Bibles, Butterflies, and Botswana

At a Church, I Learned L.A. Isn’t the Only Place You’re Judged On Appearance

When we see glimpses of Africa, it’s usually because of a conflict, a safari, or a charity drive. Lanre Akinsiku, a writer from California, is spending a year traveling around Africa, going to lesser-known places to capture everyday moments.

After crossing the border into Botswana, I sat under the shade of a large tree and waited for a ride to the next town, when it started snowing butterflies. Clouds of delicate white butterflies danced in the trees and flowers. Thousands of them, bobbing, floating and swooping in every direction. I’d never seen anything like it before.

These are the strange moments I thought travel was about. But the further I travel, the more I realize that they are only half the story. For every unusual experience, every storm of white butterflies, there’s an equal and opposite event: a moment of dèjá vu. It happened a week after I saw the white butterflies, in a small church in a small town in Botswana.

I walked through a gravel parking lot to the front door of the church, arriving as the pastor started his sermon. The church was in the corner of a rundown outdoor mall, next to a bar, restaurant, and another church, and its white walls had turned yellow-white after daily beatings from the desert sun.

All the plastic garden chairs lining the room were filled. An usher led me to a chair in the back row next to a water cooler, where I stood to see the pastor. He was short and stout, and he built his sermon quickly, marching back and forth behind a slender wooden podium while shouting scripture at the congregation. He’d worked himself into such a frenzy that his tie flailed about in front of him, like a third arm.

I felt comfortable. Some churches have a kind of music about them and if you listen closely, you can recognize the sound anywhere. The pastor is a conductor, and his voice must be rich, so that the word of God sounds powerful and melodic. The congregation acts as audience and orchestra, shouting amens, nodding, clapping and praying when appropriate, so that every sermon has a rhythm, and even someone who’s never been to church can figure out when to do what.

Near the end of the service, when the music had died down, one of the ushers tapped me on the shoulder, and whispered that I should find him when the service was over. I figured I’d done something wrong. After the sermon, the usher and I sat together near the pulpit. He leaned in close, as though he were about to reveal some big secret, and told me that I looked like a guy seeking a spiritual experience.

Then he said my life was going in the wrong direction, glancing knowingly at the colorful wristbands I’d picked up in Namibia, South Africa, and Swaziland over the past few months. I looked down at my bracelets, too, and remembered that some people believe the bracelets are signs of evil. Once, in Namibia, an old woman said the bracelets made me look like a sangoma, a witch doctor.

The bracelets were just the beginning. When I did a full review of my appearance, I noticed that my shirt, the one collared shirt I brought for special occasions, was faded and wrinkled. My right shoe had a small hole in the toe. My beard was wild. I hadn’t combed my hair. (I never do.) Proper fashion never seemed like an issue during my travels on the edge of the wilderness, not when many of the kids I saw wore shoes or shirts, but never both.

As I looked around the room, I saw that all the well-groomed ushers–neat haircuts and no facial hair, crisp white dress shirts and cherry red ties–had pulled some ragged person out of the congregation after the sermon. I knew then that I looked terrible, maybe the way Cain looked when God cast him into the desert. The usher had just been kind enough to take pity on me.

When I left, the usher sent me off with a prayer. I thanked him, because he’d given me a small taste of my time in Los Angeles, another wonderful place where looking bad can have a profound and unintended meaning.

It’s easy to come to Africa expecting the exotic, and you don’t have to look hard to find it. Still, as much of that as I’ve seen–like when I rode my bike into a herd of elephants–the fundamentals of life don’t seem all that different. Sometimes, I feel as though the whole world’s reading from the same script.

Lanre Akinsiku is a California-born travel and short story writer.

*Photo by Lanre Akinsiku.


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