Wrapped in a church curtain, the body was lowered slowly into a half-meter pit. With fear and grief, four hundred eyes or so followed the proceedings curiously. The diggers had quickly and mercilessly done their work as instructed. They were shoveling the soil jokingly into this grave as if they were burying a poisoned cat. This was all because the dead man had not fulfilled his obligation to the chief when he was alive. The piece of land on which the man, now dead, had established himself was not fully paid for. It was only a third of the total amount that was honored. So the chief had been waiting angrily since then. Taking an advantage of the situation, he had resolved to exercise his authority on that day. I heard that the chief persistently had been saying that the man would see. But the man could not see now. It was only us, who tried to plead with him not to disrespect the dead body like that, who could see. There was no way he could be made to appreciate so that the dead man could be allowed a proper burial. Noisily, he was narrating that he wanted to teach the other villages a lesson. They had to learn to disallow their people to settle in other people’s villages. So he was there, seated and commanding the diggers. “Quick, my boys. Quick.” He was to ensure that the dead man had faced the law of his village.
On this sad Sunday evening, this ‘unhonorable’ burial was not made in the graveyard. It was behind the toilets, the school toilets. It was very sad, very sad, indeed. Having sent a word to the bishop, the people had waited in vain. The bishop’s classy car was not seen at the place. The chief was heard convincing himself that he at least had done some justice. If anything, he could also have abandoned him like the bishop.
But there was a reason, foolish enough, for the bishop not to come. I remembered also that the chief used to behave in such a way when he was told food would not be served at the funeral. He had done that several times, especially to families who had just asked for a place to settle in the village, and in the course one of their members had left for the worms. He was known as a man who could not offer free lunch. In reality, how could failure to honor debt for years and years just happen to sober-minded people? The man had confidently come to the village in the hope that with time God would change this chief of ours. Places were not supposed to be sold by chiefs. And the man came to spread the good news. He believed in the transformation of Paul from Saul. To tell the chief that, in the event of population boom experienced in the village, ‘places must not be sold’ was his mission. But, that the chief was ever to be more stubborn than before did not tick in his mind. And that upon his death the chief would issue a warning that if we, his accomplices, were not to finish the payment, he would marry his wife, did not cross our minds. He said it, and that alone brought about whispers in the crowd.
Close to my earshot, three women were gossiping. They were saying that one of the chief’s products of his ‘hyena’ business was the dead man’s wife’s pregnancy. “No wonder he wants to marry the woman now.” they continued.In no time, the pit was filled. We rose up as the whole gathering looked at me at once. I responded by looking down. Boldly, we recited loudly:
Blessed is the man
Who does not walk in the
Counsel of the wicked
Or stand in the way of sinners
Or sit in the seat of mockers…
Without shame, the chief walked out of the crowd boastfully. He did so in a manner that everybody should see him. We saw him. We did nothing. There walked a man, contrary to what our mouths were saying. Even pity could not convince him to reverse his decision. Even the wailing of the women could not tell him he was all wrong. ‘Go, chief. Walk with your pride, chief.’ I said as soon as I offered the benediction.
I bitterly learnt that some of the smiles we see are sham when Pastor Mulowa died. That my pastor would die soon I knew. I saw it coming. I must admit it was better he died than live. I immediately boarded a minibus at Mikombe to inform the bishop at Murumbu. Murumbu Synod had its regional headquarters in the city where the bishop was staying. I had to hurry. This was the death of somebody big in the church. It was death that would attract all the villagers because he, the pastor, was well-known. Considering the number of funerals that the pastor had attended in the village for the past fifteen years since he had arrived with his young wife, and preached at almost all of them, he was somebody. Without doubt everybody would want to see how his body was to be entered in the grave. He was famous, not necessarily because he was a good preacher or administrator, but his frequent mention of Masalimowanivesindiyawani had been leaving people in stitches of laughter. His sermon over the years would not end without reading Masalimowanivesindiyawani. So he was nicknamed Masalimo. No doubt his death would invite people from all walks of life. He was a crowd-puller when he was alive. Surely, news about his death would not fail to pull masses if the death of a year old would. No mistake was supposed to be made. This funeral ceremony was to be presided over by the bishop himself.
