Their old blue Volkswagen whizzes tensely round the Garissa Police Station roundabout and makes a creaking dash for the main gate this afternoon. The Jesus-intoxicated woman pins her two eyes right ahead. Behind them Nairobi lies hundreds of kilometres away – the couple left the city at dawn. It’s been threatening to rain in North-Eastern Kenya since morning. Garissa Town has been swearing to disobey the semi-arid normal in her dust universe. But now a virgin rainbow bares multicoloured thighs, saying it won’t rain today.
Two police officers cock heavy G3 guns. They look at the hurtling car. It is the tiny-bodied husband driving.
‘Remove!’ the big, sweating wife shouts. Her right arm jerks at the two policemen manning the station’s gate. ‘Remove roadblock ofisa – in name of God!’
Her scholarly husband observes, ‘You speak squatting English –’
‘Leave my Englis alone!’ the woman shouts, interrupting him.
‘Say ‘sh’ – not ‘s’; ‘EngliSH’ – not ‘EngliS’’.
The woman simply overrules him with ‘Does not matter.’
She turns to the pair of policemen: ‘Remove! Now remove roadblock sir!’
The husband is silent.
Guns point at the car which pulls screeching brakes in front of an indifferent pair of roadblocks with rusty heavens-pointing spikes. The elephant of a woman quickly reaches for her thick Bible from the car dashboard (it travels with her). She pulls the door handle and begins to open. Her patient tortoise of a husband, a Linguistics professor at the University of Nairobi, turns off the engine and waits.
‘Us only, ofisa,’ the big woman says. Her palms are spread out in begging.
Her husband turns. He looks at her crossly, recalling the millions of times his own armpits have become wet with sweat, teaching her the difference between the subjective pronouns ‘we’ and the objective ‘us’. She never learns, the husband’s mind hums.
One of the two policemen wonders aloud: ‘Hawa ni Al-Shabab?’ Are these Al-Shabab.
‘O God of me – we Al-Sab –?’ the woman curses.
‘Mikono juu!’ the policeman barks his order.
The travellers obey, each raising both arms…
Eternal TV adverts ran the other year. The renowned preacher of Mount Horeb Church was coming to Nairobi. They captured him in a suit as white as milk. The advert cried that God had literally sent Pastor Ojigbani: he was coming to find husbands and throw them into the cold estate bedrooms of Nairobi’s single women whose sulky long faces were spreading funereal ash on an otherwise fair image of the city. Diligent editors had done the research. Newspapers wrote that these young women scurried about in muscular guzzlers which gorged on fuel more than a Garissa camel could drink water. Nairobi’s young women owned bank accounts with piles of money – but these beautiful women had no husbands to call their own. It was damaging their self esteem.
Pastor Ojigbani would be a real godsend. Every sitting room in town caught his smell whole months before the preacher could alight from a chartered plane in Mombasa, charter another the next minute, and fly with religious fanfare to Nairobi.
The train of husband-hunting included Akelo, an ugly, bulky rural woman arrived in the city from Western Kenya one year earlier, and who was doing very well in her budho pumpkin business, because a woman with the ugliest face isn’t always the person with the worst pair of legs.
Prof. Abduba had just landed in Nairobi for his new job that year. The University of Wisconsin had made him a diehard follower of Noam Chomsky’s. He devoted himself fully to the American’s syntactical theorising – which Abduba would begin lecturing at the University of Nairobi. A petit Borana man from Isiolo in North Eastern Kenya, the professor was a very gifted linguist. But he was a serial divorcee desperate for a workable union…
‘Repeat after me: Let di devu leave!’ Pastor Ojigbani shouts that year.
The young women shout back, ‘Let the devil leave!’
‘Let di devu quit!’
‘Let the devil quit!’
‘Me di devu run ewe from ma soul end rendo it vecont!’
‘May the devil run away from my soul and render it vacant!’
‘Amen!’ their voices swell.
‘Almighty God you creatid me; a didint apply to be creatid: I axe you to gront me e hosbond!’
‘Almighty God you created me; I didn’t apply to be created: I ask you to grant me a husband!’
The universe of unmarried women choruses that year, at the Kenyatta Conference Centre where the mass marriage is conducted. Pastor Ojigbani wipes sweat with his great white handkerchief. His excessive gown flows about him, sweeping the floor. He roars, counsels, consoles, wishes well…and charters a plane back home.
