The Prophet

Tanzania 045, originally uploaded by linseyis.

Note: This story is based on real accounts. Despite my tendency to hyperbolize, the following has not been James Frey-ed.

The Prophet

Sister Sarah placed her wig on her head and swapped her kanga for a cream colored skirt. She led the two other mzungu girls and me out the gate, out of Olevolos village, through banana and coffee fields, and across streams where children filled plastic buckets and shouted, “Good Morning!” despite the fact that it was nearly three in the afternoon. The four of us climbed a hill; Mt. Meru loomed in the distance and we could hear him—The Prophet. His voice sailed across the broad banana leaves on a breeze that blew down from the mountain.

Fifty feet away we could see the droves of people packed tightly under the tin roof, huddling so close and still flooding out the sides of the open wooden structure. Two feet away, and Sarah led us down the center aisle of the congregation, my eyes aglow as I glanced at the people, shoulder to shoulder, a dizzying array of colors, all leaning forward, eager The Prophet’s every last word. We were the only mzungus there, and Sarah took us straight to the front, where the lectern stood. At its base, four elderly Africans lay on the dirt floor. Plaid Maasai blankets covered most of their bodies. Wrinkled, worn skin covered their faces. Sarah stepped over them, up onto a platform and sat on a wooden bench that overlooked the people.

It was from this perch that I first saw him: no taller than an 8th grader and a face no older than a 10th. Unlike the villagers, his dark hair stood a few inches high. His shirt, the most vibrant of all the colors in the congregation, was electric lime, collared and had elephants running across the bottom. His khaki trousers still had knife creases down the front and back, at the shin and thigh. His sneakers, white and brown, despite the dust, gleamed. In his hand, a gold microphone. His Swahili rolled from his tongue in waves, sometimes creating tempest storms, when the vein in his temple throbbed, other times producing jovial jubilation, accompanied by a quick smile, flashing some of the only white teeth for miles.

From my crow’s nest I could also see one of the elders I had stepped over. A long man, dark as gum boots, covered all but his face, and even then, a fluorescent beanie atop his head. His labored breathing shifted the kanga beneath him.

The crowd of Africans, at least 300, thrust their hands in the air and shook them; made a lo-lo-lo-lo noise while moving their tongue horizontally across their mouth. Sarah, who still smelled of smoke from the lunch fire, leaned in and explained in broken English: “The Prophet say hands up if you love Jesus.”

Twenty minutes of preaching later, Sister Sarah said, “Now he heals those with pain. If you believe.” Her brown eyes looked deeply into mine, her wig, a bit askew.

The Prophet began with the lame at our feet. Two henchmen, dressed in green, went to a woman sprawled out on the ground; The Prophet jumped off the dirt altar. The henchman, with set mouths and the whites of their eyes yellowed from malaria, pulled the woman to her feet. Her body trembled, her knees buckled. The Prophet pulled her arm toward him, placed his index finger on her forehead. He bowed his head, mumbled sans the microphone, and then into the golden transmitter: “Cheese-us. Cheese-us.” The crowd stirred; those in the back rose on tiptoe to see the moment of transformation. The Prophet swooped his hand down the center aisle as if to say, Go, walk. Seemingly healed, the woman tempted a step, then tottered down the aisle. Silence fell over the crowd. The Prophet had healed the lame.

Next, The Prophet pulled a frail woman in lavender to her deformed feet. Another mumble, “Cheese-us” and hand swoop, the sign that the woman had surely been mended. But this woman stood timid, the hem of her skirt dragging on the ground. Cheese-us nor The Prophet had given her enough confidence to take the first step. The Prophet, however, had enough for the both of them, and walked in front of her, his henchmen with an arm under each of the lavender lady’s. The three of them scuffled down the aisleway. The Prophet turned back to the pile of bodies up front, all dying for a cure. He walked to the man in the fluorescent beanie. It took three henchmen to pull the sickly gent up, and even then, the elder could only manage to sit in a nearby plastic chair. From my elevated position, I could still see the lavender lady labor down the aisle.

Someone took off the man’s beanie; The Prophet performed his magic. The henchmen tried to pull the man from off the chair, onto his feet. But he was rooted. Or too weak. Or too sick. Or maybe he just didn’t believe enough.

The congregation, so fixated on the man failing to stand, failed to notice the lavender lady collapse at the back of the makeshift church. Dirt plumed around her as she hit the packed earth.

