Today is the first day of the convention and that means getting up at 5:30AM! We were very exhausted after our long and emotional trek out to visit to the rural village the day before. But alas, no rest for the weary, teary, or bleary!
Each delegate group was given a slot for breakfast (ours was … EARLY) but we were happy to get some fuel for the day. We went down to the dining room and it was already abuzz with delegates. You could have your choice of typical American breakfast items (omelettes, pancakes, cereal) but in true African style, there was plenty of meat (usual breakfast meat… and otherwise!). So after a quick breakfast, we went out to the lobby to grab 2 seats on the next ‘first come, first serve’ buses. There were some many delegates on line, we had to watch 2 buses fill up and move out! But finally we were able to ship, …er, bus, out.
We started off the trip with a few reminders from the bus captain (if you get lost… if there’s an emergency…. ) and then we considered the daily text. (Jehovah’s Witnesses publish a little book that has a scripture for each day of the year, called Examining the Scriptures Daily. And for each scripture, it’s followed by a paragraph-long comment on that scripture; how to apply it, different ways to understand it- basically taking the scripture and boiling it down for practical everyday use.) After we discussed it, we sang a few of our songs (most of Jehovah’s Witnesses LOOOOOVE to sing our songs, and if you don’t like to sing, you learn to like it!)
As we drove through the streets, the traffic began to pick up as we got closer to the city center. But more than just traffic, there was just so much activity. Pedestrians, cars, buses, trucks, and at the center of it all were the animated paper newsboys selling the headlines for the day like conductors in the motorized orchestra.
So as we drove along we saw many Witnesses walking to the stadium on the sidewalks; I imagine some of them walked over an hour or more that day. One thing that every one of Jehovah’s Witnesses will attest to- you can spot one Witness in a crowd of a hundred (as a test, ask them how, and they’ll all give you this puzzled look… ‘Er, um, it’s just, ah….’ it’s impossible to verbalize.) .
After about an hour or so we arrived at the convention. What a welcome! Our bus was marked ‘Delegates’ so all the local people began to wave and smile! And we are finally here!
The convention was being held at National Sports Stadium, a multi-purpose facility that holds events such as soccer games and Bruce Springsteen concerts. It holds 60,000 people, and local Witnesses told us they were expecting about 45,000 for the convention. By comparison, there are about 40,000 Witnesses in all of Zimbabwe. So they were not only expecting many of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who already live in Zimbabwe, but also the foreign delegates and some local visitors.
We were in relatively early, and we were directed to the English-speaking section. At the convention, there were sections for several different languages: Shona (the most widely-spoken language in Zimbabwe and the majority of the convention attendees), English (the second-largest group), Ndebele (the second most prominent language spoken in Zimbabwe), and Zimbabwe Sign Language.
We soon found out that there was good reason why we were given seat cushions in our “welcome bag” at the hotel – because we would otherwise be sitting on hard concrete steps at the stadium! The steps don’t look much different from your seat.
We settled in for a few minutes, but we wouldn’t wait too long to go meet some of the friends. One of the beautiful things about being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses is that you have instant friends, wherever you go. It really is true that love is the dominant quality shown at a gathering of Witnesses. Even when you have never met the people you’re spending time with, people greet you as if they have known you for years.
If you ever want to have fun in Zimbabwe, try to hang out with some of the Ndebele speakers. First of all, they use a bunch of clicks in their language. (You will not get credit for a trip to Africa until you’ve spoken to someone who speaks in a click language.) Second, they are a BLAST! The Ndebele section is the party section, man, let me tell you. They’re a good time. They love to laugh, smile, and joke around with each other. Not saying the Shona speakers aren’t awesome too…but the Ndebele speakers just seem to have an energy about them.
A side note –
About 70% of Zimbabweans are native Shona speakers. They inhabit the majority of the country, including around Harare. Another 20% of the country speaks Ndebele, and the native speakers are largely concentrated around Bulawayo. In addition to their native languages, nearly everyone also speaks English as well.
As we approached the beginning of the convention program, the stadium became more and more full.
The attendance for the Friday session was 66,000! Even on a Friday (typically the lowest-attended of the three days of a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses), we had not only surpassed the expected attendance (by 20,000 people) but exceeded the capacity of the stadium!
We had a wonderful day of Scriptural education, capped off with a talk by Jehovah’s Witnesses Governing Body member Geoffrey Jackson.
Farewell to day one of the Keep Seeking First God’s Kingdom Convention…..
…but not before our friends gave us a proper send-off.