South Africa’s Mobile Churches

(Color photos by Asanda Kaka, via Africa Is a Country)

LOS ANGELES — It’s a common experience in New York: hop on a train, hear a preacher. Step outside, hear a preacher. Work at the office, hear a preacher outside the window. The street preacher, of course, is nothing new, but his or her presence can be felt more strongly in dense places like Manhattan — and then ignored just as much.

Nor is the street preacher unique to New York. Take public transportation anywhere with freedom of religion, and you’ll find them. On a recent long distance bus trip in Uganda, part of my sojourn was occupied by listening to a religious individual on a bus preach, pray, and collect donations from his captive audience. I didn’t understand the language but I understood the form, as he shuffled up and down the aisle with an undying voice.

trainchurches2I stumbled upon a recent post by photographer Asanda Kaka on Africa Is a Country opening me up to the notion of train churches in South Africa:

In 1986, the South African photographer Santu Mofokeng decided to document “train churches” — the culture of mobile worship by working class black South Africans on the country’s commuter trains that continues till today. Mofokeng was traveling daily between his home in Soweto and his work as a dark room assistant at an Afrikaans newspaper in Johannesburg. At first he was annoyed by the practice — he preferred to nap — but soon warmed to its significance: “It captures two of the most significant features of South African life: the experience of commuting and the pervasiveness of spirituality.”

And click over to Mokofeng’s site reveals stunning images of commuters singing and clapping on the train. Here’s more of what he had to say in his statement:

This sudden religious ecstasy struck me as odd. This display of energy breaking into song, dance accompanied by bells and hands clapping is a spectacle to watch. These office cleaners, clerks, factory workers and general labourers enjoined in a cacophony of song, drumming, preaching and prayer in a catharsis of spirituality in a moving landscape on their way to work.

Santu Mofokeng, "Laying of Hands, Johannesburg - Soweto Line" (1986) (via cargocollective.com/santumofokeng)
Santu Mofokeng, “Laying of Hands, Johannesburg – Soweto Line” (1986) (via cargocollective.com/santumofokeng)

In her reflection of Mokofeng’s work, Kaka, who is based in Cape Town, noted how “Little has changed” in the 18 years since his important series:

The prayer’s theme is still the same. To go home to a liveable house and to be able to make sure the family has something to eat. The only thing that has changed is that school kids now have phones that can play music and they’re not afraid to use them. As soon as the bibles come out, the earphones soon follow.

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