Minibuses that arrived from Mafisi did not take much time at Mikombe, for it was not a busy place. There was a single building which served as a tea room before, now it was being used partly by desperate lovers who took it as a meeting point while watching people travelling to and from the city, and partly by travelers, especially when it was raining. In less than five minutes, I was in a minibus heading for the city. The driver was such a cool man that he did not attempt to comment on what one of the passengers in the front seat was saying. The passenger’s voice was vocal, but his target, the driver, was not listening. His statements were a mixed bag of nonsense and stupidity. He was just the sort of guy who made remarks on socio-political issues which he was either ignorant of or had minimum knowledge about. He, out of the blue, introduced the topic concerning pastors and bishops. “Bishops and pastors are crooks.” The rest of the passengers like me were chilled by the cool air that was sweeping across our faces from the broken windows.
I was glad I departed in time. Our church has rules. The death of a child that is less than five years old is handled by the women’s league. Anybody can attend, but all the arrangements are to be made by the women. The death of anybody aged between five and twenty-five years old is handled by the youth in the church. The death of anybody aged between twenty-five and forty-five years old is handled by the church elders. For the pastor to be present at the funeral, it must be the death of somebody big enough. And if the pastor is indeed to come, the women’s guild must make sure that the man of God is served with proper food. In fact, rumor was it that all pastors did not eat ‘utaka’ and beans. So it was a rule that the pastor must eat meat, be it goat meat or the hybrid chicken meat in particular.
Every rule has an exception. If anybody dies from a rich family, both the pastor and the bishop were supposed to be invited. This I learnt after we made a grave mistake. I remember once the bishop was not invited. That was when Chikhwaya died. Chikhwaya was working in the city. As his name suggested, he was rich. Sadly, he was killed in broad daylight. He met his fate on the day he had received K10 million from a mobile phone company for winning in a competition. As a motivating factor, the company was giving the rewards in cash while everybody was watching. The company made sure that the event was heavily publicized for their marketing purposes, and so it was aired on both the national radio and television. Some private televisions were also allowed to publicize the event. So people in the city knew about it. It was a big day, Chikhwaya’s big day, for everything took place in the stadium. But as soon as he drove out of the stadium, three masked men shot him. He died at once. That was with full evidence that the cash was with him. They took all the money and drove their range rover in a manner that left a huge cloud of dust that took time for it to settle as they sped towards the suburbs of the city.
By then, the bishop knew about Chikhwaya’s fortune, but he had a door-to-door ministry in the city out of which the members were contributing something that ranged from money to packets of sugar and gallons of cooking oil, to bless the man of God. So, that he was informed of Chikhwaya’s murder only two days later. Word was not formally sent to him about the sudden death of their absent, but prominent member of the church. Truly, Chikhwaya had never set his foot in the church in the village, but it was his garden boy who used to come with his wife to give Chikhwaya’s tithe every month end. Guess what, it was the garden boy who also came with the sad news. The pastor was in charge of everything. I remember we did not eat food that was prepared by women in the village. The boss of the company where Chikhwaya worked was so saddened and confused that he became a spendthrift overnight. To our surprise, he commanded his subordinates to ensure that food should be brought by a famous restaurant in the city in honor of their industrious colleague. And there came packed meals labeled Kips. It was a Kips day in the village, albeit a celebration.
Two days after the burial, the bishop called for a meeting right at the church. Members of the youth committee, members of the women’s guild and the main church committee members were invited.
“Who is the church administrator here?” The bishop said.
I stood up.
“You must be one of the most stupid people in the church. Why did you decide not to invite me for this funeral?”
I did not answer anything.
“Who is your pastor here?” The pastor stood up.
“You, you! How could you do this, monkey?” Looking away from me, the bishop pointed at the pastor. “Who do you think you are? Do you remember where I took you from? Do you remember what you were doing before?”
The matter was serious, very serious, but we could not figure out where the seriousness was coming from. Everybody was disturbed. Was the matter about the funeral, or the food that was eaten at the funeral? Was he jealous of the pastor that had delivered a good sermon that day? I looked around. Everybody was astounded. So like slaves in the presence of the slave masters, we were quiet.
“Do we have women here? Who initiated you? You only remember when it’s time for bed, and you cannot remember your bishop.”
