My hand comes down in one swift motion, and I hear the sharp conversation between metal, bone and flesh. The head rolls off and its life spills on the stool, drenching the altar and the mid-day air in its metallic smell. It is a heady smell, the smell of life and death. I feel the tremor run through the dog’s body as it transits to the place beyond here. This participation in death throes, it brings you closer to the mystery of creation and leaves you in wonder.
Ogun, the one who has water at home but bathes in blood…Ogun the warrior…Please do not play with me…Ogun, let this blood satiate your thirst…Ogun, owner of the house of riches…Ogun, owner of the path of wealth…bless your children…Spirit of Iron…guard us when we journey, do not smear our flesh and blood on the road…
I go on with the libation and supplication I know are necessary parts of this process. Without them, the dog would be just another dog, killed by just another machete. It is this altar and my words that turn it into something more, transforms it into food for the gods. At this moment, I bear no ill will or remorse as I offer up this faithful canine that has seen me through several hunting expeditions. Its loyalty and resourcefulness are lost within the maze of the prayers I pour before the stool, black with the blood of many before it. Ogun must not be played with. Ogun will be merciful when he will. Ogun will be benevolent to those who sate his thirst.
I am the performer and the spectator now. I always get confused at this point because no matter how I try to look around and find some other clues to my whereabouts, all I make of it is a blur. I look at me as I draw the last few drops off the dog’s neck, my red garb spotted with specks of blood that seem bent on rebelling. I try to think of any other detail about me. I cannot even recall my name. All that seems clear is the part the dog has played in my life and the purpose for which it must be killed. I also know this cycle of blood is one which I am used to. It is a rhythm that I have danced to from time immemorial.
All prayers over, I put the head on the altar gently. And a voice startles me… “Pastor, you are on now”
People call me a man of great faith. But that depends on who is looking. The questions that turban my head, in the religious dictionary of many, would come under the entry “doubt.” I have, lately, begun to think that perhaps they, faith and doubt, are only flip sides of the same coin, one inconceivable without the other. My continuous belief and expectancy comes from doubting all that has come before. It keeps my sense of wonder. If I lose this, my faith tags along. With each eye bathed with vision, each ear popped open, each womb blessed with life, I become more uncertain of my part in everything. I continue to desire more of such happenings just to become sure, to become convinced that the prayers that I offered have anything to do with the miracles that result.
I see the look of absolute amazement, sometimes of worship, on people’s faces whenever something remarkable happens in the course of our meeting. And often, I can tell that what is uppermost in their hearts is a desire to be like me, to do the things they think I can do, to have the kind of faith they say moves mountains.
Before that Sunday three years ago, I was perfectly contended in my cocoon. I was satisfied with coming to church, hearing a good sermon and hurrying out of the big auditorium before anyone could get familiar or invite me to some house fellowship. Church was good that way. I liked getting in tune with my God without having to walk around with that heavy look many of these people seemed to carry about. The utter seriousness of their lives scared me. I didn’t want to have to ask myself whether or not Beyonce was good for my soul. Or whether having a small tattoo on my upper left arm would lead me to hell. If the Bible had no clue what kind of music Beyonce sang, why should I be bothered? If Jesus was more concerned about my heart than my title or tattoo, why should it be of immense interest to people who would shit on themselves at the thought of being crucified for my sake?
Grace shared, I had turned around to head home when I nearly bumped into my neighbour. I had no idea he had been sitting only three seats away from me. In any case, he was one of those persons you could easily miss in a crowd. At thirty three, you could mistake him for a thirteen year old. He seemed to have grown in every way except physically. And he was one of the very few people in church that I could stand. He didn’t carry about the “this-earth-is-not–my-own” look like all the others. I have heard him playing Lucky Dube on his loud stereo a couple of times. It is impossible not to like a person who listens to Dube. We often met at Chike’s store where we watched Premiership matches and argued over who should have stayed on the bench and whether Ferguson ought to be chewing gum all the time.
“Hey, good morning,” he said, smiling. “You came for first service today?”
“Morning. Yea, I have something to do later, and the second service usually stretches a bit longer.”
“Are you sure it’s something you want to do or it’s something you want to watch?” He asked with a twinkle in his eyes. I couldn’t deny that and only replied with a laugh. There was an El Classico match slated for that day and I didn’t want to miss it. I would miss most of it if I stayed for the second service.
I hitched a ride with him, avoiding the rush I knew would be at the bus stop. I thanked God my shirt was going to be spared the merciless squeezing that would otherwise have been its lot. We talked about the service and other sundry things: he told me of the little disagreement he was having with his fiancée over who would move to whose parish after their wedding; he lamented how his Lebanese superiors at work were acting like colonial masters in the wrong century. I told him I desired a job change too but didn’t bother over-flogging the crazy hours I worked at the bank and my inability to buy a good car after two years of working. He attacked every topic in his usual excited manner, and it amazed me again that he didn’t introduce every sentence with “the bible says” like I kept expecting him to.
