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 Muhammad (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 chorused responses were timed, our voices heavy.
The line of sheikhs ahead gave the lead call, and we responded.
“Alfa salala Aleika.”
“…said Muhammad,” we said in response.
“Salawatullah Alaika,” the sheikhs went.
“…said Muhammad,” 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: Muhammad Rasululah (Muhammad 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.
Many of the kids now converting to Islam were born into a neoliberal world whose battles were being waged on the cultural front. This new world arrived in Marsabit late in 1989 through a bespectacled man who arrived as the guest of a few wealthy businessmen in the town. Professor Musa Lenana came to the town with the teachings and mien of Sheikh Ahmed Deedat. He showed people his pictures and said he was a former Christian cleric. His self-appointed title of “Professor” inspired both awe and ilm — Quranic knowledge.
Professor Musa Lenana ’s visit to Marsabit was a precursor of militant debaters and their tradition of open air public shows of the late 1990s in the town. He was followed by Madrassah teachers from coastal Kenya and VHS video cassettes on Christian-Islamic debates from Ahmed Deedat’s base, The Islamic Propagation Centre International in Durban. The popular tapes were borrowed and passed around the township. Sheikh Ahmed Deedat had, through a blend of zeal and eloquence, created a template and an art form. His books had been consumed and his methods of debating, discrediting, ridiculing and eventually converting Christians were widely appreciated. A variant of this style was reproduced by Sheikh Balala, the founder of the Islamic Party of Kenya, in his marketplace rallies at the coast. Towards the end of the 90s, other coastal sheikhs and dramatic ustadhs came to Marsabit with this style.
In this quotidian manner of living and learning, the contours, times, and affects of a post-1998 world started manifesting itself. Lorries coming to Marsabit portrayed this world through their choice of names. Names like Baghdad started popping up on butcheries. Shop owners started using the 99 Islamic attributes of God to name their premises: Al-Barakat shop, Al-Rahman store, Al Qadiri kiosk.
A poster child of those years was Sheikh Sharif. He had appeared on a segment of KBC TV’s evening news as a seven-year old prodigy who could recite the entire Quran by heart. He was a remarkable child. In Marsabit, we were told that Sheikh Sharif’s head was divided into four, like the squares of a window. Even before we heard of his coming to our town, he had become as mythical as a Quranic character.
One day in 2001, Sheikh Sharif arrived in Marsabit. I was part of a group of boys who sneaked out of school, and ran all the way to Al-Jazeera Hotel where he was being housed. In the days to come, Sheikh Sharif captured the town’s collective attention and cemented his mythic persona.
One day he recited the Quran, another day he told a story, and on others he showed us how America or some western world did not want our populations to grow.
“And today I will show you…” he said on another occasion.
His minders handed him a black plastic belt with the type of shiny metallic buckle that was in vogue then.
“Si mwalijua mshipi huu?” asked the young sheikh, holding it up for everyone to see. People nodded in agreement.
“Wacha niwaonyeshe mahasidi wanavyofanya.”
He took people through a quick step-by-step procedure, until, at the end, everyone at the arena with a similar belt found and removed a small round magnet from the buckle.
“Je, mwajua kama sumaku ama magneti yaua nguvu ya uzazi?” he posed
And everyone who hadn’t even known the presence of a magnet in their belts came to learn that their own productivity was being undermined. The belts had been rendered ineffective by Sheikh Sharif, but that didn’t matter. Children like us helped many others remove the magnets from their belts.
A certain combativeness began to emerge in the town. This combative spirit was part of the missionaries’ cradle call, the earlier missionaries having come into Northern Kenya as a counter to Islam. The earliest church established in Marsabit was by the BCMS in 1929. The Chroniclers of BCMS in their book The First Twenty-Five Years OF THE BIBLE CHURCHMEN’S MISSIONARY SOCIETY ( 1922 – 47) noted that, in Marsabit, “Islam is also represented in the township through Somali traders, and its influence there called for evangelism among the inhabitants as a counteracting measure.”
But this intention of countering Islam by the BCMS doesn’t tell the whole story. In 1840, Ludwig Johanson Krapf had written, “indeed in East Africa, Mohammedanism is still the most powerful in Eastern Africa, and it is still very doubtful whether before long it will become still stronger, and the heathen and Christians populations be involved in a mighty conflict with it.” Ludwig Krapf had principally set out as a missionary to reach the Oromo people whom he thought “would with God’s providence be for Africa, what Germany had been in Europe”.