Since that day we knew that fame and food mattered most to the bishop.
So I was travelling to the mission at the earliest possible time to meet him before anybody else told him about the sad news and discuss two, three, things with him. Much would be discussed as to how the dead man would be buried, but the main issues were coffin and food. It was a requirement that food must be cooked at the funeral, otherwise adzukulu would react inhumanely. Cover the grave with soil before the coffin is lowered!
As I sat in the minibus, the face of the pastor kept disappearing and reappearing in my mind. My eyes lost control and tears gushed out with speed. Oh, sleep well. Sleep well, my pastor. My lips moved.
It was mid-morning when Masalimo died, mid-morning of the day before New Year. I would say he died a hero’s death, dying on duty, but I doubt if he was a hero himself. Perhaps he was. In my opinion, he died without sin.
That year, there was great drought. Rain had not served us well the previous year. We heard that some parts of the country were served disproportionately favorably. But we were the major victim. All eyes were set on Capital Hill, for it is at Capital Hill high profile men sit and make decisions for the country and later on God. Worse yet than doubting, the existence of supernatural powers, the church had completely failed. Their only means of sourcing help from the church members had not worked. No one was ready to give the little they had, in case their children died at the expense of charity. The message of giving this time was one of the hardest to deliver because it bore no fruits. Even church attendance had dropped, for fear of going to the house of the lord empty- handed.
To add salt to injury, the synod had sent word that every branch must organize activities to fundraise for the needy. Our branch failed, completely failed. Even the sky was blue in the months when, during normal periods, such a color would not be seen. It would be dishonesty to say God was angry, but that was what everybody believed. Masalimo died in that year when the church was gradually losing membership in favor of self-help work that offered a little something. He, the pastor, could not live the work of God and seek a job, whether temporary or permanent. He told us one day. That would be a half solution to avert hunger, but a full resolution to provoke the anger of the most high. Prayer was number one. But sun set, sun rise, the church failed, completely failed to support him as they had done in the past, when the man of God was appearing before the lord at the mountain.
Pastors in our church did not work, but waited for the church to feed them. So the whole area was affected, but it was also a disregard for the man of God and his family, and even more. In fact, they were tired, tired of making monthly contributions for the man of God who did not want to till his garden. They often asked one another: “Why, pastor, why?” Everybody was working hard. Men and women were working hard to feed their families while he was just praying at the mountain. “He will see how he will eat then.” , most of the church members were whispering. Masalimo took no notice. He told me to keep reminding the church about the pastor’s care. He mimicked John the Baptist’s lifestyle, which was to pray and stay in the mountains for most of the days. But the mountain had no honey to feed him. It was not surprising then that he died when he was coming from the mountain where he was praying for a food miracle.
As if this was not enough, Capital Hill was quiet. Those who thought they could voluntarily help were coming with things that were not only less important, but irrelevant. The Member of Parliament who came to the village with his obese wife said:
“The president of the land, the big man, is aware of all your problems. That you do not have food is a thing that gives him sleepless nights. PosachedwapaapitakuMangalande.Kuyesakupondaapandiapakutianthumupulumuke (recently, he will travel to England in order to ask for assistance, so you must survive). For today, I have a gift for you.” He went to his car and came back with a briefcase that contained a lot of well-tacked K1000 notes. Money!
“Where is the chief?”
The chief stood up.
“Get this briefcase. Here is cash. You will see how you will distribute it fairly.”
“Wait a minute. I think it is unreasonable for me to accept that which will not help me and my people. Money is not our problem, our problem is food. The village and I cannot swallow this nonsense. Go back with your briefcase. Dare not…”
The group dispersed with diverse thoughts. Some men thought the chief should have accepted the cash. Others applauded the chief for a Solomon-like wisdom. Those that wanted the cash organized themselves in order to get hold of the briefcase. They wanted to beat their MP up. But by the time they had returned, afraid of the chief that he might see what they were up to, the MP had sped off.
