THE PRAYER MEADOW

 

 

A few dozen kilometers from the capital there is a meadow sown with imposing baobabs, the first that can be found on the way to the South. They overlook the sea, just ahead, and the Mussulo tongue of land that stretches on the horizon until it meets the first contours of the immense city. 

The baobab is considered to be the largest succulent plant in the world, and it is estimated that it can live up to 2000 years. It is popularly known as the "sacred tree" or "tree of life”.  It has a sacred association with childbirth on the African continent and is considered by many tribes as the resting place of their ancestors. They are revered spaces and serve as a ceremonial altar, a source of advice, and the spiritual center of the community.

This meadow could be a natural landscape like any other, but on Saturdays it teems with activity with hundreds of believers of numerous religions gathering here.

The vast majority of the Angolan population professes the Catholic religion, but about a quarter of the population belongs to Protestant churches introduced during the colonial period, such as the Baptist, Methodist, and Congregational churches. There are also Adventist, Neo-Apostolic, and Pentecostal churches, besides two syncretic churches, the Kimbanguist church with origins in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Tocoist church formed in Angola, both with very limited community sizes.

Regardless of their social background, economic condition or religious belief, believers from several of these churches chose this meadow to pray, sing songs, shout praises, or simply immerse themselves in silent meditation. When they come in groups, which vary in size but never exceed a twenty or so believers, they gather in circles holding hands under the protective shade of the majestic baobabs. Whenever there are children, they keep them within the circles, as if they were protecting them or somehow blessing them with their prayers and songs.

The leafiest and most imposing baobabs, certainly centuries old, bear references to Biblical excerpts painted on their trunks or on large cloth posters, as if pronouncing from a distance that they are true altars.  No one knows who or when they were painted, but all churches accept as valid and respect these inscriptions. Most of these inscriptions are topped with the phrase "No passing through. Stop", others just claim "This is God's Law". They are a kind of stations where stopping and prayer or meditation are mandatory.

The baobabs have a strong symbolism in this meadow. Spiritually, the huge, solid trunk represents Christ, and the arms are the believers. These arms should flourish and bear fruit, these being understood as the manifestations of faith. This magnificent tree was also chosen as a natural altar because its roots are so deep. A solid trunk like stone and deep roots, what a wonderful analogy to an altar!

There are other natural altars in this meadow that reflect the symbolism of solidity. Scattered in the meadow and standing out on the smooth, sandy soil, large stones with one side painted blue have been placed. These are individual altars, occupied by a single believer who prays, weeps or cries with a hand placed on the top of the large stone, or simply leaning against it with his eyes closed, in deep meditation.

Further ahead, others kneel in the middle of nowhere, alone, in deep contemplation and completely oblivious to what is going on around them. Some others speak directly to the trunks of the baobabs, as if these embody their divinity or if they are seeing something beyond them. The dedication to praying and meditation is intense and often reaches ecstasy. In those minutes or hours, there is only enormous spirituality, nothing or no one comes between the believer and the entity to whom he addresses himself. In those moments, all their difficulties, problems or needs are confided, all sins are confessed, and all admiration, rejoicing and gratitude are spoken and exalted, amidst cries, shouts or gestures towards heaven.

Despite being a place of prayer and meditation, the meadow is not a silent one. The groups that gather in circles under the baobabs, intercalate quiet prayers with songs that they chant holding hands, and the preaching of the pastors comes from various directions, spoken with intensity and exaltation. The meadow teems with life and sounds.

Communion and peaceful interaction with nature is total here. It is not uncommon to find groups of goats from who knows where looking for tender leaves to eat among the groups of believers, or to see the meadow being crossed by a herd of oxen and cows carefully avoiding the stone altars, as if they were recognizing its sacred meaning.

The diversity of religions present here and their sharing and communion of a common space offered by nature, is a great example of tolerance that makes us reflect on human nature and its role in the world. Inevitably, images and memories of scenes of religious and social intolerance come to mind, and we wonder about their why and their nature. Why do they exist and persist if here, in this meadow of a few hundred square meters, various faiths coexist harmoniously and peacefully? Is religion, after all, a uniting element despite the different forms in which it manifests itself? Does the baobabs' imposing grandeur and their importance to the African imaginary somehow represent a natural authority that has taken hold in this meadow? Or is it only the hardships and privations that are particularly felt in this part of the world that have led to this collective spiritual commitment without boundaries of religious or social creeds?

These are questions that will probably never have an unequivocal answer, but the example to follow is here, exists and is tangible, every Saturday in this prayer meadow.