His mission in Oromo was not successful but a century and a half later a small Christian group had emerged in Northern Kenya and in the southern Ethiopia region.
As the slow but impassive wheels of the 20th century trudged along, Marsabit began to feel the heat of cultural changes. The town was taken captive by a series of visiting preachers. Tanzanian sheikhs like Issah John Luvanda, Ustadh Mbwana, Ustadh Mazinge, Ustadh Yahaya, and Sheikh Nasoro, the father of Ali and Hassani (another set of gifted prodigies), came in rapid succession. The new tradition of debating the crusaders captured the imagination of our little town.
One evening, I was at the debating arena when a man from the crowd asked if photography was Islamic and whether Muslims were allowed to take photographs. We patiently waited for Sheikh Nasoro to respond.
“That’s a good question,” he said. He fumbled for something in his pockets.
He took out his National ID card, held it up, and asked everyone to look at their ID cards and then tell him what they saw.
“Isn’t that a photograph?”
There was, in this response, a revelation. The answer proved Sheikh Nasoro’s smarts. He was evasive on many occasions when, having read the crowd a certain way, he saw the implications of whatever answer he would have given. Evasiveness of that kind became an important indicator of intellect to us. The next day at school, the dramatics and the impressions of his evasiveness were discussed. We outdid each other in re-enacting the drama for those who were not there.
Nothing captured our imaginations in those early years like the crusades. Even pool tables and the craze that came with them didn’t have the element of uniformity that the crusaders swept the place with. The crusades’ popularity was illustrated by the huge crowds that promptly gathered in town after the 3:45pm prayer. School children changed and rushed to town or returned late when sent to the market for evening groceries.
At the arena, Bible verses that had poetic promise like “Tito Tatu Tisa” were repeatedly read. Explanations on how Jesus went to the synagogue — “msikiti ya wayahudi” — and how he touched his head to the ground, and how he washed his disciples feet was given as a pointer that showed Jesus, Nabii Issah, was in fact a Muslim prophet.
Once, a priest from one of the small churches converted right at the arena. The crowd immediately donated a Kanzu, a Kafiyyah, several Korans, tasbih beads. The pastor’s flock and the town’s Christian population whispered this as a failure. At school, we were taunted about the frequent defeat of the Christian preachers during the debates. The taunts in school towards Christians included being called kafir. We received this name in silence. Nevertheless, for this to go uncontested by our parents and the white fathers at our Catholic church was confusing. The Italian padres rejected our zealous requests to respond to the debates in town. The bubbles of our minds’ imaginations that pictured the priests in their regal flowing robes followed by altar boys who could easily have overshadowed the Islamic sheikhs with elegance and grace were burst one after the other by the churches’ silence.
In retrospect, their rejection spoke of the church’s vulnerability. An active duel with the Muslims would have been disastrous for the church. But our teenage conclusion then was that the church was fallible. This realization inspired our resolve to defend the church. One evening, we convinced Fredrick, the altar boy, of the folly of the sheikhs in how they (mis)read the bible verses. He accepted our nomination to right this wrong. When we arrived at the debating arena, a huge crowd had already gathered, their ears tuned to the flowery Swahili oratory of the coastal preachers.
Fredrick, still in school uniform and brimming with teenage convictions, was promptly ushered into the arena during question time.
The sheikh sized Fredrick up and said, “Alii…. mpe mic!” and Ali, the minder sitting next to him, passed the mic to Fredrick.
“Basi tueleze waitwa nani?” boomed the amplifiers,
“Fredrick Ochieng,” he shouted into the mic.
We giggled, maybe with pride, maybe for having one of us take on a sheikh. It could have been how Fredrick held the mic and how he seemed to shout into it. But our giggles were short-lived.
“Waishi wapi?” asked the sheikh
“Naishi Forest!” came Ochieng’s answer.
After a dramatic pause, the sheikh asked, “Lahaula! Msikieni jameni…kwani we ni hayawani kuishi msituni?”