“Oh,” he suddenly interrupted, “I have to stop by the next street here. I have to see a church member who is unwell. He couldn’t make it to church today. I hope you don’t mind?”
“No, not at all,” I said, much tempted to remind him of the time for the match.
The man’s young wife opened the door. She was pretty. From the scent of curry and steamed meat that trailed her, I knew she had emanated from the kitchen. She led us to where her husband lay on the couch, eyes closed and remote in hand. From the TV screen, a preacher with an American accent was furiously preaching to his limp form. She tapped him lightly. “Darling, Brother Michael is here to see you.”
He slowly opened his eyes and they fell on me. I could see the confusion running across his face as he tried to fathom how Brother Michael came to have my face. I smiled and looked at Brother Michael. His eyes followed mine and he smiled too. He adjusted his sitting, careful not to move a muscle on his left arm which was on a sling or the leg encased in plaster of Paris.
He and Brother Michael exchanged pleasantries and I was introduced. His wife excused herself to return to the kitchen. The man spoke softly, sometimes stopping in between sentences. At such times he would grit his teeth and clench his right fist. It seemed the pain he felt came from somewhere other than his arm and leg, from somewhere else I couldn’t see with my eyes. We tried to make him talk as little as possible and cheer him up with recollections of what happened in church. We soon turned the conversation towards the man preaching on the TV.
“I think I prefer Joel Osteen. I like the way he seems to make everything so practical,” I said.
“Yea. He is okay. But he always has this goofy smile on his face no matter the subject of his sermon. And talks much too gently. I am sure I would sleep off during his sermon,” Brother Michael replied.
“Oh, but that is the interesting part! He ends the sermon long before you can even think of sleeping off. And he is funny, don’t you think?”
“I guess. But I would rather listen to Bishop Obododinma. He preaches with more fervency, with more power.”
“Well, that is if you equate fervency and power with shouting. I hate preachers huffing and puffing on the pulpit. He keeps screaming into the microphone like the listeners are deaf.”
“No, that’s for emphasis. And you would agree with me you can’t fall asleep while he’s preaching.”
“No, I can’t. I would be too busy praying about the headache his shouting has given me.”
The argument went on and on and we succeeded in causing the host more pain in his attempts to laugh. Brother Michael looked at his watch and told him we had to go. I had almost forgotten about the match.
“Let’s say a word of prayer before we leave, Brother…” He said, looking at me. I put my hands together and it was only when he kept looking at me without saying a word that I understood he wanted me to pray. The man’s wife had been called from the kitchen.
I took a few seconds to think of what to say. I hadn’t prepared to pray. As a matter of fact, my mind had switched to football mode immediately Brother Michael signalled we were leaving. It felt a bit like he was blackmailing me. He shouldn’t have asked us to pray if he didn’t feel like doing it himself. How was he even sure that I could say any “word of prayer?”
“In Jesus name…Father….” I started off and went blank. I didn’t know which words to speak first. I thanked God for the man’s family, for his house, and for everything I could see around me, including the TV that looked new. Wondering if I could stop, I peered through my lids and noticed the deep concentration that accompanied their hearty AMEN. Even our host gritted his teeth and braved loud ones. I prayed for him then. I prayed that his pain would go away, that he would be able to move his limbs without squeezing his face like someone taking bitters, that the unspoken groans that danced around his eyes would be wiped away. I prayed. And I forgot the match.
I ended the prayer rather awkwardly and kept my gaze mostly everywhere else except the faces of the others in the room.
“Brothers, thank you so much for coming. I really appreciate…” the host said, standing and extending his hand. The others were staring at him and it took a moment for me to notice he was standing on his two feet. The wide eyes grew wider as he slipped the sling over his hand and released his left arm.
That day, I didn’t watch the match.
Sometimes I think I have found a good way of illustrating the feeling when a remarkable occurrence coincides with prayers. It is much like a street urchin who finds himself adopted by a wealthy benefactor. For long, he would always look over his shoulder to be certain he is not about to be thrown out; he would hide things in secret places just in case his luck runs out in the middle of the night and he has to hit the streets again. This is not because he does not believe good things could happen to him; no! In fact, in that regard, he shares a certain quality with the rest of humanity – the belief that there is more to him than the rags on his back and the stale food in his stomach. Most humans live with the conviction that they are special, appointed by divinity for some unique purpose. Those who lose this sense end up depressed and suicidal. What keeps the street urchin trudging through the drudgery of life is the belief that tomorrow comes with something better. But if tomorrow comes too fast, it dislocates the habit of expectancy built over months, over years; it creates uncertainty whether what he sees is actually taking place or just providence playing a trick on him.
