A cow carried on a stretcher as an offering plus a choir chanting effervescent songs of praise while a brass band plays.
It could only be Christmas, Congolese style, as members of the Kimbanguist church mark their annual festival in flamboyant fashion with a massive ceremony.
Entering into the joyous spirit of things, some 4,000 people including elderly, women, teachers, rescue workers and scouts, made a pilgrimage Thursday to the holy hill of Nkamba, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) south-west of Kinshasa.
For followers of the church, which is based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “true Christmas” falls on May 25.
This year, their chants of praise resounded for several hours at Nkamba’s huge temple, where worshippers rejoiced both over the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago and for what they believe was the second birth of Christ on Congolese soil in the early 20th century.
Clad in crisp green and white uniforms, members of the Kimbanguist Social and Surveillance Movement (MSSK) paraded before their god, Simon Kimbangu Kiangani.
A stocky man in his 60s, wearing a dark blue suit, he is held to be the latest incarnation of God for a church whose origins are almost a century old and which lays claim to some five million members.
– Christ ‘reborn in 1916’ –
Nkamba is the birthplace of Simon Kimbangu, who launched his ministry in 1921 in an enormous territory which at the time was ruled by Belgium.
According to a church leader, he brought a message of divine revelation partly hidden by Jesus Christ, whom Kimbanguists see as the saviour of humanity.
As founder of the church, Kimbangu was a self-styled healer and prophet who alarmed colonial powers to such an extent that he spent 30 years in prison until his death in 1951.
It was only in 1959 that the Belgian colonial authorities finally granted Kimbanguists the right to practise their faith.
Today, Kimbanguists worship their faith’s founder as the original incarnation of the Holy Spirit — and his three sons as the incarnation or reincarnation of the three aspects of the Holy Trinity.
It was in 2000 that they stopped celebrating Christmas on December 25 after a “revelation” they should instead mark the 1916 birth of Papa Salomon Dialungana Kiangani, Kimbangu’s second son — who is believed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
For his followers, Nkamba is no less than the holy city, “the new Jerusalem”.
– Everyone barefoot –
At this sacred site, everybody goes barefoot, apart from the Congolese soldiers assigned to watch over the living god and his family.
As part of the ceremony, some 30 elders — or “papas” — carried in the offering of a cow on a makeshift stretcher.
But the hobbled beast was too heavy for their weary arms and ended up on the ground, mute, as the joyous ceremony continued.
After the MSSK, other groups within the church made their entry, parading across the temple forecourt in warm sunshine to the sound of a brass fanfare then flutes.
Two iron basins were placed on stools to receive donations from the faithful. Most produced a banknote equivalent to one US dollar or less, a substantial sum for many Congolese.
Several contributed wads of chikwangue, a paste made from fermented cassava, and one family gave packets of spaghetti.
One man, who was apparently disturbed, appeared, raising his arm towards the shaded area where the “Holy Spirit” was seated, only to be swiftly led away by the guardians in green and white.
“It happens a lot,” shrugged MSSK head Ruffin Asumbe who told AFP they were “isolated” for a while then released.
– ‘Freeing Africans from the curse’ –
Before the processions, there was a six-hour ceremony at which the “true date of birth of Jesus, Son of God,” was impressed on the minds of the faithful.
The “Holy Spirit” however did not attend as he went to register at a local polling station.
Freddy-Mafu Kayita flew in from Belgium just a few hours before Thursday’s celebration began.
Born and raised in a Catholic family in Germany, he began to convert a decade ago.
Speaking to AFP, he said he had spent years researching the suffering of “the black race” and had found his answer in Kimbanguism.
“Adam and Eve were black,” he explained, saying Africans had borne the consequences of their fall and the divine anger provoked by their “sin towards God”.
But the Kimbanguist church “wants to free the black race from this curse, to give it back its lost sovereignty,” he said.