Africa is colorful. Especially to my pale German eyes. It didn’t come as a surprise then that mass in a catholic church here is more colorful as well.
I’m catholic but I must confess that I’m not an active member of my church. So, attending mass is something of a guilt trip for me. But when my friend Kathrin, who is protestant, asked me if I wanted to come with their group to celebrate Palm Sunday, I was happy to join.
I take a rather philosophical-historical approach to religion, so bear with me even though you might not be interested in the celebration of a catholic ceremony.
When we arrived in front of the church, people were already congregating on the empty parking lot next to the church. We were immediately handed palm leaves upon arrival and went through security into the yard.
Mass started there with the benediction of the palm leaves and my cell phone now is special as well.
From there we followed the priests and the altar boys and girls across the street into the courtyard of the catholic school and community center. Before leaving the priest assured everybody that there was no need to hurry because there would be space for everybody, and there was. A great many of the typical rickety blue and grey metal chairs were set up under big tent roofs and even Spider Man was in attendance – you just gotta love the ever-present spirit of upcycling here 😊
People were wearing their finest and some had even put on what I would assume to be their special church outfits, wearing their faith on their skin so to say. With just under 200,000 members, Catholics are a minority here in Mali, around 1.5% of the total population. The Cathédrale du Sacré-Cœur de Jésus of Bamako, where we met, is the seat of the archbishop. So being catholic here in Mali is definitely special, and advertising his or her faith in this way must mean a lot to the wearer of these clothes. What I’m talking about are two of the shown outfits made of fabric with Christian motives – can you spot them?
The ceremony was familiar and strange at the same time. Having grown up with the catholic faith, I know the rituals and prayers by heart, so I could follow along despite my bad French. The music was wonderful, the Chorale sang with passion and obvious joy during mass.
I was thrilled to recognize some of the hymns, like this rendition of “Panis Angelicus” (Bread of Angels or Angelic Bread) for Communion. Can you spy the sense of proud veneration with which the nuns carry the dishes with the altar bread?
The members of the congregation seemed to loosen up in the course of the ceremony, and in the end some of the women finally gave in and followed their need to dance to the music – a wonderful conclusion to this experience.
Witnessing a familiar ceremony in another language and in a different cultural setting is always interesting to me and frequently makes me reevaluate my beliefs. This is especially true for this Palm Sunday mass in Mali, a country that has been struggling for many years now. Coincidentally today, on the Monday after Palm Sunday, is Martyrs’ Day, a Malian holiday celebrating democracy and mourning those who gave their lives in this struggle.
There is no way to ignore this coincidental parallel between Martyrs’ Day or Democracy Day on March 26 and the beginning of the Holy Week in Christianity, leading to up to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
The palm branch in itself has been a symbol of victory, triumph, peace, and eternal life since ancient times. In ancient Greece it was awarded to victorious athletes, was a fundamental part of Victory celebrations in ancient Rome and is a symbol of peace in Islam, where it is frequently associated with Paradise. According to Christian tradition, palm branches were used at the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, heralding the end and the beginning.
According to the Gospels, Jesus Christ rode a donkey into Jerusalem, and the celebrating people there laid down their cloaks and small branches of trees in front of him. Here in Bamako, I see donkeys every day. Outside the city they are part of every working farm, they are the pack and draft animals that make life a little easier for the people. Here in Bamako, they are mainly used as draft animals by the trash collectors and have come to symbolize that caste of people.
The symbolism of the donkey in Christianity may refer to the Eastern tradition that it is an animal of peace, versus the horse, which is the animal of war – but in a city, where donkeys are the beasts of burden of the lowest in society, the image of the Christian Prince of Peace riding a donkey is all the more compelling – there is always hope, even if we can’t see the victory yet.