Mongolians are generally very loose about hellos and goodbyes, but part of the traditional Mongolian greeting when you meet a friend or visit someone's home, in the countryside especially, involves the exchange of snuff bottles. They are always offered to the other person by being held in your open right hand. The other person does the same, and as the hands come together, much like shaking hands, you take the other person's bottle. Once exchanged, you can then either takes a pinch of snuff or just have a sniff of the neck of the bottle. You would then have a look at the bottle, which is usually made of semiprecious stone or wood, compliment the owner and then pass it back as he (or she) returns yours.
For the nomad who has no bank account, owning a snuff bottle is one way of carrying your wealth around with you – some of them are worth $1,000 or more; your wealth is one of the things your bottle says about you.
Interestingly, some Western Christians here refuse to have anything to do with the snuff bottles because of the tobacco implications. My personal feeling is that it's better to be accepting of the culture rather than put barriers up. A few of the older men in our church exchange their snuff bottles before or after the meetings. I always carry mine, and when one of the men offered his to my parents (when they were visiting) after exchanging with me, I introduced my parents and he told them I was his Mongolian son!
Our Christian friend Baagii is an excellent wood carver, and can make almost anything he puts his hand to. Recently he has been making snuff bottles engraved with Christian insignia. Obviously if your snuff bottle has Christian insignia on it then it says a lot about you, and will hopefully start many conversations about the meaning of the symbols, particularly in the countryside where many people still know nothing of the gospel. It is a really good example of contextualising the gospel.
Dasai, the biggest Hindu festival of the year, is a time for family gatherings, new clothes, meat, and worship of Durga. The climax of the festival, on the tenth day, is when senior family members give tikas (red powder mixed with rice daubed on the forehead) to their juniors. Christians in Nepal consistently refuse to wear a tika because of its associations with idol worship. And, as one Hindu admitted, ‘Christians don’t wear tikas… if they did, we wouldn’t know if they were Hindu or Christian’.
Dasai can be a difficult time for new Christians. Just how difficult is apparent from the distraught testimony of a local girl of 25, who has been a Christian for seven or eight months. She is the only child of Hindu parents. She felt she needed to be at home to help her mother with all the extra cooking for guests this Dasai. She describes what happened on the tenth day of Dasai in her own words:
‘Before being given a tika you have to wash to be pure, then go to the temple, do worship, offer jamera [a yellow flower grown specially during Dasai festival], and then return home at the auspicious time, which this year was 9.05am. Instead, I kept busy cooking food. Because I am a believer I didn’t want to wear a tika. I had already spoken with Mum about that, but she didn’t reply, she only made a sad face. The one who gives a tika can’t eat until they have done so. It was hard for me to see her go hungry all day. So I received a tika, asking God for forgiveness. I did it deliberately, not in ignorance. I am a believer in the Lord now. I wanted to cry.
‘I hope that in the future I can fully believe in God. But this Dasai I wore a tika. I have thought a lot about this. I can’t do both. I can’t walk both roads. I have to choose one path, but how can I choose God? If I choose God I will keep on getting temptation, not temptation from God but from Satan. Satan tries to pull you back. I particularly need the church to pray, and if they pray from their innermost heart for me, God will hear. He will give me a way to escape from temptation, that is my hope. I want to be close to God. I hope that God will acknowledge me – I have acknowledged him; but at this Dasai festival I fell back. I didn’t want to. What is God’s grace like?’
Thankfully Dasai becomes less difficult for believers once their families are used to them being Christians, and have seen the changes in their lives. We have heard many exciting stories from brothers and sisters who were with their Hindu families at Dasai and yet did not compromise their faith in Jesus.
Will you take up the challenge to pray for this girl? Her situation highlights the cost of being a Christian in Nepal. The emerging Nepali church faces many similar issues in the Hindu enironment. What does it mean to be both a Christian and a Nepali?
Nick and Rosalind Henwood, Interserve England & Wales Partners serving in Nepal.