Despite his fruitless attempt to heal the beanie man, The Prophet cured several more afflictions in the front row. People stood before him and pointed out their ailment—some grabbed their stomach, others touched their heads. One woman pressed her hand to her heart. The Prophet uttered his spiel, touched their forehead, and their eyes would roll to the back of their head, they would fall over, into the arms of a waiting henchman.

When all were treated, a woman sitting next to me dragged out an open wooden box that sat high on a pedestal. The Prophet strode back to his altar, leaving footprints around these he had healed and began to speak.

Sister Sarah nodded and pulled out her white handkerchief where she kept her shillings. “Times of sacrifice,” she said to me, as seriously and assuredly as if she’d seen her mother take her last breath. Sarah was one of the first hundred people to line up, walk past the henchmen and drop her precious golden coin into the coffer.

One by one, it seemed that the entire congregation stood and journeyed to the donation box, all the while, The Prophet supplying the Swahili soundtrack about the necessity of sacrifice, about how “Cheese-us” sacrificed for us, about how we must give thanks now that so many had been restored to health. For fifteen minutes, people let paper and coin signs-of-thanks fall into that wooden box, a “clink, clink” each time another offering fell from their right hand.

The church had given. But now it was time for a second collection, and Sister Sarah, hiding her eyes because she had no more to give, instead helped to usher the more fortunate to the donation box once again.

When the girl sitting next to me went to retrieve the box, a henchman aided her; it was too heavy for her alone. The box sat again next to me, and I marveled at the pile of money, recalled the scheme of the King and the Dolphin from Huck Finn. Surely, it couldn’t be this easy.

It was though, and to my astonishment, a third collection was taken. The Prophet held brown envelopes in his hands. He explained their purpose into his golden microphone: five thousand shillings in each envelope, and soon, they would have enough money to build a proper church. The sound system crackled, so The Prophet spoke directly to the audience, his voice, unwavering. “Mzungus!” he shouted, and the crowd laughed. The Prophet walked the two steps over to me, placed an envelope in my hand. Surely, I would give him the money he needed to build God’s house. On the front of the brown paper, it had the name of the church, The Prophet’s name and five thousand shillings written. There would be no confusion as to how much to sacrifice this time.

The church proceedings did not move forward until all the envelopes had been handed out. Those interested scurried up to the front, past the old man in the fluorescent beanie. The Prophet himself placed the brown paper in their hands. When ten or so envelopes remained, The Prophet stepped up onto the table in the front, stood next to the speakers where his voice projected like God’s did to Moses on Mt. Sinai. He squatted on his haunches, spoke softly, intimately, his voice applying the same tone as my mother used to lacquer on Catholic guilt. One by one, folks in dirt stained, ragged-edged clothing came to take an envelope from The Prophet.

With enough money collected, the real healing could begin. The Prophet began to sing, the crowd joining in with lifted voices and hands. A breeze undulated across my back, rippled the white cloth behind me and tickled my arm. The Prophet, now standing on the table, raised his hands up, up, up, his volume cresendoing, too, and the congregation, singing in pulsing harmony.

A voice wailed higher than the rest, and the breeze outside turned into a wind. One could hear the clacking of the banana tree fronds if not for the singing. Near the middle of the crowd, a circle formed; a few people bent down. Dust rose into the air around them, and from where I stood, I could see legs flailing in the air. Had the lavender lady fallen again? No, someone else had fallen, fainted perhaps. The woman was dragged to the front of the church, near The Prophet’s feet who stood above on the table, close to the man in the fluorescent beanie. The woman writhed about on the ground, her kanga, collecting brown spots of dust. One of the henchman removed the waxed purple sheet that served as her shawl—more intense wailing above the singing—and tied her feet together. A second henchman closed the kitange that covered the woman’s breasts—screams from the back of the church—lest she be on display for those worshipping. Another frantic, frenzied woman was brought to the pit. Now two of them squirmed about on the floor, rolling over like barrels over Niagra, kicking and screaming like naughty toddlers. Within ten minutes, seven women and girls had been carried from places around the church into the center pit. Now The Prophet squatted again, though still raised up on the table. He looked down at the afflicted.

From his crouched position, The Prophet shouted into his microphone. Three simple Swahili words, over and over, a broken record, spouting faster and faster, louder and louder. The congregation groaned as a single organism and the women on the floor shrieked. The vein in The Prophet’s temple throbbed. Spit flew from his mouth onto the golden microphone. The wind whipped the cloth around me, sent shivers down my spine.