The crowd descended into laughter. People patted each other’s backs at the hilarity of it all. We cringed. Fredrick lived in the government quarters. His father worked with the Kenya Forest Service, and their neighborhood was simply called “Forest”. But to the sheikh, a foreigner in Marsabit, that was a point to dramatize the debate. After the prolonged laughter, Fredrick who was clearly ashamed, asked an infantile question about why Muslims carried water to the latrines. I wanted to hide because by extension his failure was ours. When he was ushered out of the Arena Ochieng was a mess. His school shirt was soaked by sweat. His conviction and our resolve gave way to shame.
Beyond the Islamic crusade, the arena had become an entertainment ground and the sheikhs took every chance to crack jokes or to ridicule their opponents. From then on we learnt never to respond to the taunts. We found consolation in a lay missionary or one of the many Italian padres who had mentioned that the Catholic faith was above the kind of duel happening in town. And thus, at St. John’s Primary School, a school sponsored by the Catholic Church, we accepted to be preached to, and to be called kafir. Sometimes, we argued but the conversations always ended without resolve.
Over the subsequent months, the theatrics continued. World-weary and evasive old men like Sheikh Nasoro were replaced by single-minded young sheikhs whose preachings were not directed to appeal to people’s intelligence. Ustadh Mazinge’s convictions affirmed its presence at the arena with a particular emphasis. Even when saying something simple he spoke with such force that veins stood thick on his neck.
“If according to them… that is North and that is West and that East and that South, what is this point that you are standing at?” he asked
No one could answer and people looked at each other with surprise that none of us had ever thought of such a question. On other days, someone else narrated the history of Constantin and what befell Constantinople and the whole arena listened attentively. There was mystery in the stories of the past, of other places, and mystery to the hard questions being posed by the sheikhs. Even though these questions were unsettling, we were asked not to worry because Islam explained it.
In all this, the local Muslim population, equally beguiled, were animated spectators, shouting “Allahu Akbar” whenever the sheikhs affirmed their points with a “Takbir”. They donated Qurans, kanzus, kafiyyah’s and tasbih beads to anyone who converted at the arena. They invited the sheikhs for dinner and evening prayers and generously contributed when asked to support the course.
At school and in life we shelved all the rejoinders and ready rebuttals that we had accumulated in the years before Fredrick was shamed. We rejected the outcomes of religious debates, recoiled and walked away when we were overwhelmed by the arguments and the taunts. Outside the school, Christians resorted to silence and kept to themselves and did not attend the public gatherings. But when the scorn became unbearable, some reported the cases to the district administration who told them not to engage in the debates with the Muslims and if they must, to only send their best debaters.
At home, on Saturday afternoons, we watched Ukumbi Wa Kiislamu on KBC TV. It was as formal as Fr. Alex Ferreira’s PPl sermons on Friday. There was a mannered measure to what the sheikhs were saying. Their calm demeanour was contrary to the times. Elsewhere, a national hysteria raged through Pastor Pius Muiru who was purging Kenya of mademons but on TV, Ukumbi Wa Kiislamu showed no hurry or fear; just plain indifference. Now, through the hindsight mediated by age, I see that during the Moi regime, the Sheikhs on our local TV were operating in a repressed political environment and that their brooding tone was a necessary cover.
The local Catholic Church in its more formal and resourced pose on the other hand seemed to relish grandeur and a love for one or another form of monument: a big church bell on a tower, a six-storey shrine on the hill —overlooking the town— one of only two in Kenya, we were told. One Sunday, we prayed for a grand cross that was in the following days set up on a hill in Milima Mitatu. A week later, it was found as a heap of ash burnt down by a group that claimed the hill as their religious ground. For the South American padres and the pioneer Italian missionaries from Turin, there was a hidden acknowledgement that the Catholic Church was too fragile to assert itself.
The hysteric shrill of those years slowly faded but we had made enough concessions, concessions that now allowed the easy conversions of former altar boys, catechumens and sunday scholars. We had accepted things without ever seeing what it was we were losing and gaining. Conversions were thus generally easy.
The sheikhs’ single-mindedness was transmuted to the Muslim boys, some who later became sheikhs. These boys, as sheikhs, had exceptional oratorical skills and appealed to the young. Some brought genuine reforms, while others brought controversial sermons which were animatedly discussed at weddings and burials.
