Like an investigative reporter for the now defunct “News of the World”, I made my excuses and left.
I spent the next half an hour waiting to take photographs of people leaving church at “chucking out time.” The only promising picture I took was of three teenage girls in matching fuchsia dresses. I think they were choristers from the Roman Catholic cathedral I had just left. I asked if I could take their picture and they looked taken aback.
“Because you look great in your matching outfits!”
While they giggled, I took a quick photograph.