There, in That Place of God
K. Rene Odanga
In those days when my uncle lay limp on a bed from a palsy, a Man of God would come from the church in the village centre and lay his hands over him to pray that he would “not die, but live, and see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” It was a hallowed process that demanded the whole family gather soberly around his bed with the Man of God standing nearest to him, praying. But every time before he prayed, he would insist that we all close our eyes; for that was the only way his prayer could get to Heaven. Prayers that are prayed with open eyes, he said, do not even make it through the ceiling.
After this, he would sit in the living room of my uncle’s house to eat and drink. Then before he left, my mother and aunt would hand him a little envelope of money. Sometimes there was no envelope to be given. In those instances, he would increase the frequency of his visits until there was an envelope. He came frequently, until he was a mainstay in the homestead. And with each of his visits, we had to stand around Uncle’s bed and close our eyes for the prayer. He became so convinced that my father’s brother would “be made whole again”, that we were not even allowed to doubt it.
So, my father’s brother lived; he did not die. But not everyone was quick to celebrate because in the week that he was able to stand and move again, on that day when he got out of his bed, he realised that he could not swing his left hand in rhythm with his right as most people do when they walk. It was as if the stiffness in his body had not left him but rather, had just moved to his left hand.
This was particularly unsettling for my uncle, an irredeemably superstitious man who feared that one day, the paralysis would move all over his body from its repository in his left arm. When the Man of God came by again to call on him and see how his prayers for his life had been answered, he found my uncle dissatisfied with this sort of ‘answer’. Not because he was a greedy, uncompromising, faithless man, no. But because he was a small-scale farmer, who required the faculty of both his hands to work his hoe and weed his crop. Yet the Man of God was steadfast. He told Uncle to be grateful, no one knew the mind of God, and that Jehovah could even give him a tractor with which to till his land. At the time, I was eight or nine and would have preferred to be swimming in the river with my friends or digging for sweet potatoes that I would chew on the walk home. Instead, I had to sit with my cousins in the tense room as the exuberant priest explained the mysterious ways of God that can fashion a tractor as substitute for a limp hand. And I remember wondering if tractors came with hands.
But this is not even a story about my uncle or the prayers that attended him. This is about something else, well some-things else, that I had to experience a few years later at 15, still preferring to be swimming in a river or chewing sugarcane in a farm.
And here is another man who can really pray. He really can. He has been doing it for the past six minutes or so, and by all indications, he is not nearly done. Not even by a country mile. And why would he be, when there are divers evils that wreak wonders all around the world? So, now here we are, standing in the hot February morning sun as this man’s prayer continues to lengthen. And the longer it gets, the less I am interested in his groanings and mutterings.
The Reverend Father Joseph Wanga was the resident vicar of the church that had been planted near our school. I had opened my eyes as soon as he started praying. A funny little irreverent habit that I picked up two school terms ago when my friend Michael snuck into the teachers’ staffroom at some strange time that he somehow managed to carve out of the rigid schedule that the school kept for us, enforced by the painful end of a bamboo cane. Michael, the pilfering little imp, stole into the staffroom and made away with a box of blackboard chalk, the coloured kind: blue, orange, yellow, and green. These were a rarity in the school since the school district only supplied teachers with the dusty, brittle, white ones that, when erased from the chalkboard, caused the teacher and the students in the first few rows to erupt into bouts of coughing. Teachers with coloured chalk packets probably had them as their personal property and as status symbols.
Teachers like Madam Mbehu, the English and Literature teacher whose heady, floral scents and clacking heels went ahead of her – as John the Baptist did for Jesus the Messiah – and announced her presence minutes before she hovered into view. She never wiped chalkboards herself. In any class she taught, she had laid down a law that whenever the timetable showed it was time for English, the board should have been wiped before she arrived, and the windows and door opened for the dust to settle. Only then would she strut in, having long been smelt by most students from a mile off.
This blackboard dusting went by turn, but on the day of Michael’s turn, he had dozed off during the History lesson that preceded the English one. He had little interest, one must understand, in the 250-year occupation of the East African coast by the Portuguese. It didn’t occur to anyone to wake him; not even me, his closest friend. But Madam Mbehu got through to him, when at the top of her shrill voice, she demanded to know why the board was ‘dirty’. Michael leapt up and flew to the front with the duster, swiping from left to right in a dusty frenzy. The classy woman was livid.
