The healing power of song

One of the greatest tragedies of the West is that we’ve lost the magic of song.

In the Maasai community, singing is part of everyday life.  People sing to praise God, regardless of whether they’re Christians, Muslims, or followers of their own indigenous spiritual tradition (where ‘Engai’ is actually translated more accurately as ‘Goddess’).

People sing to preserve their memories and histories, most of which are still unwritten.  All the rites of passage have their own songs associated with them, including weddings, ceremonies to bless unborn children, child-naming ceremonies, initiation into adulthood, and the transition from warriorhood into elderhood (although the latter doesn’t have an equivalent for women), and funerals.

Songs are used to welcome important visitors, to launch projects, or – as in the photo above – to entertain parents at the school Open Day.   Crucially, they can also be used to open people’s minds to the possibility of change: in our project to reduce the prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM), we started every seminar and workshop with a performance by a women’s commuity choir.

Yet, in so-called ‘developed’ countries, we’ve created a culture in which most people are afraid to sing.

Shows like ‘The X Factor’, ‘American Idol’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ – where harsh criticism of people’s vocal performance is seen as entertaining – certainly haven’t helped.  But a bigger issue is that, with the decline in church attendance, most people just don’t have a space in which they can sing freely without being criticised or judged.

When I recently started attending my local Baptist church in England and the very first song we sang was one that I recognised from an international church that I used to attend in Tanzania, it felt like coming home.  But traditional church services don’t appeal to everyone, and despite the vast amount of content available on YouTube, a lot of people – whatever their religion – wouldn’t know where to start looking for inspiring, uplifting, soul-stirring, life-changing, motivating songs that can support their own personal journey to reconnection and wholeness.

I’m a huge fan of Jodi Picoult’s book Sing You Home, which has a downloadable soundtrack.  I LOVE those songs, especially ‘Ordinary Life’ – a cry from the heart for LGBTQ rights and non-discrimination – and the title track, a haunting song dedicated to a child lost through miscarriage.

Maybe it’s time we all started learning how to sing ourselves home?

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Why Christianity? The truth of love transcending death

Since my last visit to Tanzania, in December 2016, I’ve become a regular and passionate attendee of my local Baptist church.

That shocks some people, including my older daughter who’s very politically aware, because of what `the Christian Church’ has done in Africa and what it’s doing right now in the USA – all the racism and homophobia and sexism that’s somehow being sold to people as having something to do with Jesus.

But I think Jesus would be appalled by the misuse of his name, because he was a genuine revolutionary.  He was someone who touched lepers and invited prostitutes to his house for dinner, and then went into the Temple and overturned the tables of the people who were making money off the backs of the poor, and criticised them in the strongest terms possible, and that’s why the religious leaders of the day insisted that he had to be crucified – because he was a threat to their power.

And whatever you think of the Resurrection of Christ, whether you see it as a physical resurrection in the body – and I believe there’s a lot about the human body that scientists are still trying to get their heads around, this whole emerging belief that in the end we’re all just energy, and we still don’t know what we don’t know – or as a phenomenon that occurred in the disciples’ consciousness, a sort of collective shamanic experience, I think what matters most is the message behind it.  It’s an overwhelming message of the truth of Love transcending death

It’s not just Love transcending death in a physical sense that matters, but also – in fact, all the more – in a spiritual sense.  It’s about the ability of Love to break through depression, anxiety, apathy, overwork, overwhelm, addictions, and that awful sense of emptiness that symbolises the ‘dark night of the soul’.

It’s the idea that individually and collectively, we can come through even the most horrific of circumstances and be reborn: we can make a fresh start at any moment, full of hope and passion and joy.

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The deeper ‘why’ behind my adventures

The point I’ve been trying to work up to, in these blog posts, is the deeper ‘why’.

Why I went to Africa; why I stayed so long; why I came back to the UK.

I think when you distil it down, it’s about the contrast between material poverty with spiritual wealth, on one side of the world, and spiritual poverty with material wealth, on the other.  I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that everyone in Tanzania is blissfully happy all the time even in the face of death and disease, but there really is this mindset in Africa that just makes life so much more liveable.  There’s an acceptance of the present moment, and a contentment with what is (even when, on the face of it, ‘what is’ is full of troubles and hardships).

And there’s a genuine faith in God/dess (the Maasai word Engai is grammatically feminine, whereas the Swahili Mungu is gender-neutral) that flows through everyone’s conversation, all the time.

 

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A Tanzanian friend of mine once asked me why white people always `hurry-worry’ and forget about the God who created them, and it’s so true.  He gave me the example of tiny ants living in a red hibiscus flower: they don’t worry about tomorrow, they just live in the moment.  He’s living in the USA now, though, so he gets it, he understands that we have to hurry-worry because that’s the way the system is designed, and it’s really, really hard to opt out of that system and find another way of being.  And now he’s just trying to save up enough money to pay for a ticket back to Tanzania.

Another aspect of the spiritual wealth of Africa is that there’s a real, tangible interdependence, and a recognition of the fact that we truly are `all one’, at a very deep level: you can’t just look at where someone’s body begins and ends, and think that’s the end of who they are as a person.  Everything is about the community, and what’s good for the community, rather than the individual.   Even material goods get shared around the community, which is pretty frustrating when it’s your expensive watch or mobile phone or whatever and your neighbour’s son’s idea of interacting with it is to take it to pieces and see what’s inside.  But hey, it’s all part of the learning curve.

A living spirituality that’s rooted in nature and community doesn’t have to be something ‘out there’.  I’ve met some amazing people and been to some wonderful projects that are all about trying to rebuild a sense of community, and restore people’s connection with nature at a very deep level, but I think there’s still this huge tendency to assume that in Britain we don’t have any indigenous knowledge or indigenous spirituality.  People are trying to import shamanism from Siberia or sweat lodges from the Native Americans, because that’s what they know about, but beneath the surface we have all these ancient British traditions of our own.  We cling on to things like May Day and Halloween but we’ve forgotten the meanings.

There are two things that have been life-changing for me since I came back from Africa.  The first was rediscovering this whole British pre-Christian tradition, which has survived or been revived in a whole variety of different forms, like Druidry, Wicca, Paganism, Goddess worship, and so on.  That’s what got me back out into nature and making pilgrimages to ancient sacred sites, it’s what enabled me to connect with like-minded people who cared about creativity and community and celebrating the changing seasons, and overall it’s what pulled me out of quite a dark depression.

And the second was rediscovering Christianity.