The first male human being Ms Akelo met after the great marital extravaganza was Prof. Abduba himself. When love is running late nothing can stand in its way; it can knock down one hundred elephants. He loved her in spite of her own extremely simplified Western Kenyan directness. They coalesced immediately and began living in South B Estate.
Chinedu is big, thick, and muscular. Sometimes he goes by the names of the newest prominent visitors in town. He’s occasionally been televangelist T.D. Jakes, Reinhard Bonnke, and – quite often these days – Pastor Ojigbani. Chinedu never misses those religious crusades. In some, he’s the same devoted usher circulating the attendance register with names and mobile phone numbers – whose photocopy he fritters away in a clandestine bag.
Chinedu has a definite attitude. He operates like a universal sorcerer haunting the entire Kenyan Coast. And he’s done that for as long as Mombasa’s history cares to record. He’s a sexual wind blowing from Shimoni on the south coast through Malindi to Lamu on the north. He keeps in his huge bags what look like a million mobile phones. He’s always calling. After the same call repeated for weeks, he’s seen throwing the SIM card into the blue waters of the Indian Ocean at the Forty Thieves Pub on Diani Beach. The fat harvest stored, Chinedu wears his favourite dark glasses, whistling, and melts from the beach for months.
The beach misses him in those months. It remains a widow in his absence. Interesting American, German, and Norwegian divorcees whose backs he massages with curious oils inside scanty rooms on the beach; whose breasts he pulls upwards and kneads sideways like wheat dough; whose pink, sun-burnt bodies nauseate him after weeks of everything.
Pastor Ojigbani grabbed his mobile phone and called Mrs. Abduba one Sunday morning two months after the pumpkin seller married the Linguistics scholar. The woman couldn’t tell how on earth her caller had come across her mobile phone number. Maybe it was the miraculous work of the dear God she believed in.
She replied, ‘Hello, who call?’
‘God has chosin you.’
‘God?’ Mrs. Abduba had asked.
‘Has chosin you – that’s why I’m callin’ you on a Sunday mornin’’
‘Oh yes, chosin you!’
‘Yes. I’m PastO Ojigbani – don’t se you don’t know who is callin’’. The last O was scooped and stressed, as if with a verbal spade.
‘Pastor Ojigbani father of Mt. Horeb Church?’
‘Precisely Madam, of Mt. Horeb Choch.’
Mrs. Abduba had been overjoyed. ‘Thank Sir, thank Sir. You save my life. Your prayer put husband in my house – thank very much, Sir.”
They had said many, many things.
Prof. Abduba was not in the house that morning. He came in the evening and his wife told him about the details of Pastor Ojigbani’s call. She said the pastor was the conduit through whom God had brought them together as a family. Like many intellectuals the husband was by nature a pessimist about religious matters, but on this one his heart of hearts felt mollified. At least he could support his wife to fulfil her dream.
‘He want me start church,’ she was telling him.
The husband asked, ‘Who? You and your phrases, Akelo!’
‘He wants you to start a church?’
‘Eee,’ she nodded.
‘Why does he purpose you to do that?’
She was looking at her husband. ‘Church not bad – didn’t they?’
He laughed and shook his head.
‘I didn’t hold that a church is bad, Akelo; just wondering how the logic of augmenting another church to the already internecine stream of Godly structures in Nairobi City alone can be tenable.’
She didn’t understand him. But she sulked for whole weeks. Sometimes she took to threatening him with her huge body. Nagging, swearing, cursing. She said Pastor Ojigbani promised to lend her big money for initial takeoff. The preacher would physically come and inaugurate when she was set, the way he’d come and found husbands for women without one the previous year. Church is money, she told her husband; a business not any different from her large-scale sale of pumpkins to city hotels. A scholar is always the very last person to stand a woman’s constant nagging – Prof. Abduba gave in.
She pressed on, ‘We is gets money when church start.’
‘You must try at all times to obey the rules of grammar, Akelo. Say ‘get’ not ‘getS’. Say ‘We will get money when the church startS.’ It’s called subject-verb agreement. Also say ‘startS’, not ‘start’ – when church startS’’.
‘If you mean one human being, then he or she ‘getS’. But if you are talking about more than one, then we remove the ‘s’ from ‘gets’’.
