I met Alice (“Aleese”), a long-time friend of Christine’s, the morning we drove to Mbigou for church. We picked her up at her small home in Lebamba (see “11 Hours of Church” series). An attractive Gabonese woman, she in her 50’s, married, and has several children. Alice is one of the leaders of the Alliance’s Sunday school programs in and around Lebamba, and is also Secretary of the provincial district. Alice was, literally, totally silent the first several hours of that day together, to the point where I started to wonder if there was something wrong. But, on the way back to Bongolo, that concern was well put to rest; Alice really opened up when I asked her if she would share her growing up and faith story. This lady had a lot to say, and an amazing story.
Alice was the first person I met who had a direct, personal connection to the tribal ancestor worship I had heard and read so much about. Born in the tiny village of Moabi, north of Bongolo, she grew up in a confusing religious landscape. Her parents were Catholic so some degree, so they baptized her as an infant. But, as is typical of village life, there is a lot of peer pressure to continue in the old ways. This was certainly true in Moabi, which was ruled by a “Charlatan”, a traditional healer, a witch woman (to the best of my knowledge, this is a female witch doctor).
In spite of their exposure to Catholic Christianity, Alice’s parents bowed to the Charlatan and had fetishes, bracelets, amulets and other jewelry put on their daughter as an infant. In fear to remove them, she wore these long into her teen years. The same was true for her brothers and sisters. Alice grew up attending a Catholic school, and described how the other girls would tease her for wearing the bracelets and fetishes. At age twelve, she was encouraged to be re-baptised, but refused. However, as a young adult, she began to attend a small Alliance church with a friend. She became interested in Christianity and began to compare her traditional ways with the Bible.
Her first child tragically died soon after birth. After the birth of her second child, Alice soon antagonized the Charlatan because, by then, she had begun to severely doubt that what the witch woman was doing was right. While not yet a Christian, Alice had been attending the Alliance church for years, and she refused to have the same kinds of bracelets put on her son. Not surprisingly, this caused much conflict with the Charlatan, as well as inside of her family, especially with her brother, an initiate in the demonic Bwitist beliefs. At about this time, her niece’s babies died one after another, and Alice was accused of being a witch herself, of using sorcery to kill them. Sadly, finding and blaming a scapegoat is still a typical aspect of traditional tribal worship. Her husband defended her and her 4 year old son prayed for her.
Sick and angry all the time, Alice tried to go on living her life. Right about this time, there was a meeting in the church where the Pastor challenged people who were involved in traditional practices to come forward and to stop. She met individually with him afterwards and burned all the fetishes. Alice then became a Christian. At that point, she took off her spiritual jewelry and burned them, symbolizing her break with the past. This was a very critical part of sustaining her faith. Without this step, the typical African convert eventually gets pulled back into the old ways. Alice firmly broke the bonds that had held her her entire life.
Alice’s life changed. She was no longer angry and sick feeling, and this transformation was obvious to everyone in her life. Over time, her whole family, except one sister at this point, has become Christians! Even her Bwitist brother decided to follow Jesus; today, he is an Elder in the Alliance Church. Her sister is an Alliance Women’s Coordinator, and the niece whose babies were dying, now has several children.
Who would have guessed that such a dramatic story lay behind those silent lips? I am so grateful I asked.
Author’s Note: traditional African religion is, sadly, alive and well all over Gabon and other parts of Africa. In many villages, the witch doctor or charlatan rule with an iron fist. Many people still go to them for traditional “medicine” and cures rather than going to a medical doctor. All too often, Bongolo’s doctors have to reverse the infections and other problems of these “cures” before actual treatment of the original problem can occur.