During this period, I was worried of course about food, but most of the women were worried about the pastor’s wife. She was 6 months pregnant in a land that had no food. This pregnancy that finally came after praying for fifteen years seemed to be both a blessing and a curse. Her eyes were set on the clinic. The clinic used to provide soya flour to the poorly-fed under-five children and women. Escorted by a few women, she visited the clinic one day. They found that the clinic was not offering any service. Both the clinician and the nurse were absent. They met a guard. Some clever woman explained what they wanted. They were told that both the clinician and the nurse had travelled to the city to look for food. The guard showed them the message that was pasted on a wall. “The clinic shall be opened once the food crisis is over.”
So Masalimo passed on when his wife was struggling to keep her pregnancy. That would have been a source of happiness for the family. They had spent a fair number of years without the gift of a child. ‘Please, lord, have mercy on the pastor’s wife’, my lips moved.
Just then, the minibus stopped at Sumbulele market. Five young men disembarked. Without any prospective passenger on sight, the driver could not proceed with the journey. He had to wait till some people filled the empty seat. He switched on the car radio and some noisy music came out. It was not music per se because the one who was supposed to sing was just narrating something in a language spoken by the youths, especially when they are drunk.
“Aabro! Brother! Aaabro!” I touched the conductor’s shoulders. “Tell the driver to proceed with the journey. We have important things to do in the city.” I said. But he did not attend to me. In fact, he got out of the mini bus and helped the touts who were coaxing people into accepting to travel on his bus. The space in the minibus was to be filled. Though I was losing patience, I remained quiet. I was told that sometimes these ‘tired’ boys do not give back money if you voluntarily choose to get into another mini bus. After an hour, the conductor said his trip had ended there. We had to wait for the mini bus of his choice, for we were not given a chance to claim for the reimbursement of our money. So we looked up to him to decide for us which mini bus could carry us forward, take us to the right place. Lord, remove these people from the roads. They are rude. It is not the majority’s fault that they did not go to school. Some of them chose to be less educated, and troubled passengers who innocently had time as the important factor in their journey.
I arrived at the bishop’s house a few minutes before lunch. What was happening at his house was very unusual. I stopped for a moment. Men and women with sacks in their hands, lined up in a single file, were pushing each other towards the gate. It was Sunday. This was enough for me to be flabbergasted.
“Munthuwamkulu, takulandirani”. (You are welcome, big man), Nurse Pilirani said. Both the nurse and the clinician were helplessly on the queue. When they looked at me, they saw me like an angel among the heathens, a person to liberate them from the bondage of spending long hours on a queue.
“Thanks”, I said in wonder.
“Talk to the bishop, so we can be prioritized. We are coming from far”
“What the hell is going on?”
“He is selling maize. It’s a month now. The whole city is being fed by him. Talk to him so we can attend to our patients.”
I agreed to talk to the bishop.
I did not immediately break the news that the pastor had passed on. I left Pilirani and the clinician at the spot and meandered through the forest of people to where he had perched himself. A bottle of Coca Cola in his left hand and piles and piles of cash in his right hand, he seemed not to have preached that day. He was busy. The bishop was himself a shop manager with two assistants, the city church administrator and his wife. There were a lot of bags of maize which I figured was a donation. On one of the bag, it was printed: “from friends of Mulhupalhe to our partners in Molokotela.” I was denied to get close to the bishop for fear I might have ill-intentions. They feared I would be the first to buy when I had come late.
“Listen to me, people. I have an important message for the bishop. Please let me…” Somebody pushed me out from behind. It seemed they were tired of people who bothered little about the queue, but found themselves served first and bragged that they were clever enough. “Get lost, you, fool.” I could not challenge this statement. I just fought my way forward and found the bishop.
“That’s the reason I am here, bishop. You know he was sick. And I think his problem worsened because he was taking drugs without any meal.”
“So what have you done?”
“At the moment, his body is at his house. We are waiting to hear from you.”
“You have done a right thing to come. I think you have seen how busy I am. Go and bury the pastor, then we will talk later.”
“But I thought the rules say…”
“Which rules? I formed them, so I can break them. Don’t waste my time, bambo.”
Anger boiling inside of me. I returned. My pastor did not deserve this. If we had predicted this moment, we would have abandoned the leadership of this church and sought for better leaders like our colleagues. If the leaders were not committed, most of the village churches would just impeach or abandon them and go to the city to fetch for churches that have stable leadership and adopt the already existing congregation. I did not think God wished his workers to be as unfeeling as that bishop of ours. …” Oh, sleep well, sleep well, my pastor”, my lips moved as I tried to avoid talking to Nurse Pilirani and the clinician.
