On the eve of Uncle D’s wedding, I walked into a room in my Akhakhu’s house, where I found Uncle D and Abdirisak, a madrassah boy, sitting on the bed. I stood by and listened as Abdirisak led my uncle in proclaiming the Shahada.
“Ash Hadu…” the madrassa boy said, prompting my uncle to repeat the words.
“Ash Hadu…” my uncle said.
“Ash Hadu Anna La Ilaha…” the boy said.
“Ash Hadu Anna La Ilaha…” my uncle repeated, the words of the shahada slowly, unsure of its sound
Uncle D followed the boy’s prompting until, at the end, he accepted that there was only one true God—Allah—and Mohamed (SAW) was his messenger.
Later, I told my other uncles about his conversion.
“Kwani wasn’t he a Muslim all this time?” some of the people seated under the tent asked.
One of the men turned to me and said, “You too, will eventually convert. As Sheikh Ibrahim says, you already have the wajig of a Muslim.”
“I am not converting,” I said.
That evening Uncle D walked around in his ceremonial attires; a ruff wrapped around his head, a badho and a sarong. Dressed in this outfit, he did not strike me as a new convert; the scarf and sarong were more Borana cultural markers than Islamic.
The next day, April 23rd, 2016, I was one of the suited young men behind the line of sheikhs on the dusty road leading to my Akhakhu’s. My white shirt, red tie and black shoes blended in with those of my peers in the line but contrasted with Uncle D’s cream suit, Islamic cap and the Arafat thrown over his shoulders. We waited for the sheikhs to stop, then walked towards them, the chorussed responses were timed, our voices heavy.
The line of sheikhs ahead gave the lead call, and we responded.
“Alfa salala Aleika,” they said.
“…said Mohamed,” we said in response.
“Salawatullah Alaika,” the sheikhs went.
“…said Mohamed,” we repeated.
The crowd, the lead call from the Sheikhs, the slow steps, the pauses and the chorused responses made the procession solemn. After a short prayer at the gate, we walked into a waiting crowd inside Akhakhu’s compound. The solemnity was switched immediately by the crowd for Bonaya Doti’s live guitar rendition of a Borana love song. We dropped the measured steps and danced our way to the reception tent.
Over the next months, I observed Uncle D. He lacked the enthusiasm of a new convert but I knew that, even as a Christian, he had known Islam, and had appreciated its demands from a distance.
Had anyone told me then that two years later I’d be seated in my friend’s car repeating the words of the Shahada, I would have laughed it off as a joke. But this, as was with my uncle, happened on the eve of my marriage.
The first time I saw my paternal grandfather’s photo was at the Catholic Church in town. My father had led my brother and I into the rectory of the church. He had put his hands under our arms and lifted us up, one at a time, bringing our face closer to the portrait of Paulo Dalle, which hung on the wall, alongside photos of Saint Daniel Comboni and framed verses, my grandfather until that point a hazy construct in my head.
His portrait still hangs there. Paulo Dalle was an exemplary Christian. Baptised at St. Austin’s church in Nairobi in 1924, he had been a catechist in Ngong, Kabaa, and other places around Nairobi from the mid-1920s to the late 1930s. In 1948, he started teaching religion in Marsabit on a salary of 10 shillings a month, long before the church came into Marsabit. These efforts were recognized by the Holy See, Pope Paul VI, who sent him the cross of outstanding service for church and the pope, “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice”, with Cardinal Maurice Otunga delivering the cross all the way to Marsabit. In his eulogy, written in Italian by the pioneering missionary Don Paul Tablino, my grandfather on receiving the cross from the pope is quoted as having said
“When a youth works for his father, he works many years and then the father tells him a word of praise and gives him a gift. I have worked for Pope Pio XI, Pio XII, and John XXIII and now Paul VI remembered me and sent me a gift, like the father to the son”.
These thoughts bring Petro Oche Boru, my grandfather’s brother, to mind. Oche was the first African to be ordained as a reverend in Marsabit. This was in 1953. A nursery school bearing his name still stands at the corner of the ACK church’s compound in Marsabit.
This history is repeated at family gatherings as a source of pride and as a reminder of my family’s stature in the Christian community in Marsabit.
Then my cousin Grace eloped with her Muslim boyfriend. Her decision didn’t pass as silently as her elder sister’s had, nor was it accepted in silence as my younger brothers’ conversions had been. It became a contest. The history of Petro Oche Boru and Paul Dalle Boru cast a long shadow over Grace’s decision.