Class reading went by turn as well. And on this day, reading through a story in Exodus, “The Ten Plagues”, Michael was himself plagued with reading aloud about some creature called a ‘gnat’. When his turn came around, he held his dog-eared, ink-stained, illustrated copy of The Good News Bible, and with his index finger tracing the line he was to read, he offered to the class, “Tha pla-goo-eeh ov g-g-g-nats…”
Madam Mbehu looked up from her perch at the front of the class. “Michael, can you read properly?”
Michael championed, “The…the…plah-goo-eh ov g-g-nats…”
Someone coughed again. Another one too. It must have been the chalk dust that had not yet settled.
A shadow suddenly hovered over him, and he looked up from his desk to see an irate Madam Mbehu glowering down at him.
“Who taught you to read like that?”
“No-no-no one,” my friend stammered.
In a flash, Madam Mbehu thundered her closed fist at his cheek in something that was styled as a slap but really was a punch. The rings on her fingers left imprints on his cheek that he would show me later over the break period. During that moment of intense feeling, Michael’s mind was enveloped in a daze that made him slow to notice his nose bleeding.
“Go wash that face and do not come back here unless you know how to pronounce those words.”
After Michael left the classroom and the door swung shut behind him, Madam Mbehu wafted to the front of the class and with her many rings and coloured chalks, led the class in a recital of the pronunciation of the words, “Play-gs of nats.”
Madam Mbehu. Sometimes, she walked on air.
It was she, one would need to know, who had led the charge throughout the school to ban the reading of ‘secular fiction’. When the Ministry of Education announced the literature set books that would be tested in the national secondary school exam, everyone was required to have a copy of each book, and there were three. It was imperative that students be made familiar with them from cover to cover in preparation for the exam. However, once in our class reading of the assigned novel, Mrs Mbehu screamed in shock when she chanced upon what she would later term ‘sexual innuendo’ in the book. She halted the reading with a furtive wave of her hand, banged on the desk at the front, and almost pounced on poor Sumeiya who was so engrossed in her turn at reading that she had not registered the order to stop “enunciating that filthy rubbish.”
I would like to imagine Mrs Mbehu at the emergency staff meeting that she convinced the principal to call for, pacing on the staffroom floor, apoplectic at the indignity she had had to endure. If she had pearls, she would have clutched them, but I figure she rolled a stick of coloured chalk in her hands instead while making her case. But the truth is, I do not know how the meeting went after she flew out of the classroom mid-lesson, forgetting her copy of English Aid: Teacher’s Guide with Answers on the desk at the front. What I do know is that at the Friday assembly following her exodus, the school principal announced a sweeping ban on all “non-textbook printed materials”, which included newspapers and magazines, but excluded approved textbooks, old exam papers, hymnals, and only the Good News version of the Bible. Form Fours could retain their set books; the rest of us had to surrender our copies to our class teachers for safekeeping until we got to Form Four.
Now, one might ask themselves how language mastery could be achieved without reading. Which is exactly what Sumeiya and Michael asked in the next English class. And for this, Mrs Mbehu had a clever workaround. All manner of Class reading was to come from the Bible and poetry was to be taught through analysing hymns. If I never hear the lines of ‘Just as I Am Without One Plea’ and its use of repetition in encouraging memorisation, it will be too soon. Additionally, we were all to acquire new notebooks wherein we were to write a list of synonyms and antonyms of words and how to work them into conversation, and archaic proverbs that she would write on the board and test us on. The day Michael found out that the word ‘rubber’ is a synonym for ‘condom’ marked the beginning of a naughty couple of weeks in Form Two Red. Soon, English composition writing prompts became things like, ‘Neither a lender nor a borrower be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend….’ When Jonathan Keya used this particular one to weave a story about a fire that razed his village, he was caned for an entire lesson period for his attempt at what Madam Mbehu called a “malaphor.”
So naturally, when Michael thieved into the staffroom when he did that week of his slapping, he made sure it was her desk he pillaged. He made off with her packets of OMEGA DUSTLESS CHALK: COLOURED and a copy of an exam paper that she was to administer to the Form Four students the following week – this paper he delivered to his brother, a fourth former, who then went ahead to do exceedingly well in that exam.
