Early this year I interviewed the Provost of All Saints Cathedral. Everybody called him the Provost. The Provost’s office? Go up those staircases, it’s the last office along that floor. I bounded up the staircases merrily, almost whistling under my breath. [It was a gorgeous day and I had just bought a new pen that I was dying to use]. Oh, from Nation? Kindly have a seat, the Provost will see you in a second. He had the least Provostic hair you will ever encounter on a Provost. Not that I’ve ever met a Provost in my life, but I didn’t think he’d have great hair. He looked like he thought about his hair and gave it a lot of attention: pre-pooing, clarifying, deep conditioning, LOC, the whole nine. It was great hair. I bet some people have saved him on their phones as The Provost with the Good Hair.
His office had a slanting wooden roof that I liked. A big window let in light that illuminated his hair further. It almost looked like a halo. I asked him many questions – is God a man or a woman? Who put a bee under the bonnet of the Lord of the Old Testament? Does public speaking get easier each progressive Sunday? Do hot congregants hit on you, wanting to touch your hair? Is your position appraisable? What did you and your wife fight about last? Is that your real hair? – but I also asked him about heaven and hell. I’m fascinated by the idea of heaven and hell. I think it would be pointless to “save” ourselves great debauchery for ‘the promise’ only to get there – whatever ‘there’ is – and be told by a man wearing a hat made from goat hide, “heaven? Hang on a second,” then shouts over his shoulder, “Reuben?! REUBEN! There is a gentleman here looking for heaven!” Then Reuben will come out of a blue door with no handle, drying his hands on a tattered cloth with tomato sauce stains, and say, “oh another one.” Sigh. “There is no heaven, mate.”
“Or hell, for that matter,” the guy with the goat hat will add.
You will stammer, “but…but…but…” because you drank soya tea all your bloody life and never even shaved your legs or armpits to attain the Kingdom. And Reuben, who will bear an uncanny resemblance to Davido, will chuckle then start laughing hysterically. When he’s done, his accent will suddenly change when he says, “get the frk outta here, young blood.” Then Reuben will growl, “yeah, beat it. And shave your legs for chrissake.” Then maybe you will realise that that is hell.
Anyway, The Provost.
I said, “Provost, what if there is no heaven or hell? What if heaven is when you hug your child or wake up in the arms of a woman you love? Or move into a new house with a red roof? What if the idea of heaven and hell is right here with us but we fail to notice it?”
Of course he expects questions like this, he is the Provost after all. They were warned; the devil isn’t some man with a green face, a horned head and a barbed tail. No, don’t expect that. The devil is sophisticated and a master of disguise. He will come in many different forms. He might come in the form of a journalist with a forehead the size of a small country, planting seeds of doubt or just shaking shit up. Be wary but be cool. You got to be cool to be a Provost, don’t ever lose your shit.
He draped one long leg around the other [for he can’t be described as a short man] and chuckled. Then he said gravely, in his Provostic voice, “Let me put it this way. After all these years of being a Christian, if I was told there is no heaven, I would not be disappointed. I lived in Heaven. Why do I say that? Heaven is not a location. Neither is hell. It’s a state. You can live in hell right here on earth. And there are people who live in hell. Hell means absence from God. And heaven is God’s presence in your life -”
So there is a heaven?
“Yes and Jesus demonstrates that very well. But heaven doesn’t start in the utopia or in the futuristic. Heaven for a Christian begins here. And there are people who will suffer here and suffer there. There are people who will live a good life here and there. What we can do,” he held up a finger, which I stared at intently, “is make eternal choices right here.”
Hmm. I said. Which is something I say when I don’t have any further questions. Eternal choices. I made a point to use that line one day. There are things people say that I save in a little box in my mind called ‘Things I Steal From People: Cool phrases. Sick comebacks. Things that I don’t see coming.’ For example the other day I was having a drink at a bar with this young, bushy tailed anesthesiologist and I don’t know what we were talking about but I was practicing avoidance when I told her ‘well, I don’t like to look a gift horse in the mouth’ and she said, ‘you should. It could be the Trojan Horse.’ Yeah, that went straight to my Things I Steal From People.
So it came to pass then, that when I met Janey who claims to have been to heaven, I reached into my little box and retrieved the phrase ‘eternal choices’, and I could tell she was slightly impressed by my perspective. Of course I didn’t tell her I plagiarised it from the Provost. I passed it off as mine. Here is how this is relevant.
In 2013 as Janey was leaving the house she told the house help, “na usisahau kuchemsha maharagwe.” She was holding the hand of her six year old daughter, who was holding a small mirror to glare at her new pussycat hairstyle which wasn’t even new because it had been done three days prior but she was mad about it. Absolutely mad. All she seemed to do the whole day was scowl at herself in the mirror. You know how deranged children can get.
