The dream came late on my first night at the mission and Sisters in night gowns and flip-flops came running to see what the problem was. They carried hurricane lamps since the only electricity from the generator had been turned off.
“Please don’t kill my father!” I screamed. “Please don’t kill my father!”
Someone shook me awake and I recognized Sister Elizabeth through the haze. “It’s just a bad dream Wangechi,” she said as she adjusted the scarf on her head that covered her dark brown hair. Then she turned and sent the other Sisters away. “She’s okay, it’s only a bad dream.” The sound of receding footsteps filled the void that followed.
I was curled in a ball on my bed and felt Sister Elizabeth’s hand rubbing up and down my arm, encouraging me to talk, reassuring me that I was not alone. “Tell me about the dream Wangechi.” Her voice caressed me as did her hand. The death of my father had hit me harder than I realised.
“It was horrible,” I said as tears cascaded down my face. I sat up and buried my face in Sister Elizabeth’s bosom and spoke through fingers. “It felt real…like I was there.”
“Tell me what happened. Wairimu, you can go back to sleep.”
I looked up and saw my sister on her bed looking worried. She was dressed in yellow pajamas just like mine. She crawled back under her sheets and covered her head but we all knew that she wasn’t asleep. The screams had been loud and she too looked shaken.
I closed my eyes and the horrors flooded back. “They came at night when the whole village was asleep and locked our door from outside,” I said between gasps.
“Who came?” Sister Elizabeth’s lips were pursed as she caught a glimpse of the agony etched on my innocent face.
“The Mau Mau rebels. They wanted to kill my father but I pleaded with them and told them that my dad was a good man.”
“Did they listen?”
“No. They dragged him out of the house and into the forest.” My voice was raspy with emotion and my hands grasped a fistful of her cotton night gown.
“And that’s when you started screaming?”
It was amazing how Sister Elizabeth could read my mind. My respect for her soared on this night and I stayed in her arms long after the tears were spent.
“Tell me what really happened to your father,” Sister Elizabeth finally said when she noticed that I was more composed.
“He was killed by the Mau Mau rebels.”
“He was a Home Guard working security for the Colonial British. The Mau Mau came at night and locked the doors from outside. They yelled his name and told him to jump out through the window. The wrong man jumped through the window and the Mau Mau mistook him for my dad. They burned down the hut with my father inside.”
The tears resumed and the Sister held me. “That’s horrible! I’m sorry about your father Wangechi. Death is something I can never get used to. It clouds life and we can’t see clearly after that, but it sounds as if the Mau Mau didn’t want to kill him.”
“I’ve been thinking about that too and it bothers me a lot. One time, I remember going to meet my dad in the forest where he was chopping firewood. He excused himself to go pee in the trees and I caught a glimpse of a man talking to him. I was too young and what I saw never really registered in my mind.”
Sister Elizabeth suddenly tensed. “What did this man look like? Can you remember?”
“Not really,” I said. “But I keep thinking about his hair. I think he had very long hair.”
The Sister nodded like someone who had just come across great information. “It makes sense now Wangechi. It makes sense why the Mau Mau didn’t want to kill your father. Your father was a Mau Mau informant.”
The air felt rigid and the sounds of the night were loud; a cricket chirped noisily in a corner and an owl hooted from a distant tree. I clearly heard what the Sister had said but I found it hard to process that my father never really worked for the British. The Mau Mau had penetrated the Home Guards and used intelligence collected through my father to fight for the independence of the country. The men in the village had known – felt a pulse for my dad. It was why they had treated my father with dignity and respect despite the Home Guard uniform.
Sister Elizabeth suddenly mumbled a quick prayer. “Holy Mary, help those in need, give strength to the weak, comfort the sorrowful, pray for God’s people, assist the clergy, intercede for religious. May all who seek your help experience your unfailing protection. Amen.”
“Amen,” I said subconsciously and sighed in the Sister’s bosom.
“How do you feel Wangechi?” Sister Elizabeth asked above the sound of my shallow breathing.
“I feel calm and more relaxed,” I said. “How is that possible?”
“It’s probably because you have never talked about your father’s death.” She pulled me in and tucked my head under her chin. “Sometimes talking about it helps to take off the load. You don’t have to be alone Wangechi. Anytime something bothers you just come and talk to me, okay?”
“Okay. Thank you Sister Elizabeth.” My shoulders relaxed and I leaned against her so her bosom pillowed my cheek. On the bed next to mine, Wairimu stared, unable to pretend that she was asleep.
“I’m not supposed to talk about my past, but I was born in a place far from here,” Sister Elizabeth said in a mysterious voice. “To get there, one has to fly on a plane and cross the ocean in a flight that takes almost ten hours.”
I raised my eyes and saw the empathy that had darkened her blue eyes. She looked pretty with high cheek bones and a creamy skin. As one of the youngest Sisters in the mission, I wondered whether another life awaited her across the ocean. Was there a boyfriend or family that she missed? A life that she couldn’t reach due to her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience?
“We have long winters there,” Sister Elizabeth continued. “I grew up playing in the snow and it was always very cold. Sometimes at night when I missed the sun and wanted to feel better, I would sing along to my favourite song from the movie, Sound of Music.”
Suddenly I was listening. My eyes glowed and I looked anxiously at the Sister. She laughed and ruffled my short hair that had started growing.
