On a windy evening that had gusts of air threatening to blow off the leaking roof of the miserable church building, four oil lamps were placed at strategic points in the shack to light up the place. The solemn congregation sat on rows of worn-out pews donated to the parish many years ago. Father Amos, a man in his early 50s with crooked teeth and bloodshot eyes, spoke loudly to the congregation. Anyone standing outside would have heard him amidst the bellowing winds.
It was said that he used to be one of the ‘bad ones’ in his youthful days, until one fateful morning. That sunlit day, young Father Amos was at a beer parlor, chugging bottles of chilled Guinness. It was said that the spirit of the Lord came over him with great, disruptive violence. He suddenly became like one possessed, speaking in tongues and making fearful prophecies. Those who witnessed that memorable incident still contemplate it to this day. As one man confessed, it felt like “God was settling into Amos like a vessel.”
Not long after the strange encounter, young Amos voluntarily began his service at the district parish under the hitherto priest of blessed memory, Father Paul Fisayo.
Father Amos was formerly known as Babatunde Fashola but was given the biblical name of “Amos” during his conversion to Christianity. He was thereafter known only as Father Amos. Without a marital partner, Father Amos resorted to living off of the coins the congregation would drop in the offering bowl. On some days, if he was lucky, he would go home with at least N5.
“You must have faith in God!” Father Amos roared as he paced back and forth in the small building. He wore a flowing lilac robe that had the sign of the cross inscribed on the shoulder pads and both sides of his chest. This particular robe was his favorite amongst the two he owned.
“The Lord will not let his own suffer! Fear not, Illaje is not in danger!”
The men and women gave a resounding “Amen!” while a few children remained fast asleep on the pews in the last row of the shack.
“All this talk about war has to end! Enough with the rumors! We must only keep our focus on God! Prepare yourself for the rapture because that is the only thing that is bound to happen!”
Father Amos spoke with so much authority, so much conviction and certainty, that the congregation listened stiffly with a wild fear in their eyes. It was not the best time to breathe casually or feel comfortable. Father Amos paused, wiped his forehead and brow with a wet, white handkerchief, and slowly scanned the faces before him. For dramatic effect, for his words to sink in and register weight. He walked back to his pulpit in a considered manner and rested his weight on the familiar wooden object. “The war is nothing but a tale. It is just a story. It’ll never happen in Illaje.” He smirked and shook his head. “Mark my words.”
There were murmurs in the building amongst the congregation, like the buzzing of frenzied bees. Many faces held and exchanged looks of shock, disbelief, and anger. It was clear that many considered it sacrilegious to doubt the sayings of their forgotten ancestors. It seemed not a few people wanted the war to happen.
“Yes, I said it,” Father Amos stated in a proudly firm tone.
“This thing you call a tale was passed down by our fathers who lived here even before you were born!” The sudden and shocking voice belonged to a man, Baba Nikiru, who sat on the third pew.
The church was quickly thrown into an uproar, the air filling up with the voices of men and women who agreed with Baba Nikiruʼs defiant retort. It was as though they had been waiting for the first personal objection to find their bravery.
“I always knew Father Paul made a mistake when he chose you as his successor,” Mama Ramat, a stout woman said in a thick voice that towered over the hot chaos.
The church immediately quietened down as all eyes turned to the stout Mama Ramat. Embarrassed, she quietly bowed her head. She lost the fire which had emboldened her to speak. Father Amos smiled in smug sympathy and shook his head. He was disappointed.
“I am not surprised,” Father Amos shrugged. “After all, the Holy Book said, ‘out of the content of the heart, the mouth speaks.’
“Anyways,” the neighborhood nurse said rolling her eyes. She was an aged woman who had been around the community longer than most of the others. “Father Amos, I don’t mean to be rude or to argue with you but, what you have just said is pure fallacy.”
The congregation nodded and made small sounds of agreement, although almost all of them had no idea what the word “fallacy” even meant.
“Excuse me, excuse me! Let me finish,” the nurse yelled. The room went quiet again. “Good,” she continued, “Father Amos, you should stick with your Bible teachings about Naomi and her mother-in-law. It suits you well. The war is and can never be a myth. Sho ti gbo?” ‘Did you hear?’
Father Amos remained still and unfazed on his wooden pulpit. A small smile rested on his face. His grim eyes gave nothing away to the community of gullible Illaje people who had been attending his parish for years.
“You have all spoken your minds. Is that not so?” He asked sarcastically. Without waiting for a reply, he continued, “What a mere man cannot see from the top of a tree, a man of God can see it while sitting.” He sighed heavily. “Now, stand and let us share the Grace.”
“Them don come o, them don come o,” Baba Nikiruʼs voice pierced the smoky air and fell into nearby houses. From a distance, the crack and thunder of bullets being fired echoed and held the very air.
