What Do Your Church Bells Toll For?

All church bells are the same, generally. They work on the same logic, for the same reason, and all involve metal on metal clanking. So for a ‘satanist’ (thinking is satanic in some Christian corners) such as myself why is it that I find that some church bells are more equal than others? Contrary to popular belief, I associate the church (notwithstanding the intrinsic misogyny, feudalism etc.) with all that is holy and perfect. Blame it on my joyous upbringing under the church. Today Sunday morning found me in the black suburb of Bochabela. I was outside when the 7 o’clock bell rang from a church nearby. And with it I found peace in its holiness and perfection. Albeit for a split second. I thought to myself that it has been a while since I heard a church bell (this was me tryna analyze my reaction to the bell), hence the feelings that came with it. I even managed to scrape up a word to package the whole thing nicely so we can move on with our lives: nostalgia.

Church bells were an intrinsic part in my development, having spent most of my childhood in the church. I’m probably not lying when I guess that at one stage I also wanted the honour of ringing one. Our church, like most poor churches, did not have the tower bell, instead we used a piece of steel rail hanging from a pole at chest level and hit with a hammer-like device. Where this wasn’t available the largest hand-bell the church could afford would be utilized. But as with everything in blackness, varieties and improvisations abound. So long as there’s metal on metal action we good to go. The tower church bell was to be found in our church’s headquarters; the holiest of holy sites. So one can already see how much value I placed on the tower bell. Granted that there were many tower bells in me kasi; but they were of ‘other’ churches, as thus could not carry the same value.

Our church bell I understood. ‘Twas rung four times on a Sunday: an hour before the service, then thirty minutes before, and at the hour of the service. 11 o’clock. And the opening hymn will be heard: “Reaobo-ooo-ka Mo-o-re-ena”. The fourth bell rang at 12 o’clock, ka “Nako Ya Manyeloi”. When this bell rings everything is dropped and all fall on their knees to pray their most earnest prayers. It is at this hour that the Angels descend from heaven to collect prayers. After the subjective prayers the priest will lead the congregation into community service prayers for the widows, orphans, those in hospitals and languishing in jails (the guilty and innocent – this was always stressed) etc. Post this prayer this hymn of offering and sacrifice would be sung as everybody went to present their offerings at the altar:

“Ke nehela tsohle tsa ka
Diatleng tsa Morena
Jesu ke mmoloki wa ka
Mopholosi wa batho.”

It is thus understandable that I would feel nostalgic upon hearing one after a while. Except that this wasn’t the case. I live five minute walk away from a church in the white suburb of Westdene. I hear the bells toll every week. Then why is it that they don’t invoke any nostalgia in me? The reason is simply because I cannot associate holiness and perfection with the white church. The white church has been the bastion of white supremacy and anti-blackness since the first encounter. The first ship to come enslave our people bore the name of Christ. In the slavery ports there were chapels where the enslavers would pray for their safe journey across the seas, to thank God for the slaves He gave them, and they asked for more. What were the prayers of the shackled black bodies in the next door? For death? Freedom? Or maybe just to understand what was going on. This has continued right through colonialism, apartheid and to this very day. Do they not pray for the protection of their ill-gotten wealth, safety and security? Do they not pray for the health of their kitchen-girls and garden-boys so they don’t have to go a day without clean linen and garden weedless? The white church is the site of unspeakable evils.

When the bell tolls at some unknown church in Bochabela I remember the prayers of the kitchen-girls and garden-boys. Petrol attendants and car guards. Prostitutes and miners. And of the unemployed. The bell reminds me of their trials and tribulations. It’s is where they turn to for some peace. The church is the only therapy most blacks have access to. It is where we go to ask the almighty to lift the yoke from our shoulders.

The opposite happens in the white church. There the bell tolls for us to have the strength and discipline to carry the yoke. It is where one goes to wash off the guilt, much like Pontius Pilate.

I know what this bell tolls for. It is a call to gather murderers, plunders, looters, and their ilk to wash their sins, red with the blood of blacks, to wash them until they are white as snow. It cannot be equal to the steel rails or handbells of our black churches. It thus cannot invoke any wistfulness from me. It can only invoke anger. But even this I’m unable to accomplish. The totality and omnipresence of the white power structure is such that one cannot afford to feel anything when faced with it’s many symbols. As such I have been indifferent to that church bell for almost two years. In as much as we’re indifferent to the many street names, squares, parks, buildings and statues that celebrate and remind us of our oppression. Just as much as we’re indifferent to Die Stem. We have learnt to numb our senses to these symbols to survive.


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