‘It doesn’t need the ‘s’’, he explained to her. ‘Say ‘We ARE’; not ‘we is.’
He went on, ‘Now to phrasal verbs. You said ‘didn’t they’ but it was not grammatically sound. If you meant that the church is not bad, then you ought to have asked, ‘is it?’’
‘Because your intention is to ask if at all the church is bad. The trick is: phrasal verbs turn statements on their head. Here are examples: Akelo is my elephant – isn’t she? Abduba is your ant – isn’t he?’
She said, ‘I know now.’
‘Can I test you?’
‘Supply a phrasal verb: God is good –’
‘Goodn’t he?’ she said.
‘That’s wrong, Akelo. Try another: Jesus died –’
‘Wrong again. Try once more: I am a professor –’
‘Not quite,’ he corrected, smiling. ‘There’s a definite line between objective and subjective cases, my dear Akelo.’
The next several days she made him turn in the bed without sleep. She couldn’t let him rest before having his scholarly input in inventing the shiniest, catchiest name for her new church which Pastor Ojigbani was coming to help her found. Prof. Abduba combed the names of cities and mountains in the Bible but she didn’t like them. He tried all the prophets but in vain – Elijah Ministries, Daniel Ministries, Amos Ministries…even Sarah and Naomi Ministries. Mrs. Abduba insisted on a name grabbed from the skies. That was where she thought God lived.
In the end he convinced her to rest on ‘Apollo 11 Ministries’ because the American rocket had despatched three human beings to the moon. She was happy. The symbolism was potent: her church would literally rocket its congregation to heaven.
A striking feature of Nairobi City these days is the countless number of spouses, a husband and his loyal wife, posing for a photograph which they then hang as a billboard near a new church the pair has just founded with local and foreign support. Music blares every Sunday. Peep inside: members of a thin congregation beating their feet to the beat of drum and piano; an occasional white couple, probably the donors; in the orgasm of a prayer, men and women barking at their creator, blessing His name in the hope that He must bless them in return. The congregation’s desperate voice land on the ear with the impression that, these days, the creator’s bag of blessings is as deserted as a lonely sorghum field, when all harvest is ferried to the homestead granary.
Nairobi is, as usual, noisy. It is a week until Pastor Ojigbani arrives via Mandera Town in North Eastern Kenya. He’s called and told Mrs. Abduba that this will be the direction of his entry into Nairobi. His flight was diverted to Ethiopia. He has to reach Nairobi through Garissa and Kitui.
Before then Apollo 11 Ministries stands like a virgin project. There are two distinct corners inside. Both cry for attention. The walls of Jesus’ corner are painted white. Drawings of doves, angels, happy folk, and Jesus flying into clouds with his excessive sideburns and beard after resurrection serenade the walls. The opposite corner belongs to the Devil in all its threatening coquetry. An inferno of red billowing fire blazes there, consuming a black sinner who’s been hurled head first. Angry doom. The sinner’s mouth remains red and open – he’s crying. Twenty-odd desperate members of the new church have been chosen by the eyes of God and anointed with the blood of Jesus Christ. Mrs. Abduba is good to go. What remains is the usual billboard photograph waiting to be hung banner-like at the holy entrance into the fresh building. But the photo hasn’t been taken, so the couple has to work on the logistics.
The couple leaves South B for the city on a Sunday morning. Nairobi is solemn. Soon it will be a dazed ghost haunted by loud choruses, incessant cries pouring from parroting speakers spitting God into the streets; chants about Jesus and his coming; and the devil and his evil machinations. The couple’s intention is to land the best pose for the banner photograph.
They park their old Volkswagen behind Kencom House along Moi Avenue and discover that Nairobi is churches through and through. They can count beyond all their twenty fingers the number of seemingly deranged preachers mumbling under the hot sun in Uhuru Park. The very creative ones have devised an ingenious method of calling attention to themselves by blowing a whistle. Both sides of Moi Avenue crawl under the weight of churches; Kenyatta Avenue is constipated, crying for anti-acids to neutralise church flatulence; Tom Mboya Street is Jesus’ market place where devout nostrils sneeze the name of Christ and his virgin mother Mary. More than ten times they bump onto strange well-dressed gentlemen in suits and ties and a Bible, barking forlornly at passers-by rolling along the streets. Near these are women in headscarves, cursing those who are reluctant to listen to what they’re preaching. Towards midday, when Prof. Abduba and his wife come to Globe Cinema Roundabout, the couple sees that the China-built roundabout might have been meant for both cars and churches. Its circumference is lined with private churches like the many tits of a bitch – oruo ka thund guogi.