Ra ta ta ta! Boom! Pow! Pow!
The nurse hid under her tiny bed. She lived alone, and her children were all old enough to live in the big cities miles and miles away. She was a widow as well. The nurse spent most of her day walking around the community, occasionally wrinkling her nose in disgust whenever she saw the living conditions of her neighbors.
She trembled under her bed like a chicken drenched in cold water during the harmattan season. She was unsure when exactly the tears started running down her eyes. But with their arrival also came an intense, burning resentment in her heart for Father Amos. The priest had been so sure that the war was a myth. Now, the so-called myth was a happening, invasive reality.
Baba Nikiru who had been the one to herald the tragic news was nabbed by one of the touts bent on destroying Illaje. The streets of the community were rid of human life, save for the hoodlums who were orchestrating a parade of violence and plunder. It was easy for them to catch the old man. He was the only one in sight. Almost as if only he inhabited Illaje. Something had happened to make the town seem deserted. The touts were not breaking into people’s houses, and they too could not understand why.
“Old man, wetin you dey find outside,” one of the terrifying gun-toting touts asked an already shrunken Baba Nikiru.
The old man could not speak to save his life. He was frightened to the very marrow. All his life, he had dreamed of this day. He had thought about numerous defense mechanisms that he would use to resist the enemy. Now, he was just an old man with the best of his strength buried beneath better years, long-forgotten years.
“Finish him,” the tout with the gun gave the order. Baba Nikiru wriggled out of their hold and tried to scamper off. The gunmen laughed at him as each aimed their guns at the old man. He ran at the pace of a tortoise. Baba Nikiru had only one thing on his mind as a bullet hit him at the back of his head; a burning resentment for the priest who had said the war was a myth.
Mama Ramat, the last of the unbelieving duo was not left out of the mix. The stout woman was anxious and eager to know what was happening outside. Mama Ramat was the adventurous type, and slowly, she slipped out of the house without the notice of her children, into the tense chaos.
“Why does Illaje look like a desert? Where is everyone? What is happening?”
Mama Ramat made a stop at the nurse’s house. She knocked softly on the door. “Open o. Please, it’s just me, Mama Ramat.”
“Ah!” the nurse exclaimed. “What are you doing here,” she asked, unlocking her door.
“I wanted to see what was happening outside, noni.” She stepped gingerly into the nurse’s small home. “Nurse, strange things are happening. Illaje looks like a desert. Imagine, during a time like this, I was able to walk from my house to yours without encountering any gunmen. Is that not strange? And with all the gunshots going off! This is strange!”
“Are you sure of what you’re saying?”
“Of course! Illaje is a desert!”
“Okay, let’s go outside.”
“Anh-anh, why now? Why do you want to take chances? What if they catch us?”
“Oh, please, Mama Ramat. This is not a time to be afraid. We have to go and confront that foolish priest.”
“Oh, oh. That’s true o. I almost forgot about him! Let’s go, my sister.”
The moment the nurse unlocked her door, a gun was staring at her forehead. She let out a piercing scream before the gunman angrily shot her down. Blood came gushing out of the back of her head. She passed out right there, red blood and bits of brain pooling underneath her still body.
“If you say pim, I shoot,” the tout warned Mama Ramat.
“Please, please, don’t kill me. Please,” she trembled.
“No be you go tell me wetin I go do,” he replied and took her hands. He dragged her along as he went.
“Please na, please don’t kill me. I go do anything you want. Ewo! Moku o!”
“I say make you nor shout!” He threw her ahead of him with force. This caused the mother of Ramat to trip and hit her head on a stone. As blood gushed out of her head, there was something on her mind aside from the pain and numbness she was feeling as her soul gingerly departed from her body; a burning resentment for the priest who had said the war was a myth.
“Boys,” the leader of the group said to the gunmen. “Let’s get out of this place. We’ll tell the governor that there were a few casualties. After all, that’s what they want to hear. Let’s leave this useless place now.”
A lorry came riding towards their direction. They all hopped in and began shooting sporadically into the air once more. The lorry left behind a haze of dust and smoke and hope for a better future for the people of Illaje, one that was going to be rid of the fear of war.
The next Sunday, the entire community gathered at the parish even though the church was too small to contain them all. The Community Leader was also in attendance. There was no way he was going to miss such a ceremony. Father Amos sat proudly on the new seat his members had bought him. He had on a bright and shiny yellow robe; a new one.
The praise and worship session lasted for hours. There was nothing more the people could do for God than praise him for sparing their lives. The children danced with wild vigor. The women shook their bodies in bright joy with their men, who smiled and danced slowly. It was a joyful day. The offering bowl was filled to the brim with coins and paper notes, while the altar was covered with foodstuff of different varieties.
Image: Maxim Hopman on Unsplash (modified)