When Madam Mbehu discovered the loss, she was furious at the Friday morning assembly and said that she would pray that God reveals the thief to her, who would then be punished severely. The rest of the teachers nodded sombrely, for thievery was generally frowned upon. I had thought that this prayer of hers would be a private affair between her and the heavens alone. But she involved us all and screamed at us to close our eyes for her prayer. And it was there that I remembered my uncle and the Man of God who came to pray for him, and how he had also insisted as we stood around the sickbed, that we close our eyes “in one accord of supplication to God that he may answer us.” I remembered how I had shut my eyes firmly to do my part in the appeal to bring back sensation to my uncle’s body. I had shut my eyelids, tightly. So tight that I felt a spasm run through them, and a roughness coursed through my eyeballs as if they had been filled with sand. Eyes shut tight. Till my lips scrunched up from the weight of concentration. And as the prayer would run to its end, I would hold my breath and exhale a confident “AMEN” shot through with conviction. When my uncle’s paralysis did not completely leave his body, I had felt sure that someone in that fellowship around his bed had not scrunched up their eyelids tight enough, so that the prayer lost its potency as it tried to rise through the ceiling.
I thought of this as Madam Mbehu barked at us to close our eyes in prayer for her coloured chalk (for on the matter of the missing exam paper she was none the wiser). The coloured chalk pieces that Michael brought with him to the dormitory and showed me. That he and I ground into a fine powder, rolled up into ‘cigarettes’ using torn exercise book paper, and puffed billowy puffs of unlit coloured dust that caused us to cough again and again. And in that moment of Madam Mbehu’s bizarre prayer, I did something that I never in my life, for a variety of fears, would have deigned to do. I opened my eyes.
Madam Mbehu’s revelation never came. I felt that I had done this act of transgression to rescue my friend.
Reverend Father Joseph Wanga is still praying. This man has the stamina of an ox. He has been praying for the past eight minutes as thoughts and memories flash through my mind. This is an arbitrary figure that I have chosen; I have no genuine way of knowing that it has actually been eight minutes since he began “presenting our supplications to the Throne of Grace,” as he put it. But he is now frothing at the mouth in a righteous fervour. So, I figure it must have been at least eight minutes or so – it takes time to get really wrecked and ‘filled with the Spirit’. Too quick to reach this spiritual climax, and it will appear fake and acted out; too long to be convicted by the Spirit, and one can be accused of possessing a heart of stone resistant to the Spirit’s beckoning. To not be fervent at all is to invite scrutiny. It will become clear how and why I, a 15-year-old boy, understand these intricate and esoteric workings of the cosmo-spiritual.
Reverend Father Wanga is an interesting man aside from his prayers. His throaty voice carries all his sermons, which range on a variety of issues from the Eucharist, the Garden of Eden (curiously fixating on the nakedness of Adam and Eve), and even the importance of student leadership for which he borrows the story of King Joash, who he calls ‘The Little Boy King’ because he became king at only eight years old. Randomly interrupting his own proselytising, he bursts into loud, hoarse, and off-key singing to instil in us the value of never abandoning the Bible.
Mimi siwachi neno la Bwana,
Neno ni baba yangu,
Neno ni mama yangu-u-u
Mimi siwachi neno la Bwana.
In a call-and-response order, the heat-soaked congregation of teachers and students joins in the singing, as the good Father’s habit bobs up and down in tandem with his vigorous clapping. Then the morning homily continues. Sometimes, for up to an hour. Michael does not mind when the sermon runs long. The class after the Friday morning assembly is History. And Michael is never in any mood to hear more about the ‘Kipande’ system of British oppression in colonial Kenya. If the sermon promises to eat into the History lesson, he is all too willing to listen to the boisterous vicar.
The vicar is a nice man. He can always be counted on to bring sweets to the assembly for people who answer his questions. “What was the title of last Friday’s sermon?”, “What was the name of the king who wanted to kill Baby Jesus?”, and others of a similar vein. But when his sermons grow lengthier in the morning sun, a couple of girls in the assembly line can also be counted on to faint and fall, causing no small commotion in the otherwise calm congregation. Interestingly enough, none of these girls, or anyone really, ever faints under the midday heat and pressure of queuing for the lunch meal, or at the supper line in front of the school’s shanty of a kitchen.
When the pattern of unconsciousness during preachings began to become noticeable, the school principal, Mr Wangila, declared it against school rules to faint at a morning assembly. Mr Wangila (who is currently standing directly behind the praying vicar, holding a large Bible in the crook of his armpit and a Golden Bells hymn book in one hand that is folded over the other at his belt buckle; head bowed and eyes closed in visible contrition) responds to any new thing that he cannot or does not want to comprehend with a chain of illegalisations, censures, and bans. These, he enforces with a bevy of bamboo canes that he distributes weekly to his squadron of teachers.