She dropped her off at her sister’s place in South B and picked up her friend in town. They had one of those chamas, but the type that goes to visit someone’s parents every cycle. The plan was to do some shopping at the Uchumi on Aga Khan Walk, but they drove around and around looking for parking with little success, so the friend suggested they drive to Thika and shop from there before they proceeded to Sagana, where they were visiting their friend’s parents. They were to converge at a petrol station there. Twelve girls and their twelve hairstyles. [The latter is irrelevant, don’t know why I had to write it]
So they drove to Thika, or Dhika, as they popularly call it. On their way, a friend called to ask where they were and they said they were making a small stop at Dhika. “Sawa, I’m right behind you guys.” the friend said, “I will also pitia there as well. I need to pick something from the supermarket.”
They got a massive trolley and did the bits of shopping assigned to them. Her friend came and bought more sanitary pads because her period was threatening to come earlier than usual, and lately she had been experiencing a very heavy flow. “Unusually heavy and very painful” she told them as they paid up at the till. She remembers them talking about this at length as they made their way to the parking lot. An attendant was helping them push the trolley. At the parking lot the friend she had given a ride looked at the other lady’s car and said, “Oh my God, you bought another car?” It was a silver BMW X5 sitting there at the parking lot, shiny on the nose, pretending he wasn’t taken by the admiration of the girls. “No, it’s my husband’s car.” She said wearily, as if the car had caused them countless fights [“you don’t need a new car, Joshua!” and he eventually overran the Government and bought it anyway]. But the bad decision had grown on her. It was a nice car.
The friend decided to ride in the BMW because she had never ridden in a BMW and what life are you leading if you haven’t ridden in a BMW X5? Boxy, monstrous and bulky in the ass? Janey followed them as they got back into the main highway towards Sagana. The dual-carriageway ended and the road tapered. Cloudy day, the sky bland and smeared white.
When people recall how accidents happen they say the same thing. “I don’t know how it happened. It was all too fast.”
She says, “ I don’t know how it happened, it was all too fast.”
What she remembers is some idiot honking at her as he overtook her because she’s driving at a leisurely pace. She remembers looking at him as he leaned into his honk. “He was middle-aged, maybe 43, white shirt. Bald headed. He was driving a blue salon car.” To teach her a lesson, to inconvenience her, to show her who was boss, the man decided to get back into lane, but close to her, to force her, to lessen her. Intimidation. You have experienced it before, assholes with driving licenses. Only the guy came back too fast and too close. She pressed on the break but it was a little too late and a little too fast; she clipped the back of his car, a very small flick, a feather lick, but at his speed, maybe 100km/hr, maybe 110km/hr, it caused tectonic results. First, she saw his car flip like a pancake. “It was like in the movies,” she says, “his car looked like a toy going belly up.”
Meanwhile her car was also doing a dance, the boogie-woogie. She veered off the road, hearing the grating sounds of metal scratching and the banging of the other car, other motorists getting out of the way, saving themselves for their children and their loved ones. She remembers her car twisting, like those Olympic gymnasts. She remembers her head hanging upside down, her belt pressing painfully against her right breast, her earrings dangling in the opposite direction. She licked some liquid trickling down her cheeks and realising, without any horror, just plain matter-of-fact, that it was her blood. It tasted like something from the Periodic Table. She remembers thinking, is this death? Is this it? Will my daughter attend my funeral in her old pussy cat hairstyle or a fresh one? She remembers feeling very thirsty as men grabbed at her door frantically, trying to yank it open. “But in my state, I felt like I was in my bedroom and they were trying to break down the door. I’m told I was screaming, asking them to leave me alone.”
Then blackness. An ambulance or a car with sirens. Voices in mother tongue, Embu or something. Someone slapping a plastic mask over her face then followed by whirring sounds of air passing through a tube. Squeaking feet on linoleum floors. Snatches of images. Blackness. “They put me under an induced coma, they called it.” She says. “Because they needed my brain to stop the swelling. I was under for a week or so and during that week I saw things. I have spoken to people who say they don’t remember anything when they were in a coma, but I do. I think I went to heaven. There is a heaven.”
A white man with a trimmed beard was playing a harp while wearing Jesus sandals?
“I lived in a house with grass outside. Tall grass. Like grass reaching my knees but it wasn’t like grass that harbours snakes or crawlies. It wasn’t grass that made you itch. It was just grass that felt like feathers against your skin. I lived there. I didn’t have a child or anything. I didn’t have a family. The concept of family wasn’t there, no brothers or sisters or uncles or grandmothers. I didn’t see any of them. I saw lots of people but they weren’t people I knew or had any feelings for, not love or envy or anything. They were just people who were there, like I was. We spoke -”
“I don’t recall. But I recall waking up every morning and going about my business of just walking through the tall grass or sitting under a tree. I recall someone touching my face all the time, someone unfamiliar but who made me feel like I knew them. They didn’t have a face. I lived in that house alone but then it always felt like it had people. The sun never set even though I knew it was morning.”