Unlike the bishop, Masalimo was admirable. Though his pocket was not always full, one would get an impression that he would help, if he had resources. ‘Blessed is the hand that giveth.’ He believed in that. He donated to the church projects as it pleased him with as little as he could get from his well-wishers. He gave to the widows his wife’s clothes, to the orphans his brother’s children’s clothes and to the poor what he thought was best for him. He was not only a servant of God, but a servant of the community. This was exactly what prompted me to join Narrow Path Worship Church. A few months after the pastor had laid his gifted hand on me. I secured a teaching job at a private primary school one kilometer away from the trading centre.
Since I had joined the church, our pastor’s health had been not progressing. He was a tall figure, but his muscular body was eroding fast. His light skin was turning black. His neck was elongating like a giraffe’s. He was changing at a fast rate. In him we saw nothing but life tending to the exit door. On that day, the day he died, I saw it coming. As he sat on his chair facing the congregation, he almost fell. Visibly, his oil of health had run dry, but he could not be convinced to stay away from church. Since two Sundays before that, the church service that used to begin at 9.00 a.m. had been shifted to 11.30 a.m. because most of the members were first attending to their fields before they attended church.
“We must learn to be dedicated to the work of God! Numbers do not matter before God.” I said after some ladies suggested we should call off the meeting because of poor attendance. Later, I announced to the church that it was time to sing and dance before the lord, just as biblical David said he was glad when some people invited him to the house of God. We rose up to sing as the pastor’s wife was to lead us. The pastor did not. I suggested he was in pains, great pains. He was just perusing his Bible, checking the verses through dark glasses. The spectacles made him look like a doll as he had done many times, while most of us were engrossed in the business of worshipping and praying. As we sang, our voices flew through the windows and echoed in the forest nearby. By choice or whatever it was, some members were crying while others were rolling on the floor. I chose to stand and just close my eyes as I worshipped and prayed. Twenty minutes later, the voice of the pastor’s wife missed in the songs.
I figured we had done enough when I decided to open my eyes. The pastor was not present. His wife had not just stopped singing, but she was missing. There was no one of equal status to ask, so I stomped out. Behind the church, there he was, breathing his last. Masalimo had fallen from his chair in church. The wife was just looking on as the church watchman was attending to him.
The pastor had done away with the struggles of this life finally. His soul was separating from his body. He would never preach to us again. He would never talk to us. His life had ended there.’ Oh, sleep well, sleep well, my pastor’, my lips moved. I rushed into the church to get the big curtain that was used to decorate the front wall of the church in order to cover the pastor’s body for that was the only cloth available.
I met solemn faces when I returned from the city. Hundreds and hundreds of eyes who wished to see how the bishop would conduct himself on this funeral. And there were some women who were interested to hear him preach again the mystery about riches and holiness in the parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus. ‘Death must come. Death must come at a very awkward hour. Death must arrive when nobody wants him. Death must bring enemies together. Death must rob. Today, it has robbed us of the pastor we loved. It would also rob us of our food. Death must come to rob.’ This was to echo from the eulogies from the women. I was confused. Everybody wished to see me arrive in the bishop’s car, I guessed, but they were surprised. They wished I had explained why I used the public transport on return. I held my mouth. I vowed not to say anything to any inquisitive eye or mouth. I courageously sauntered towards the house of the funeral, for everything was upon me. I had to show that I deserved the position. After a lengthy discussion with a few elders and other church leaders, I calmed the people down and said: “Let’s all stand.” We did, and in a loud voice we recited:
Blessed is the man
Who does not walk in the
Counsel of the wicked
Or stand in the way of sinners
Or sit in the seat of mockers…
Adzukulu grave diggers
Masalimowanivesindiyawani Psalm 1:1
William Khalipwina is a published writer in Malawi with works in anthologies such as Modern Stories from Malawi, The Time Traveller of Maravi, The Bachelor of Chikanda and other stories, and The Conductress and other stories. His books include Namayeni and Njiru. He is a final year student at Chancellor College, The University of Malawi.