Alie Benge

No Church in the Wild

I look at the photos sometimes. I always leave them thinking, ‘Why do you do it? Why do you return?’ They’re always together, the beginning and the end. An air hostess must have taken the first one because we’re all in it. I’m peering out from behind Dad. Grandma has her hand on Mum’s like maybe she won’t go. Hope is tugging on the end of her dress. My parents have roses in their cheeks. They’re the youngest they’ve ever been. And the second photo, at the end.

 

I knew it would be a long drive because there were pillows in the car. The further out of Addis Ababa we got, the worse the road became until we were followed by great clouds of dust sent up from the wheels. I wondered if you could see it from space, a way to follow our path; to track the Ethiopian roads by the line of dust we created down the length of it. We drove through villages where children chased the car. They wore Coca-Cola shirts and no shoes. We had to drive slowly and they were at the windows. They tap tap tapped. They wanted to touch our hair, pinch our skin. They thought we were ghosts. We drove through a horizon of mountains that looked like fingers reaching up from the earth, grabbing at the sky. The radio didn’t work. They never do. Mum sang,

It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you.

There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do.

I bless the rains down in Africa.

Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.

The mountain levelled and gave way to a great expanse of sky, the horizon boiling purple, rushing towards us.

“You’re a witch,” Dad said to Mum.

We arrived in rain and woke up in fog. I ran into the white, trying to catch it in my hands. Mum told me not to go too far but when I turned I couldn’t see her. I sat on the grass and waited, seeing my new home only as the fog rolled away from it. Ten metres, then another ten. Like peeling the paper off a present. In the mist, I saw movement, dark figures rushing away.

 

Mum asked if I ever missed New Zealand, the little house in Auckland.

I said, “Where?”

She had a shell that she held over her ear sometimes. She told me she picked it up off a beach in Piha and now it plays an old song from the Air New Zealand ads.

The waves are breaking against the shores of Waiapu,

My heart is aching for your return, my love.

I held it against my ear but all I heard was the blood in my head and the wind over the grass.

 

A boy called Zelalem came to the door one day, his mother behind him. I recognised him because his brother had rolled into the fire and the funeral procession had walked past our house. Mum put a ball in my hand and nudged me towards him; his mother did the same. I threw the ball, he caught it. Everyone knows this game. Both mothers spoke Amharic; those words I didn’t understand. Words that rolled around in the front of the mouth. The mothers went inside and Zelalem dropped the ball and moved closer to me. He touched my skin, pulled my eyebrow higher, tilted his head and looked in my eye. No white demon. No ghost.

We ran over the hills and weaved in between the men working on the school. Dad gave us jobs to do, carrying bricks and buckets of water. One day, Zelalem led me into a round hut where a man was whimpering in the dark, his yellow eyes fixed on us. I ran home and came back with both my parents. A man with white fuzzy hair pointed to the sick man and said, “You pray, yes? Pray to this Jesus man.”

Mum said, “Malaria?”

Dad nodded but the man shook his head, spat on the ground and said, “Qalicha.” He waved his arm in a wide circle, “Many, many.” The sick man wailed and chills pricked up my spine.

 

The women baked corn on the fire and brought out plates of injera. They ground coffee beans under stone, boiled them in a jebena, poured a black stream into tiny cups and added a spoon of butter to each. My parents’ faces twisted as they drank. They say, “Good, very good.”

The people said, “Tell us about this white God, this Jesus man. Is he like the giant sycamore? Is he like Haile Selassie?”

Baboons lounged in the grass watching us. The word is like a foot on a drum, ba-BOON ba-BOON. A woman pushed a tall man forward. She slapped his chest and spoke rapid Amharic. The man spoke over her. He said he would like to come to our school, learn about the Jesus man.

On the walk home he said his name was John but we knew that wasn’t true. Dad asked where he heard that name, how the village can understand our English. John said there was another white man. He married John’s sister and took her away to a land of rain and money. Dad asked why he left and John mimed writhing and sweating, yellow eyes.

Dad asked, “Malaria?”

John answered, “Qalicha.” Mum asked if Qalichas were like witch doctors. John nodded and spat on the ground.

That night my parents sang while they set the table,

I told the witch doctor I was in love with you,

And then the witch doctor he told me what to do.

He said that, oo ee, oo ah ah ting tang walla walla bing bang.

Hope danced around Mum’s feet. I bounced up and down and laughed into my hands.

 

One morning, I woke early to the sound of the chickens screaming. I went to the window and saw a leopard darting into the scrub with a chicken hanging from its mouth. Beyond him I saw shadows in the fog. A circle of figures standing around the house.

The leopard paced back and forth between the house and the scrub. Hope and I watched from inside, our noses on the window sill. I whispered to her, as though at the sound of voices the leopard would turn to us, look us in the eyes, know us by name. Dad ran down to the school and came back with the students. They took pots and pans from the kitchen and picked up branches. Zelalem arrived and joined them. He handed me a branch and showed me how I should hold it over my head. We ran at the scrub, banging pots and waving our branches, yelling and stamping our feet. The leopard’s ears flattened against her head. She pulled backwards, watched a moment and darted away, disappearing into the trees.

Back at the house they cheered and danced. Mum brought out injera. The students taught us new words and laughed when we got them wrong. I sang Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. Everyone cheered.

They said, “Again, sing it again.” They sang along, waving injera in their right hands and copying the actions I made up. At the end of the night I saw glinting eyes from the scrub.

I woke in the night and stared at the shadows in my room. My dress over the chair looked like a man sitting. My lamp looked like an umbrella. The darkness behind the door looked like a leopard. I reached below my bed and took out the branch I had kept there. I raised it over my head. I heard Mum in the kitchen. The dark shadow slunk out of my room, coiling its tail around the door.