The couple goes on criss-crossing the city, experiencing its varied church banners. Prof. Abduba looks worried. Akelo doesn’t. In fact she’s overjoyed to view the large photographs. They see smiling couples in black suits and white suits. In a different banner the owners of the church wear steely faces in green suits. In yet another the wife leans on her husband’s chest. Close by is one where the woman’s smiling face is safely tucked under the man’s chin – ‘hiding under the rock of Jesus Christ.’ Prof. Abduba has witnessed scores of photographs where the woman intentionally strives to broadcast the tenderness of the skin around her mammary wares.
‘That very good,’ Mrs. Abduba observes. ‘We take photograph like that.’
‘It’s not very good.’
‘Not very good?’
‘Too many wares are on sale.’
‘No,’ Prof. Abduba says. ‘It seems God goes to the market these days – to buy.’
A specific banner smites the wife’s heart the most. It boasts two photographs of the same couple who own Tomorrow Ministries. One depicts the beginnings of the journey, when the couple’s bodies were nothing but skeletons. Their suits are red, severe, and hurriedly sewn. Man and woman are lean-looking, their cheekbones stick out. They look as nervous as squirrels.
Quail and manna have fallen from heaven in the second photograph: the couple stands beside a white car recently acquired. Their suits are calm blue. They look confident. The feathers of their spruced-up bodies are preened like layer hens in season.
‘Like that,’ Mrs. Abduba observes with interest.
She repeats, ‘Us like that.’
Prof. Abduba says, ‘You may want to look like the woman in that photograph, Akelo, but I won’t want to be the man in the same.’
‘Our photo like that, my pumpkin business do well.’
Prof. Abduba simply says, ‘Maybe.’
The wife is disappointed. But with her big size, she knows how to bully her husband so he can toe the line. He knows that fiery part of her temper. There are times she has hoisted him up her own shoulders and threatened to dash him onto the floor.
This evening they walk back behind Kencom House where they parked the blue Volkswagen and drive to South B. Tomorrow, several months now, they took a simple photograph. Akelo looks upbeat and satisfied in the photograph. Her husband is resigned.
The other day they hung the big banner of the photograph at the entrance into Mrs. Abduba’s Apollo 11 Ministries. The couple has been waiting for Pastor Ojigbani to arrive with a bang, and to officially inaugurate the new church. But last night the Pastor called on his mobile phone and said the Kenya Police had intercepted him in Garissa, on his way to Nairobi through Kitui. Unfortunate since, he said, he’d lost his passport in Ethiopia, and the police suspect he’s an Al-Shabab terrorist because of his strange accent. Last night alone they had to send him an equivalent of $4000 on his mobile phone so he could bribe the police. Fruitless. And this dawn the couple had set out for Garissa to help press for their visitor’s release…
‘Four hundred thousand Kenyan shillings.’
The policeman at the OB asks, ‘Ndio mlituma?’
‘Yes,’ Prof. Abduba confirms. ‘That’s what my wife sent him on her mobile phone, officer.’
Akelo stumps one beautiful leg on the ground. The policeman ignores her.
‘Hatuna pastor wa hiyo jina kwa cell yetu.’ We do not have a pastor of that name in our cell.
The professor asks, ‘He says you intercepted him.’
‘No, hapana. Eti huyo pastor anaitwa nani?’
‘My wife says he’s called Pastor Ojigbani, officer.’
Mrs. Abduba adds quickly, ‘Mwenye alikuja Nairobi mwaka jana.’ The one who came to Nairobi last year.
‘Ah, huyo tu? Hahahahaha…’ The usual one?
The two policemen laugh till they lean on each other. Mrs. Abduba nervously dials Pastor Ojigbani’s mobile phone number. The Pastor looks at the vibrating phone. The melody oozing out is Prince Nico Mbarga’s ‘Sweet Mother’ and the conman smiles gleefully. Bare-chested in Mombasa’s Diani Beach, Chinedu reclines on the beach bed, wears his pair of dark glasses, and looks at the blue ocean water spreading to India, because the music of four thousand dollars in his pockets is sweeter than the melody of a mobile phone ringing beside him.