I had no business being in church if I didn’t believe that God could answer prayers. I did believe. I just didn’t think he was obliged to. That would make him a lot like a servant we tell to get a cup of coffee or buy us some suya from the aboki by the street corner. God is who he is because we cannot coerce him like someone or something we own. This, in my church, was considered to be on the borders of unbelief. We were not even supposed to request for things to happen, they said, we were to demand that they happen. And it must be immediate; Now! The Pastor tolerated my views because he believed I would soon outgrow them. People as gifted as I was couldn’t help but see the truth eventually. When certain incidents complicated my position, I was not too surprised when he sat me down one day and patiently told me the story of Abraham and his nephew Lot. It was time to leave the church.
The news of what happened that day at the house had travelled fast, and my parish pastor had taken interest in me. I was not particularly thrilled. I couldn’t enter and exit the church unnoticed anymore. The pastor believed God had a very special interest in me and convinced me to join the Workers’ Training. I finished in a couple of months and became a Bible teacher. Even the General Overseer of the church got to hear of me. I would have become a Pastor faster than anyone else in the history of the church had I not fervently refused such a title. There were conflicts that needed resolving. I, however, remained saddled with responsibilities much like a Pastor’s: I would officiate worship meetings and join in the making of major decisions. Remarkable things continued to happen during those meetings. I once saw a man who was said to have come into the service with half of his right leg amputated, dance around the auditorium.
I experienced how easily a pastor could come to live a life of comfort. The church rented and furnished a new apartment for me and someone sowed a brand new car into my life. All of a sudden my opinions on some national and international issues seemed to matter, whether they concerned me directly or not. Newspapers came to me now and then for interviews and our worship services where often broadcast live. But things were terribly hectic because I had refused to quit my job. I prayed more and spent more time reading my Bible in preparation for the many services. I barely had time for the things I used to love. Beyonce dropped a new album and I didn’t get to hear of it until six months later! If I had a wife or fiancée, I would have had a hard time explaining why I was never around for meals or available to answer her calls.
I tried to overlook the hard work. People were getting solace from their troubles; the sight of a baby that had come forth from a certified barren womb gave a certain high that the Premier League and La Liga put together could not hope to match. Those were sights to keep anyone going. Unfortunately, not everyone thought so. The media brought me in contact with such undisguised and unsolicited malice. I never could understand it. What had I done to these people? A lady accused me of sleeping with her during a counselling session and rejecting the five month old baby she had for me. I had never even seen her before in my life! Another recorded a “confession” of her activities with marine spirits and named me one of the seven top men of God who had contracts with the devil in exchange for powers. Indeed, I was flattered to be included on the list of such eminent people; but more than that, I was befuddled. Sometimes I would start reading something in the papers and just as I am about to exclaim about the devil incarnates who call themselves Men of God, I would realise I am the subject of the story.
And then the visions started.
They were dreams I had had for as long as I could remember. The same one every other night, with little variation. I had learnt to think of them as a result of too many Nigerian movies or subconscious expressions of my phobia for dogs. I dreaded those things. Not all of them though. I could stand puppies and those breeds that remain small no matter their age. Anything higher than my lower shin would get my heart beating fast and sweat gushing from my pores. I have heard funny stories of people presenting ID cards to dogs out of fright. I have many times been sorely tempted to resort to such indignity at the sight of an unchained one. When I was much younger I had told my parents about it. Perhaps I was a little bothered. Killing a dog, I could understand; but what was this whole business with Ogun? My parents didn’t understand what the dreams could mean either and, on my Aunt’s advice, had taken me to a white garment church where they were told that I was possessed with some spirit. On the appointed day of deliverance, they handed me over to three “prophets” who led me to the consecrated ground – a piece of land filled with beach sand and a small altar – just behind the church. The prophets brought brooms along and I wondered if we were going to be sweeping the premises. It didn’t take long for me to understand what they were meant for. The idea was to beat the evil spirit out of me. They almost succeeded in beating my spirit out of me. I never mentioned the dream again.
On my thirtieth birthday, I saw the same dream while awake. I panicked and left my friends with whom I had been celebrating and went straight home. I prayed but didn’t know what to say. Was I indeed possessed? The next day, the same happened. I wanted to go to my parent’s and tell them but I knew it was of no use. They saw me as a Man of God and would wonder why I didn’t have the answers. I confided in Brother Michael, with whom I had become very close since the incident at his friend’s house.
“Does the dream or vision ever extend beyond that one place?” He asked, squeezing his brows in concentration.
“No, it never does. It just starts over. But every time, a little more detail becomes clearer.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I mean, like previously, I had no Idea the dog had been a faithful companion. That bit came only after I have had the vision several times,” I explained.
