“Mumbo Sawa Sawa”: Prayer Time is a Good Time

As an adult, I have found that many of the things I dread and have to force myself to do are often the very things that make me the happiest. It seems that while as a child I knew what would please me and did it, as an adult I’m in a constant battle with myself to experience joy!

Every night at 6 p.m., the girls at the home have prayer time and every day at 5:40 p.m. I have to make the decision of whether I should go and participate or take this night off. Every time that I choose to go, I end up leaving prayer time feeling happier and more connected than ever before.

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Jeff & Ester

That first prayer time, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. We’d certainly read about it being an amazing experience, but their blog posts – like mine, I’m sure – could not convey what we were in for. When we arrived at the gate, I was immediately met by one of the youngest girls there, who introduced herself as Wande (pronounced “Wan-day”). She is seven with hair so short she is nearly bald and a missing front tooth. Immediately she grabbed my hand and led me to a couch (hand-made of wood and large foam squares covered in fabric). Ester, a girl her same size with braids, sat beside us. I made faces at Wande and she would giggle and then poke Ester to show her the spectacle. She’d rub my beard and my arms and then poke Ester to do the same. And as the singing started, she stared at me open-mouthed until I tried to join in.

Each prayer time is a bit different, but there’s an overall routine to it. A few of the girls, who are in the girls’ “government” sit on a bench at the front and lead it. They choose someone to pray, someone to sing, and someone to give thanks and then repeat.

Regularly there is call and response:

Girl: Praise the Lord!
All: Amen!
Girl: Praise the Lord again!
All: (louder) Amen!

There is a time for announcements and a time for people to choose who to pray for, which often includes people traveling, their families, “dad” which is what they call the founder and “papa” which is what they call the current head-of-campus on-site. During each prayer time there is a moment where they all get quiet and together pray what sounds like the Swahili “Our Father,” though I think we have figured out that it’s not.

What dominates the prayer time, however, is the singing. Girls are selected by the leaders to sing a song here and there. They start and then everyone joins in for the chorus. Everyone sings from age six to sixteen. We’ve seen Wande lead songs with her small, yet powerful, voice and we’ve seen groups of teenage girls stand at the front and sing so well they could challenge Beyoncé. The small dining hall with its cement walls, wire-mesh windows, and tin ceiling is filled with their songs and the girls drumming on tables or clapping to the rhythm.

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One of the simplest songs is one they sing on the regular and we were able to pick up some of the words pretty quick: “Mumbo sawa sawa.” Mumbo is slang for “News?” as in “What’s the news?” and “sawa” is a slang word that means “in the positive,” like “good” or “cool.” So “mumbo sawa sawa” basically means something to the effect of, “It is good news.”

It is leading up to these prayer times and after them when we’re able to get to know the girls. Emma was one girl who came to talk to us straight away and has helped be our guide through the world of Bibi Mimi’s (the official name of the girls’ home) over the last few weeks. We quickly learned the names of the younger girls first as they were quickest to come play with us. Maybe it was having so many nephews and nieces under 12, or maybe it was that the younger children were easier to tease and make laugh!

I’ve taught Wande how to stick out her tongue to make a funny face (bad influence?), though she doesn’t quite get it and looks like she’s licking air. Another girl I taught to fist bump and explode it. They’ve also taught me silly games like the one where you sing a little song while gesturing around a person’s face and then point out fake lumps on their head while crying “ee-goon-duh” (phonetic).

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I know that’s a broom. I was adding a little hockey into our soccer!

I still tend to spend time with the younger ones like a sort of safety net as Bethany has made more outright effort to get to know the many teenage girls. She recently brought down our wedding pictures and was quickly surrounded by teenagers flocking around her crying out “ohhhhhs” and “ahhhhhs.” I stuck around for a short while before heading outside to play soccer with the younger girls, who seemed less interested in white dresses and pretty make-up.

Yesterday at prayer time, there was a particularly funny moment and a particularly endearing one with one of the girls: Salima. When I first arrived, she looked up at me and asked, “Why aren’t you clapping?” in her thick Tanzanian accent. I was confused, so asked her to repeat a few times. Finally, I realized she was asking, “Why aren’t you happy?” I was frowning and she was wondering why. Later, they did the bible reading, but decided to do it in English since there were a couple of American women visiting. She smacked my arm mid-reading and asked excitedly: “You understand?”

Around 7 p.m., dinner is served and we’ll sometimes stick around and eat with them. On good days, it’s rice, beans, and kale. On days we tend to avoid, it’s ugali (a bland, thick cornmeal porridge) and fish (with head, tail, and skin still attached). Some of the girls don’t love the fish, but most eat every bit of them! No one uses utensils (which is ideal for me, which you’d know if you’ve ever eaten a meal with me) and I put aside my spoon and dig in whenever I’ve remembered to wash my hands before dinner.

Each of the girls has their own personalities and we’ve been getting to know them more every time we attend prayer. And every time we leave I feel happier and more connected to why we’re here than before!

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