Dennggg! With a crash the heavilyloaded cart tipped over. The porter stumbled, the cart hit his head and he was killed instantly. That is why the management of the large open-air market decided then and there to send away all the porters with similar carts. They were only allowed to return with a different kind of cart – but of course they had no money to buy one. So suddenly twenty-one porters were out of work. I was one of them.
This happened two years ago. But let me introduce myself. My name is Dorzjbat and I am 19 years old. I live in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, in a small one-room house. There are nine of us.
It was a terrible setback that I could not work as a porter anymore. Two years earlier, when I turned 15, I had to leave school because we needed money badly. My father received a small pension and my mother worked as a nursery school teacher, which provided us with just enough money to buy food every day. We only had a meal at night, so I usually worked on an empty stomach. And there was no money for new clothes.
Working six days a week as a porter, I earned between a thousand and five thousand tugrugs a day (roughly between 50p and £2). On Tuesdays the market was closed, because in my country many people believe that Tuesday is an unlucky day for trading.
After we had been expelled from the market, I could sometimes earn some money as a construction worker, but it wasn’t a lot. In those days I would often drink vodka together with five friends I had got to know at the market. Vodka is very cheap here, especially when there are five of you to share in the cost.
Then, in 2001, my father died. As my eldest brother had moved to the countryside and my other brother was a university student, I had to take my father’s place. That’s how it works here. As a result, I tried to work as often and as hard as possible. I really felt responsible for our family, so I did not join my friends any more to go and drink vodka.
Who is Jesus Christ? In May 2002 my eldest sister told me about Jesus Christ. Through an uncle of ours she had joined a small church which had started in 1997 as a Bible study group. But I did not have a clue what she was talking about. Small wonder! From 1924 to 1990 my country had been a satellite state of the Soviet Union under a suppressive communist regime. Any religion was strictly prohibited, and thousands of Buddhist monks were killed in the 1930s. It was only after a peaceful revolution in the early 1990s that democracy and freedom were allowed here. So in the decades before that hardly anyone had ever heard about Jesus!
Actually, Tibetan Buddhism has recently become the official religion in Mongolia again. There are temples with monks (lamas) who will pray for you if you pay them. Many people ask them to pray, especially in the countryside. When someone dies, a lama will tell the next of kin what will happen to their dead relative. If you were a really good person, you might go to one of the heavens. If you were very bad, you could end up in one of the eight freezing cold hells or one of the eight hot ones. But usually you will reincarnate and return to earth. People hope they will come back as a person, not as an animal or a plant, but they can never be sure, so many Mongolians are worried or scared.
Because of those seventy years of communist rule, many of my countrymen are atheists now.
Living in the kingdom of God One day I went to church together with my sister, but I did not understand anything of what I heard there. So I told her it had been the first and the last time, which she didn’t like. But I preferred to earn money on Sunday instead of listening to incomprehensible talk. She kept urging me to come again, though. In the end I decided to go one more time so that she would stop nagging. But that time I really understood what was said. Soon some young people asked me to come to the church youth group and in that way I discovered more and more about the gospel. During a church summer camp in 2002 I decided to become a Christian. I was baptised together with four others in the river nearby.
I tried to read the Bible every day, but my mother, who is a Buddhist, would get very angry at me. And there is no other room to go to! I started praying about this, and after a few months she no longer yelled at me. I think she realised how much I had changed. I used to be very short-tempered, but now I would make an effort not to lose my temper so quickly.
I still manage to earn some money as a construction worker now and then, but during the winter there is hardly any employment in that area. I would like to go to university, but there is no money for that.
Although we are still poor, I feel blessed, and I have one aim: I want to serve God with all my life. Circumstances are often hard for me and other Christians. You are nearly always the only believer in your class or at your work (if you can find a job!), and many people laugh at you or react in a hostile way. Quite a few people here believe that a real Mongolian should be a Buddhist. If you become a Christian, they feel you follow a foreign religion and therefore betray your own country. That’s what my mother thinks too.
In moments like that there is one thought I hold on to: although I live with my body in this world, I live with my spirit in the Kingdom of God!