Mr Wangila is a Mathematics teacher notorious for extending his lessons well into meal breaks or the Physical Education classes that are well liked throughout the school. Once, his Form Three students hatched a plan to kick him out of class through a series of microaggressions. Two minutes after the lunch break bell rang, he was still solving equations on the board. A student yawned and dropped a spoon. It clanged loudly. Mr Wangila did not so much as bat an eyelid; he carried on. Three minutes later, all the students’ wristwatches beeped an alarm in harmony – for the students had set them to go off together to remind him that they were hungry, the bell had gone, and the queue to the kitchen was getting longer.
His response was abrupt. He turned on his heel, trooped out of the classroom, walked to the assembly grounds, and summoned the whole school to an emergency parade wherein he banned all wristwatches, calling them ‘contraband’. He declared that every student with a wristwatch should surrender it to their class teacher before going for lunch. Except Form Three Green students. Those ones were to line up in front of his office and surrender their watches to him in person. At the point of surrender, the owner would receive 20 lashes of a bamboo cane, which would be replaced with a new one every time it broke. This exercise in brutality took the better part of the afternoon and by evening, only the school timekeeper was allowed to keep his Casio wristwatch. But he was a member of Form Three Green. And so, for this confluence of crime and privilege, he received 50 lashes instead.
It is for this reason that I do not know how long the vicar has been praying. It is also for a similar reason that no girl has yet torn a hole in the organised lines of students paraded before the supplicating vicar, keeling over in unconsciousness.
On the third Friday after the faintings began, a certain Sharon Apiyo collapsed in a heap of comatose protest against the holy man’s long exploration of ‘The Parable of the Sower’. Unfortunately, she had not made prior arrangements with anyone around her to break her fall. She hit her head on the hard earth and awoke with a start.
“Ouch!” she cried, rubbing the back of her head.
The vicar’s sermon was stormed by a sea of laughter. Mr Wangila, however, having been cured of his sense of humour a long time ago, calmed the raucous racket with a deathly stare. He then ordered Sharon to walk to the football pitch and stand in the open sun for the remainder of the day, only leaving for lunch break or at the end of the school day – whichever came first – for it was not uncommon for lunch breaks to be suspended throughout the school for one reason or the other.
He bellowed: “This school is for a people called by God’s name! Not a place for demonic jokes. That is a demon! No one is allowed to faint here from today onwards. You will tell us what you are fainting for. This is a place of God!”
A poor speaker of Kiswahili himself, he had long outlawed its use outside the bounds of the 40-minute lessons of the language. Communication was to be in English and English alone. To ensure this, he started a treacherous game of ‘Spy’ throughout his fiefdom that most genocidaires would look at with a lusting envy. Every morning, he would stalk the school silently with perked ears to catch anyone speaking Kiswahili or any other “god-forsaken language.” When he did – and he always did – he would cause the offending student to wear a placard hanging from the neck across their chest that read, ‘I AM A STUPID DONKEY’, after a barrage of insults and slaps. It was then the responsibility of this student to find someone else speaking even a word of a language that was not English and hand over the placard to them. Which is something they would have wanted to do because if a wearer of the token was to cross paths with an overzealous teacher or Mr Wangila himself, they were eligible for an on-the-spot caning. This went on throughout the day, resetting at evening when Mr Wangila would come to collect his token from whichever student had it. The student wearing it would name whoever gave it to them and that one, too, would tell from whom they got it. A genealogy of selling out each other until it reached the student who had it first in the morning. Adam of the original sin. This line up of criminals would then be marched off to his office for whippings. Were it not for Madam Mbehu teaching us in her class that Githeri is called ‘succotash’, we would have been doomed, for the process was unsparing. The average school performance in Kiswahili was abysmal. Every end of term, demotivated Kiswahili teachers would leave the school and Mr Wangila would appear befuddled.
On the Sunday Christian Union services however, all rules regarding language and consciousness are beggared. It is during these services that Mr Wangila is most liked and hated in equal measure. He stands in for the reverend in these gatherings that everyone in the school must attend. Rather than the reverend’s hoarse but mostly dignified sermons, he speaks largely of the potential that our adolescent bodies possess to commit great sexual sin within the chaste walls of his institution.