For a few days, elders from the groom’s side came to their home, asking that our family bless the new union. With this incidence it became necessary for the family heads to voice their concerns on the recurrent conversions. The contribution of our paterfamilias, through whom the foundational story of Christianity in Marsabit is often told, was revisited. My father and his cousins saw the conversions as a failure and they asked, “What happens to the seeds sown by our parents?”
This rhetorical question, spoken out of a now familiar despair, found meaning in the collective family belief that the family’s role in the establishment of Christianity in Marsabit was a legacy that needed to be protected. This legacy was set in a 100 year old town, where a series of firsts secured the whole family’s pride and anchorage to the place: the first chief, the first teacher, the first catechist, the first reverend. However, the new generation had within it seeds that could erase the markers of that pride. I count eight cousins, four uncles, an aunt, two younger brothers and a dozen close friends whose conversion stories I closely followed and curated. To us, personal liberty came over familial pride and expectations, and it demanded a new outlook that could not be mediated by guilt or nostalgia.
In time, the family ceded to Grace’s wishes.
“What can we do? It’s the times that are like this.”
Her dowry was reluctantly accepted, a feeling of failure and sunken hearts trailing its acceptance.
Grace’s choice was a microcosm of a larger cultural agitation. I wondered if our parents understood the kind of pressures that faced Christian children in Northern Kenya. They never understood how, when one had finally given in, it was either a personal liberation or an acceptance of defeat. Our parents never paid homage, in their judgements, to the fact that Islam had always hung like a halo over us.
My cousin’s son came home and asked her, “Mama, are we going to die?”
He was in class one. His friends in class had told him that he was going to die and end up in Narti.
This question takes me back to 1997 and class 2 North at St. John Primary School. My classmates had painted hellfire through impressions informed by their madrassah classes. They told us of a road thinner than the cutting edge of a razor, with an eternal fire burning below it, and how everyone was required to walk along this road to heaven. The sinful would succumb, and Muslims would walk with ease along as-Sirat al-mustaqīm. These sermons ended with the simple request that we convert to Islam to avoid the fire. These friends were kind enough to simplify the post-life ordeal and prepped us with answers to the questions that would be asked immediately one was immersed into their graves. The few Christians in the class crammed the answers lest we died before conversion.
“Man Rabbuka?” (Who is your God?)
Answer: La Illa Ahilala (Allah)
“Ma nabi yuka?” (Who is your Nabbi?)
Answer: Mohamed Rasululah (Mohamed SAW)
“Ma dinuka?” (Which is your religion?)
Answer: ma Dinul al-Islam (My religion is Islam)
“Ma kitabuka?” (Which is your holy book)
The Muslim boys from our school were relentless. To them, every occasion was an opportunity for taqshil—a chance to preach to a nonbeliever. They made this their personal responsibility. But they also conceded that when one was younger than fifteen, it was not a sin to be a Christian.
With their aid, we made concessions to something else. We accepted that our religion was weaker, that our friends’ version of the end times sounded truer.
On Fridays, during the pastoral integrated program (PPI), I’d sneak into the Standard six classroom where all the Islamic children congregated. They sang passionately. I learnt all the songs and marvelled at the Hadith. I wasn’t the only Christian sneaking in. Whenever Father Alex Ferreira, a Comboni missionary and vicar-general of our local diocese, came for PPI on Fridays, we avoided his formal sessions; he offered none of the joys and personal freedom allowed in the Islamic sessions.
In my class, a few boys were zealous in their convictions and their religious beliefs. Chief among these were Fredrick, an altar boy at the local Catholic Church, and Hussein, the unofficial school muezzin. These two often held serious religious debates within the school. Their rhetorical clashes were part of a bigger cultural contestation in the town.
People knew Hussein was on drugs because some days he would climb the tree near the makeshift mosque and give the Aadhaan. We laughed at his funny antics. The mosque itself was an empty patch in the thicket, not far from where the Kenya Wildlife Services electric fence and ditch kept the elephants away. The mosque was swept clean everyday and gunny bags served as its walls. Cartons were used as prayer mats, and boys hid trousers in corners of the thicket or alternatively tied their school pullovers around their knees because one wasn’t allowed to pray with their exposed knees. As Christians we sat outside the makeshift mosques, waiting for our Muslim friends to finish praying.
On Saturdays, we went to Sunday School, played soccer outside the church, and rehearsed Sunday sermons. The altar boys conducted mock services in preparation for the Sunday missal.
Dalle Abraham is a writer from Marsabit Kenya.