 

In the morning, Mum was still in the kitchen. Dad carried her to their room and mopped the sweat off the ground. He told me I had to do something for him.

“Can you go to the classroom, tell the students I won’t be there today but they should go on with their study of the Psalms, and can John come up to the house.”

 

John walked in front of me, his Bible wedged under his arm, fingers held in the sign of the cross. He walked into the room with my parents. I stood in the doorway and listened to them arguing. John said, “They target the woman. Where the man is weak the woman is strong. Where the woman is weak the man is also.” I asked if it was the Qalichas. John said nothing. Dad asked if I’d been taking my quinine. I nodded and he shut the door.

I woke Hope and put a pot and a wooden spoon in her hand. I got the branch from my room. We went outside and Hope swatted flies away from her face while I explained what we had to do. We walked in front of the bushes of poinsettia and jasmine. Seven times we walked past, like Joshua around Jericho. Hope clashed her pot and I waved my branch and yelled. She got bored and sat down while I stared into the bushes. She stirred dirt and jasmine flowers in her pot and I asked her, “Why don’t you speak? You should be speaking by now.” She stared up at me and I walked away.

At the house the students were nailing crosses together and shoving them into the ground. John prayed loudly and the people raised their hands, blew horns, read from their Amharic Bibles. Dad came to the door and leaned on the post, watching. His forehead was white and he looked cold. When he fell, a student carried his legs while another took his shoulders.

That night I fell asleep on the grass, curled in between the crosses. At some point I heard gravel crunch and raised my hand to block the lights that shone in my eyes. I coiled back as people filed past me into the house. Someone lifted me and I woke in my own bed. Hope shook my shoulder and left the room. I followed her out and saw her standing in the kitchen door, looking back to me. A white woman was making pancakes. She chattered constantly. She said things like, “I didn’t realise you would be so young,” and, “What were they thinking bringing you out here?” Her name was Barbara but she said it like, Bawwbra. Her laugh was high and stupid. She put pancakes on the table but was the only one who ate them. She watched as we took our quinine. I asked her when she was leaving and she said, “Now, is that a nice thing to say?”

When I could, I would sneak up to my parents’ door, reach up to the handle and crack it open. There were always people pouring water or wringing towels. Sometimes my parents would look over with their yellow eyes or try to raise a hand but always the door was slammed shut and Barbara would come to take me away.

Zelalem still came to visit and we tossed the ball back and forth or visited the students. We were sitting with John when I heard gravel crunch again. A man and a woman got out of the car and Barbara brought them over. She said, “They’re quite withdrawn. I’ve been doing all I can, obviously, but they miss their parents.” The woman cried when she saw us. She wrapped her arms around me and I kept my hands clenched to my side. John rose to stand beside me and Zelalem puffed out his chest. Barbara said, “Don’t you remember your aunt and uncle?” The woman pulled away and said, “It’s been a long time. You were so young when you left.” Barbara said they’d come to help us move to a hospital in Kenya. I told her I didn’t want to go to Kenya, that this was my home.

She said, “You can go to Mombasa. You’ll just love Mombasa.” I decided I hated Barbara even though the Bible says I shouldn’t hate anyone. I told her maybe she should go to Mombasa if it’s so great. She started yelling and the couple both laughed behind their hands. Later they told me that back in New Zealand, people eat meat every night. The roads are black and smooth and you can drink water straight from the tap. I asked if there were leopards like the one outside. They didn’t say anything.

 

Mum was carried into the helicopter. Dad could walk with help. He waited, his head craned back towards the school. I walked through the empty rooms where people were sweeping and wiping cloths along edges. The sun glinted on the dust, making knife shapes through the curtains. I took the branch out from under my bed and told my uncle that I’d need his help. We helped Dad climb out of the helicopter and Barbara rushed over. She grabbed his arm and said, “What do you think you’re doing?” I was ready for her. I put the branch over my head, yelled in her face and banged my free hand against the helicopter wall. She said, “What in the –.” I whipped her skirt up as high as I could reach and she shrieked and let go of Dad’s arm.

Dad leaned on his brother and I walked in front. The branch dropped from my hand. As we passed, the students came out of their dorms and stood in the door frames. John was in the classroom reading his Bible. He lifted his eyes when we flooded the doorway. Dad said, “They’ll tear this place down for the scrap metal. There’ll be someone else. Another building.”

John shook his head and said, “Not anymore. Too many Qalicha. Too many sick white men.” He paused. His eyes lowered to the Bible in his hands. “I still pray to Jesus man.” He pumped his chest. “Jesus man in here. Not in here,” gesturing to the walls. Dad cried from his yellow eyes.

The car with the luggage bumped on to the road to meet us in Kenya. We all got in the helicopter and it whopwhopwhopped. Zelalem stood in the cloud of dirt that was sent up. We rose over the mountains and I watched him until he disappeared.

 

The doctors in Kenya told us we could go home. A man on the road gave me a fabric bracelet with ‘Kenya’ stitched across it. I put it aside to give to Zelalem. On the plane, I said to Mum, “Did it take this long last time?” A voice cracked through the air, breaking it in two. It said we were beginning our descent into Auckland. My fingers plunged at the seatbelt. An air hostess came over and I said, “You have to let me out. Let me get out.”

“We’re in the sky,” she said, “but you can get out soon. We’re almost home.”

After the plane, there were great crowds of white people. I wanted to touch their skin, look in their eyes. We took a photo at the airport.





Alie Benge

Alie Benge has lived in Tauranga, Ethiopia, Tauranga again, and Australia, before finally ending up in Wellington. She is an editor for Open Polytechnic, and divides the rest of her time between writing her novel and trying to end modern slavery. Both feel equally difficult.