Every Sunday when he preaches – for one must call what he does a ‘preaching’ – he presents strangely lewd passages from his big Bible about the dangers of sexual immorality to the giggling fascination of the younger girls and boys and the impatient horror of those old enough to know better than his excessive fascination with the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. He injects his sermons with these words or variations of the same:
“If I were the owner of this school, it would not be a mixed school. The boys would be on one side and the girls on the other. You young people, I know you very well! If I could, I would take away those parts of your body that confuse you and lock them up in the big chest of drawers in my office until the day after your national examinations so you can focus on studying!”
In the term when Form Three Green were studying the human reproductive system, the Biology lesson was followed by Mr Wangila’s Mathematics. For the first few minutes of his class before wiping the board of the diagrams that the Biology teacher had erected, he would repeat this speech to them so that by the end of the semester, the tortured students knew it by rote.
After several disjointed verses exhorting sexual purity for fear of hellfire and annihilating damnation, he makes the school rise for a prayer. It is there that his rules on language are flouted to no end and guidelines on sanity and consciousness stand suspended. There, in that place of God, a fervour sweeps over the student body and a zeal is stirred up. Michael believes that there is something that is put in the Sunday breakfast porridge, so he does not eat it. I eat his serving.
First, Ruth Atila, a fourth former, who also passed the English exam highly, probably as a factor of being Michael’s brother’s desk mate, breaks into a sorrow-riven rendition of ‘Hakuna Mungu Kama Wewe’ that sounds more like a dirge than anything else. Several other songs follow, taking up for themselves the same timbre regardless of their subject matter. By the time ‘You Are Alpha and Omega’ rings through the hall with Ruth’s voice crooning above the rest, the atmosphere stands close to the point of a sort of warfare.
As some call for the Spirit to break out and touch their lives in various aspects, others wail in incoherent tongues that are said to be the manifestation of God’s presence. According to Ruth, the Chapel prefect and architect of this whole bedlam, it takes time for the Spirit to “break out and manifest in the lives of the children of God.” So, we must “press into it and ask God to move and bring a fresh outpouring.” These words that she says, I know what they all mean individually. But when they are strung together in that order, I am perplexed to no end.
After an eternity, more people sweat and shout strange sounds. The smell of sweat is all over as people demand healing for diverse ailments and success in this exam or that assignment or restoration of some strained friendship. I remember the term that a girl in my class broke her leg, Ruth and her cohort of ‘Praise Team Warriors’ surrounded her and prayed that the cast around her shin should split in half so she could walk off. They laid their hands on her head, and it was loud and confusing to watch. She did not walk off, nor did the cast split. So, they told her that she did not have any faith through which to receive healing – a serious accusation. That evening in class, she hid at her desk and cried. Michael swore that some of the boys would use this frenzy to feel at some girls’ breasts and buttocks. So, I started closing my eyes at these sessions. But not tightly, and I did not say, “Amen.”
Here, in the place of God, I was confused. But I would wait until it was time to start shouting along with everyone else in Kiswahili. Then afterwards, I told Michael that I was 15, and I did not feel that I should have to do this. The people in that hall would cry and wail. The girl with a broken leg had cried at her desk as well; in the sort of way no child should have to cry. Others were collapsing and turning and turning and writhing on the floor. And there was something deeply captivating about it all. But there was also a sense of displacement from reality.
This man is still praying. Now he is praying passionately for peace to arise throughout the world. Throughout Africa. This morning, he says he has heard that fighting has broken out in Libya. The people are rioting against their leader, whom God gave them. I knew this leader; the History teacher had told us about him.
Reverend Father Joseph Wanga, frothing at the mouth, “beseeches” God to send his Spirit to “the good people of Libya.” To teach them that all authority comes from God, and God does not make mistakes. So that there can be peace in their country, and their leader can lead them with godly wisdom and authority for the time that God has appointed him. I close my eyes for a moment.
I think of Ruth Atila and her authority. I think of Madam Mbehu and her floral scents, her clacking heels, and her slapping fists – her authority. I think of Mr Wangila and his authority. “All authority comes from God.” I think of the authority of that leader of Libya, that causes people to run riot. I think of that long prayer. I think of my uncle and his limpened hand. And there, in that place of God, I open my eyes.
K. Rene Odanga is a writer from Nairobi, Kenya and studies at Howard University. He is a Fellow at the African History Project on African History, Black Political Thought and Education. He is an alumnus of Lolwe’s Plot, Subplot, and Characterisation class with Zukiswa Wanner.
*Image by Gregory Hayes on Unsplash