“I would ask if you have prayed about this, but I know you must have. Sincerely I do not know what to make of it. We would keep praying. I am sure the Lord will reveal it to us soon.”
I read my Bible more intensely and sought some explanation wherever I could, including literature on traditional deity worship. The visions had become quite erratic: sometimes gone for days, sometimes replaying back to back with very little interval. I felt like they were alert, stalking my consciousness.
I tracked down one of the authors I had read, an old professor at the University of Ife. I wanted him to explain in person what he had written on the worship of Ogun. His book contained many phrases I recognised from the incantation in the dream, and his description of the dog sacrifice was so vivid I could have sworn he had also seen my dream before. I am not sure whether or not he recognised me from our Television broadcasts but he was gracious to hear my questions. As I sat in his air-conditioned office, He looked at me intently for a long time, stroking his great white beard.
“What did you say your family name is again?”
“That has always been your surname?”
“Well, not really. It was Ogundare. My dad changed it when he became a Christian.”
“I see,” he said, and continued to look at me with a strange look in his eyes.
“Son, you’ve been here before.”
“Actually, Sir, not really. I mean I have been to this school a couple of times before but never to your…”
“No,” he cut me short. “I don’t mean my office. I mean here. Here. This world.”
“I am sorry I don’t understand.”
“I am saying you reincarnated.”
I nearly fell off the chair he had offered me. It was my turn to look at him. My hand went towards my face and wiped off the film of sweat on my upper lip. There was no beard to stroke. I felt like standing. No, like running. I felt like using the toilet. I was not sure what I really felt like doing. For a while I just sat, listening to the buzz in my head and the hum of the air conditioner. My voice was calm when I spoke.
“I don’t believe in that, Sir.”
“It doesn’t matter. What is is what is,” he replied with disconcerting self-assurance. “Say you meet with your great grandfather today and you tell him that the earth is actually spherical and not flat like he thinks, and he says to you: ‘son, where did you hear such nonsense? Does the ground you walk on look round to you?’ Tell me, will his unbelief change the fact that the earth is indeed spherical and not flat?”
“No sir. But this is not exactly the same thing we are talking…”
“Oh, but it is, my dear, it is. We choose what we believe. But what exists and can exist is independent of them. From all you say, you were obviously a hunter in your previous life. And you worshipped Ogun. What I find interesting though is that your previous life is coming back to you. That is not supposed to happen. There is something wrong with the balance.”
The only response he got from me was silence. I think he understood. He told me to give him two weeks to investigate the matter further and get back to me. I returned home in a haze.
I walk slowly to the podium, acutely aware of the thousand pairs of eyes staring at me and the millions more watching through television and computer screens. The programme is being broadcast live across the world. And I am all too conscious of what honour it is to be called to speak on such a platform. I utter a silent prayer that the earnestly expectant eyes before me would not go home wondering why they had bothered to come. The thought of the visions linger somewhere, peeping now and then through layers of Bible verses and prayer points. Twenty four more hours to my next meeting with the Professor. I hope he has answers for me that don’t sound as absurd as reincarnation.
I tell the keyboardist to continue playing softly. I like the way the music provides background for my words. I preach about the lamb that takes away our sins, and paint a picture of innocence immersed in guilt for the sake of love. I speak of love so strong that it surrenders what is most precious: life. I speak of the love of a father who would disown his own son for a moment, to save a world that didn’t give a hoot about him. I speak gently to the consciences of all listening to me: to the saint and the hypocrite, to the rogue and the robber, to the one cornered into desperation by life; I speak to those seeking favour for visa, to the politicians on the front row seeking re-election, to those seeking something to occupy their evening and to those who have come to pick their pockets. I speak most earnestly to those who have forgotten that the greatest miracle is the miracle of love. I go on for forty minutes and ask the people to pray. I hear the voices rise up to the heavens, desires and deep worries spread out in tear-threatened words. I urge them on, knowing though not all would return home convinced that they have received something spectacular, the catharsis that comes with unburdening will keep them strong, keep them going on, keep them waiting on tomorrow for their desires.
From behind the music notes and the crowd, I see the altar. Metallic fiery eyes gaze straight at me. The stool before it, dark with the blood of many sacrifices, dark with the years of libations from generations before and for the ones after. I stretch forth the dog’s body, letting the blood spill over and drench the thirst in those eyes. I let the blood cover the misdeeds of the year before and water the goodness of the coming one. Microphone in hand, I begin the invocation. Ogun, the fiery one, Ogun the warrior who has water at home but bathes in blood….
The altar fades and I see the eyes and lenses staring at me. The music and voices come to a sudden hush like a tired engine knocking itself out. In the silence that hangs like a mist, only my words echo back at me from the speakers: Ogun, bless your children…