“What song did you sing?” Wairimu asked from her side of the room.
The Sister smiled. “It’s called, my favourite things.”
“Please sing for us Sister,” I pleaded.
“Please teach us the song so we can sing when we don’t feel good,” Wairimu added.
Sister Elizabeth smiled and white teeth lit up the room. Her white skin felt soft against mine and I liked the way she smelled. White people smelled really good.
“Okay,” she said. “It goes like this.” She took in a deep breath, her face unpretentious and unassuming to the point of being humble.
“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favourite things
Cream coloured ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favourite things
Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winter that melt into springs
These are a few of my favourite things
When the dog bites, when the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favourite things
And then I don’t feel so bad.”
The song ended and wrapped around me like a warm blanket, shielding me from the chills of my nightmare. Sister Elizabeth’s voice was beautiful and she sang with a depth that gave emotion to the words. Without saying it, I knew she missed her home and the life of a community, but was forced by her conviction to make the hard choice of following the ministry.
And so began our new life at the mission. The days that followed were a mixture of rush excitement and curiosity. We woke up every day at six in the morning and prayed for the whole world. We prayed for all the Sisters, their families, those who asked to be prayed for and those who didn’t have someone to pray for them.
After prayers, basins full of hot water were always waiting for us near the bathroom. We were the only children living in the mission and so waited until all the Sisters bathed before we took our turn. I enjoyed the hot water and always prolonged my bath; the soap smelled good and it was my first time to use shampoo. Everything that happened in the mission including chores and meals, were opportunities to open ourselves to God, to experience His love and to radiate his love to others. Breakfast was a meagre affair of porridge and sweet potatoes and once in a while, bread and butter. Lunch and dinner were pretty awesome with delicious stews and mouth-watering desserts. The dining room was beautiful with white tablecloths, red napkins and soft lighting, giving the room a subtly sophisticated ambience. The Sisters prayed for the food then ate in utter silence. We were taught how to chew like ladies amongst other table manners. We imitated the Sisters and placed our elbows on the table and rested our chins on folded hands. The chicken came minced from packages which were heated and poured into plates. They tasted good but I didn’t understand why we couldn’t run and kill our own meat.
The sound of clanking cutlery got louder by the minute as we dug into the food, and then quieter as the nurses finished their meals. We were too young to help with the cleaning and so always liked to watch them work; picking up trays and wiping tables. Shortly afterwards, we would push away the dessert plates, groan from full bellies and rush back to play in our new room.
After dinner and cleaning up, the Sisters loved to sit on the porch, listen to BBC news on battery-powered radios and watch the African sun setting. Theirs was not only an adventure in a faraway land, but also a devotion to do the work of God. They were not allowed to discuss what they heard and could only reminisce about their homes in Europe. Once in a while, a Sister would loose strength, pack up her things and return home. On any other convent they would not be allowed to listen to the news, but with so many wars going on around the world, it was better to know than not to know.
Wairimu and I were both enrolled in a nearby primary school that allowed us to venture outside the mission gates almost every day. The all-girls’ school constituted wooden construction buildings with a dirt floor and no windows. The Sisters were not allowed to leave the convent unless it was for medical or dental emergency, to help homeless and poor, or to spread the word of God. And even when they left it was in pairs and they were not allowed to talk about what they saw in the outside world on their return. Every chilly morning, two Sisters walked Wairimu and I to our school and picked us up in the cool of the evening. They were never at ease in the real world and were always quick to rush back into the convent.
“I love outdoors, animals, the sky, and the land.” Wairimu would imitate the Sisters at night in our room. “I find it speaks constantly of the glory of God and the goodness of all creation.”
Laughing, I would pinch my nose and try for a British accent. “We must not talk of what we see in the outside world. Sisters are humans with feelings. We must guard our hearts for God.”
The Consolata Sisters were a blessing to the Kikuyu people in a time of war. Thousands of Kikuyu people died under the hands of the British and Mau Mau, and children lost parents in the process. The Consolata Mission assisted in various schools and hospitals; giving medicine and teaching in classes. They spread the word of God and gave meals to children coming from poverty stricken homes. Discipline was strict though and children were punished for bad behavior like making noise in class. My favourite story was that of a boy from my school who confessed to burying raw bananas till they turned yellow. The boy confessed in chapel and told the Father how he and his friends feasted on the fruits, and that was where the confidentiality clause ended. After penance, he was punished by kneeling down for hours. After that, I decided that confession wasn’t such a great idea.
We loved going to school and mingling with other children from various villages. A few students including us had uniform, but most pupils didn't. The teachers were both local and British, which helped with the language barrier. We loved the screaming and running around - the sound of play. The teachers made us sing everything, ‘This is a cat! This is a dog! This is a book! My name is Wangechi!’ And those students who did good were rewarded with sweets, while the naughty ones were smacked on their hands with rulers.
I loved my school bag full of books and just like Wairimu, carried it with a lot of pride. Soon we knew our way around the hilly countryside and the Sisters finally trusted us to go alone to school with a warning not to bring back stories to the convent. The Sisters also signed us up for Bible classes to prepare us for baptism so we could be born again and saved from our original sin born of Adam and Eve.
Everyday after school, we watched the other children leaving for their various villages, and with them, all the things that we wanted to be. We hated going back to the eerie silence of the convent, but were glad to have a roof over our heads.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...