My knees hurt after kneeling on the wooden floor for an hour. Beside me, Wairimu’s face was cringed in agony as she suffered the same fate thanks to Sister Margaret, a mean old lady we had come to dislike at the convent.
Sister Margaret was not liked by most Sisters because she tried to control them even though technically she wasn’t in charge. And that was the cause of the problem because Sister Margaret wanted badly to be in charge and had been overlooked plenty of times for the position of Mother Superior. All those years she had lived in the convent, faithfully and cheerfully sweeping the chapel and polishing the cross, had not paid off. She smiled little now and was quick to point out other Sisters’ flows.
Sister Margaret had caught us running between the buildings and had not been pleased. We were a distraction in a life of seeking God that the Sisters pursued. And so she had made us kneel down as punishment. In my mind, I pictured her poking a kid's balloon and laughing, drawing energy from the child's tears.
One hour later and breakfast over, Sister Margaret told us to rise and say our prayers while she listened. We closed our eyes, clasped our hands together and said the words out loud.
"Lord, hear the prayers of those who call on you, forgive the sins of those who confess to you, and in your merciful love give us your pardon and your peace."
My stomach grumbled as we walked away from our punishment. Once more we had missed breakfast. It would be a long wait till lunch was served.
The day was Saturday and there was no school. We helped with the chores around the big house, scrubbing the floor and cleaning clothes. At ten in the morning, we were so hungry that we went digging through Sister Catherine’s trash can outside her house. She lived alone as the Mother Superior in a small one bedroom house. It wasn’t our first time in the trash and we had noticed some cool stuff there before. Like the jelly glass she had thrown away for example; we had licked it clean and and we were trying to find another one for my sister.
"I see a yoghurt can!" I exclaimed to Wairimu and pulled out the plastic can. I was both famished and exhausted. "There’s another one here too." I gave her one and kept the other. We licked the insides and closed our eyes at the taste melting in our mouths. A door opened somewhere and we heard footsteps approaching. We dropped the trashed yoghurts and ran for our dear lives. Being caught would mean kneeling down or worse, missing another meal.
One thing I learned about the Sisters was that as much as they had dedicated their lives to God, they also had vocations and career qualifications. Sister Margaret for example was a Catholic teacher hence her sternness, while Sister Elizabeth was a nurse hence her compassion. I tried to picture her carrying trays of bandages, tape, and medical scissors and the image warmed my heart. Sister Elizabeth talked about a great work environment full of prayers and ministry at the Mathari Hospital. With special emphasis for the poor, the hospital strived to provide affordable, universally accessible and acceptable health care services in furtherance of the healing ministry of Jesus Christ. Rumour had it that the Mau Mau had vowed to kill every white man they met except the doctors at Mathari Hospital who were ‘the best doctors in Africa and best friends Africans have’.
Every evening we attended a short mass after dinner, which was mostly spent on Rosary prayer. The church was more like a chapel secluded from the other buildings with a white cross on top of the building. Inside, the huge sculptures of Jesus and his mother Mary scared me, but the sweets Sister Elizabeth gave us brought sunlight to our faces. The chapel had a warm intimate feeling about it and looked beautiful with its dimly lit candles. The last of the afternoon sun beamed through the window and lit up the huge golden cross upfront. We knelt along the wooden pews for half an hour and recited Hail Mary in English, Swahili and Gikuyu. Sometimes we dozed off while the Sisters prayed, especially after a long day at school, and only woke up to the sound of music as the Father walked into church led by an altar boy carrying a huge cross. The Father liked to dress up in white and green robes while the altar boy always wore white with a serene expression. Everything about the Father was perfect. A handsome face, a deep soul and ancient suffering peeking through his eyes.
While the Father approached the altar, we grabbed our hymn books, stood up and sung to his steps as though guiding him along. When he arrived at the altar he bowed, venerated the altar with a kiss, then walked over to his chair and faced the people.
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," he said.
"Amen," we responded.
"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all."
"And with your spirit," we responded.
I sat next to my sister Wairimu on the same row as Sister Elizabeth and away from the mean Sister Margaret. All the Sisters carried small Bibles and rustled the pages ever so often in reference. Then they would raise their eyes, make the sign of the cross and smile up to the heavens. My eyes followed the altar boy throughout the service and even though he was white, he looked devastatingly handsome and reminded me of my big brother Nderitu; the confident look on his face as he followed the Father around, the narrow shoulders and upright posture as he cleared the table. He made me miss my brother and I wondered how Nderitu was and what he was doing.
My favourite part of the Mass was the Holy Communion which we were not allowed to take since we were not baptized. The tables upfront were covered in pristine white clothes with gold rimmed plates and cups. I wanted to taste the ‘bread’ and the wine, for selfish reasons but I was also afraid because the Father asked the Sisters a question before ‘feeding’ them. What if I didn’t know the answer? Maybe that’s what they would teach us in the baptism classes we were taking.
The Father raised both hands and waved with meticulous diligence and precision. "Phil 2:6-8. As we follow Jesus, our savior, who carries his cross on the way to his death and glorification, may we become more like him in mind and heart. His state was divine yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are, he was humbler yet, even to a point of accepting death, death on a cross."
"Have mercy on us," we responded, "O Lord have mercy on us."
The Mass came to an end with the concluding rites.
"The Lord be with you."
"And with your Spirit."
"May almighty God bless you: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit."
After Mass, we waited outside for Sister Elizabeth while she talked to Sister Catherine who seemed to be handing over some information to specific Sisters. It was dark and warm outside. Moonlight bathed our faces, and cream-coloured roses glistened on the bed of flowers outside the chapel. We always waited for Sister Elizabeth so we could spend a little time with her walking back to the house and also because we were afraid of the dark shadows hugging the path. She finally walked over with a smile. "Come children," she said. "I have some good news for you." She comfortably placed her hands on our shoulders and we strolled along.
"Really?" Wairimu said. "What is it?"
The Sister chuckled and I looked up expectantly. "We are going to be holding Mass at the Mathari Boys’ Orphanage."
Wairimu and I stopped walking, turned and locked eyes. The breath whooshed out of my mouth as we both had the same thought at the same time - but it was Wairimu who uttered the words. "We are going to see our brother!"
"Shhhhh… quiet children," Sister Elizabeth warned, and far ahead Sister Margaret turned with a frown. Only a few Sisters were allowed to talk in the open and Sister Elizabeth was one of them.
We didn’t care. I felt my heart slamming into my rib cage. The thought of seeing Nderitu after so many months stirred something warm inside my body.
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...