“Do you remember eating something?”
“Yeah, that sounds like heaven. I don’t think heaven has carbs and if they do it’s chapos.”
There was an idyllism to that existence. A place with no dusk. No sounds of the night. A place where you didn’t know which side the world was coming or going, no clock to speak of, no pressure. No fear. “The only face I saw in this place was the last face I saw for a split second; the bald, middle-aged man in a white shirt. The guy who caused the accident. I saw him each single day. He was either sitting on a stone by a river bank, his feet dandling into the clear fresh water, fish swimming around his feet. Or I’d see him at a shop eating ice cream. Or pass him by the road. The weird thing is that I had the urge to speak to him but I couldn’t. But then again I don’t recall speaking any words to anyone. You somehow communicated by existing, being there was enough communication. However, my inability to talk to this person, the only person I wanted to talk to, wasn’t a source of frustration. It’s almost like I understood that I couldn’t talk to him or I wasn’t supposed to talk to him. But I would run into him frequently.
“After a week or so I woke up, and as I slowly regained my senses I’m told that I kept saying I wanted to be taken back. ‘Take me back, take me back please’, I would cry. So they would sedate me a bit because I was getting very agitated.”
She recovered. She went home. She hugged her daughter who asked, “mom, what happened to your leg?” She was on a wheelchair for two months or so. Her left hip had been shattered. She had sustained a deep cut behind her head from a thermo-mug that had thrashed about within the confines of her car as it rolled, hitting the back of her head. A thermo-mug almost killed her. A thermo-mug! Whodathot?
“Even when I was well enough to walk and go back to work, I felt saddened. I was sad that I lived. I was also sad that I felt that I was sad to be alive.”
“Was it the survivors’ guilt?”
“I don’t know what it was. All I knew was that it wasn’t very normal, seeing as I have a daughter I love and a reason to live for, but still for the longest time I wished I hadn’t lived. I thought of that place with long grass. The sun that never set. The people who walked unhurried. The memory didn’t fade. It was still very fresh. It was almost like I had lived that life for years. I couldn’t sleep. I’d stay up thinking and reliving that place. I’d day dream. People thought it was the trauma and they suggested I see a therapist and even when I saw the therapist she couldn’t understand. She wasn’t listening to me, it was almost like she was reading from a book. I felt like I was talking to a book, not a person. There was a way she would look at me when I told her about that place, a look you give a child who says there is a ghost under the bed. So I stopped going.”
The guy who had caused the accident died on the spot. He was hurled out of the window; broken neck, broken bones. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, it is said. “I set out to find out about him. Who was he? Where was he going? Did he have a family?”
She found his devastated widow; cheeks sunken with grief. He had three children; two from his previous marriage. He had lost his job and had just started a business selling grain. He was going to Nanyuki to meet some suppliers on that fateful morning. He was late. He liked to watch football, an Arsenal fan. He had a brother who he never spoke to because of some family land problems. She told the wife about that place, about heaven. “For the first time someone who didn’t judge me. She seemed to understand.”
“Maybe she wanted to believe that he was at this place that sounded like heaven?”
“Maybe. But I had found an ally, you understand? Someone who didn’t think I was crazy. We became close then we stopped being close because, well, she started making me feel guilty, that I owed her because I survived and he didn’t, so we stopped talking. Plus my family thought it wasn’t good for me. So then I became alone again. Nothing made sense. I started keeping to myself at work and when I was home I’d just stay in my room. I didn’t feel like I belonged here..”
“Yeah. I felt like if I died I’d go back to that place. I felt pressured to return there. So I started researching ways of killing myself. At this point I didn’t care that I had a child. I knew she would be taken care of by my sister. I just wanted to find my peace. And my peace was waiting at that place. I thought about it for so long, dreamt of the day I’d kill myself, but something was stopping me. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Maybe it’s cowardice, I don’t know. It also helped, I guess, when my small sister moved in with me. I found it easier to talk to her about these things because she was much younger and dreamy so perhaps it didn’t feel wild. She was also very prayerful, a born again, so we would pray together a lot. Maybe that helped. ”
She still dreams of that place. “I don’t want to die but sometimes when I’m very frustrated by life I still want to go there. I still see that man’s face so clearly after all these years it’s spooky. Sometimes I still feel like heaven awaits me. I still believe that it’s present in our existence, here or in the afterlife and that it’s real. Of course this sounds like a madwoman talking, but I do. I think that man is in heaven. I think I went there briefly and came back. Nobody believes it and nobody has to….do you believe me?”
“Yes. I do.” I said. Then I told her about the Provost and what he said about heaven. “I think you have already made your eternal choice.”
Please drop me a note if you have a compelling story. Any story at all. It could be silly or sad. Or cheesy. Don’t overthink it. Don’t think, arrgh, who would want to read my story. Just send me a paragraph of it. [email protected]