Each of the women below squiggled and squirmed, rolled about, their legs and arms punching into the air or into each other in fits, in epileptic seizures. No part of them lacked dirt. Their faces donned a layer of the earth that resembled foundation not yet rubbed in. One girl had on a gray shirt that said “Bebe” across the front. When she was first brought to the pit, I scoffed at the designer clothing found here in this small African village. But as she convulsed on the floor, kicking women in the head, fighting off any form of help or tranquilization, as she hit her own head on the ground, as she screamed into the dusk and sharp wind, as she rolled her eyes in orbit and then into the back of her head, I couldn’t help but wonder about what her spiritual life might have been like before missionaries had come to her village. Now, in her western shirt, worshipping her western god, she resembled a scene from a western play, “The Crucible.”

“Take photos,” Sister Sarah said before she jumped down the dirt step to assist the henchman and others in taming the writhing women.

I couldn’t refuse. I shot shakily, ashamedly, hunched down behind the lectern so no one would see me. One of the henchman did, though, and shot me a look that said, Put that thing away or I’ll kill you. I hid my camera and shot from my hip.

At one point, The Prophet stepped down into the pit of snakes. Wild hands grabbed his legs, clutched his pants. He tried to get away, but the souls of the damned were too strong, and the henchman had to pry off the hands of the devil’s incarnate.

The man in the fluorescent beanie sat perfectly still.

The frenzy lasted nearly forty minutes. One of the last women to stand had somehow managed to keep her head wrap intact. But her eyes stuck in the back of her head. The henchman brought her over to The Prophet. He held onto her arm, then pressed his fingers so firmly into her eye sockets that I could see the depressions it made. The congregation, save the girl in the Bebe shirt, still seizing on the floor, fell quiet.

After a short prayer The Prophet removed his fingers from the woman and opened her eyelids. The whites of her eyes shone against her black skin. No pupils yet. From my side view, I could see tears form in The Prophet’s eyes. Was he scared? Nervous? Humbled by his powers? Afraid of them? He wiped away a falling tear with the shoulder of his lime shirt and continued to pray for the woman. Finally, her eyes straightened, but they possessed the look of a demon: piercing, glassy and unblinking. She glared at The Prophet.

It was a standoff.

The last girl on the floor stilled. The crowd hushed.

The man in the fluorescent beanie sat perfectly still.

Eons passed. The Prophet and the she-devil stood clutching each other. Tears welled again in his eyes. Would this be it for The Prophet?

The mzungus next to me didn’t move. A baby cried in the background. The sun had almost finished falling. Goosebumps rose on my arm.

The girl on the floor screamed, then fell silent again, with a kick of her bound legs.

Finally, the daggered look on the woman’s face fell into soft wrinkles around the eyes; the strained lines across her forehead no longer pulled taut. The elephants on The Prophet’s shirt rose and fell as he took a deep breath. The spell had broken.

At the end of the mayhem, the churchgoers poured from the aisles in straight lines with brown-toothed smiles, proud of the work and worship. Besides Sister Sarah, us mzungus, the henchmen and The Prophet, only two people remained: the girl in the Bebe shirt, still comatose on the floor, and the man in the fluorescent beanie, still planted in his chair. We too, walked out of the makeshift building, past the infirmed and possessed.

On our hour’s walk home, Sarah explained to us the importance of placing five thousand shillings in the brown envelope and returning it to The Prophet. She would bring it back when she came again on Thursday, she said.

Over the next two days, Sarah hounded me about my money for the church. She was desperate for it. Over the fire to make chai, while we scrubbed our laundry, when we cut the mafuz. ”The Prophet, The Prophet, and the mailboxi,” she’d say. “Thursday, the mailboxi;” she’d confused the word for envelope despite her secretarial classes.

And because Sister Sarah was so beautiful and kind in her hospitality, because she was so ardent in her belief, walking over an hour three times a week to see The Prophet, because she gave so willingly the money of which she had so very little, because it meant so much to her, I shoved five thousand shillings into my brown mailboxi.

As I handed over the paper, I imagined the scene when she walked there on Thursday to give my money to The Prophet:

I prophesize that the man in the fluorescent beanie will still be there, sitting in a plastic chair at the front of the altar, waiting to be healed.


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