In Kenya, a discernible fear had emerged with the 1998 US Embassy bomb blast. Al-Qaeda and later Al-shabaab paranoia caught up with the government which now disappeared militant sheikhs. In Marsabit, at least one sheikh from my old school was disappeared, while another was jailed in Ethiopia. Once, a local sheikh who doubled up as a Madrassah teacher was dramatically arrested by the Anti-terror Police Unit in front of his students. This arrest led to chaos in the town. Bars were looted, and the majestic Catholic Church was stoned. A car and several motorcycles were burnt, and at least 3 people were shot dead by the police. The town stopped to ponder at how swift the impersonal energy ravished its religious tolerance, its greatest cultural core. It was shocking for me that the people doing the burning and the looting were much younger to have been socialized by the coastal sheikh’s of the late 1990s. Elderly sheikhs, seeking answers to the onset of violence, rejected and condemned the intolerance. In private, they blamed the phones saying there were other sheikhs speaking to “our children” through the internet.
At the end of the day, as logs smouldered in the streets, stories of the destruction were shared. We laughed uneasily at the stories of the boys who had looted the bars and drunk themselves silly, and, in their drunkenness, shouted, “Takbir!” The answers of “Allahu Akbar!!” came from drunk mouths.
We told ourselves that this was a temporary farce, that this anger was very disjointed from the town’s older religious sensibility.
Now that I have converted to Islam, I am conscious of the ironies of my dual Christian-Muslim past-present. During my nikah, for instance, my Christian cousins and Muslim aunts playfully competed on whether to play Qaswida or oromo gospel music. On one wall of my house hangs a framed surah, Al-Falaq, engraved on a black wooden board with golden letters, a prayer in Arabic to ward off evil eyes. However, this framed Surah does not stave off the panic that sometimes grips me whenever I expect a relative; it has become the constant reminder of my departure from Christianity. On one occasion, I even took it down and hid it behind the dining table.
A month after my conversion, I started fasting, first because I was curious about the practice, then as a test of my patience and endurance. In the months since, I have prayed in many mosques. I have prayed at Bilal Mosque, at Jamia Mosque, and at the smaller mosques tucked away in the villages.
The memories of my Christiany remain. I remember the church through the occasional nostalgia of the first mass on Sunday mornings, which I can recover, I assure myself, by attending one last mass at the church. Some mornings, my wife watches me with a smile as I animatedly sang songs from Ushirika wa Waumini.
In my photo album is a picture of me in a suit two sizes too big, receiving my confirmation certificate from archbishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki. In another picture I am standing with a now-retired Bishop Ambrose Ravasi at the shrine that overlooks the town. There are other pictures carefully cut from magazines at the church. In one, my grandfather is standing in front of the first iron sheet church in the town. In another picture, from 1968, he stands proudly with his family on the occasion of his son Vincent’s wedding; in the picture, my father is a boy of eleven. In the picture, I see the story of a man who arrived from Ethiopia as a boy and successfully weaved a Kenyan identity, the Ethiopia of his birth discarded. Sometimes, it is this history of forging a new Kenyan story that I feel I had betrayed with my conversion, the family having, through writing itself in the foundational story of Christianity in Marsabit, transitioned well from the baggage of dislocation.
A few months ago, I visited the Catholic Church in Marsabit. It was sunny outside. The church bell stood defiantly tall. There is a new basketball court, and the old grass of my childhood had been turned into a small dusty soccer field. The Church has new ceramic tiles that the local parishioners paid for, but the windows on the hall were dustier than I had ever seen them, the wood finishing on the walls had chipped off, and its paint was peeling off. This unkempt image is new. At the entrance of the church was stuck an MPesa paybill number; this was a transition. I conclude that whatever is donated through the MPesa was going to pay for the Father’s and Sister’s meals and if any extras remain, pay maybe for new paint on the walls, or even pay my cousin’s salary, he who took after my grandfather, in name and in his commitment to the church. Paul Dalle Fayisa, the grandson of Paul Dalle Boru. He will receive six thousand Kenyan shillings as his monthly salary as a catechist in a far-off village. Thinking about this makes me feel a certain way, I feel my face heating up. Any Christian guilt induced by my conversion is washed over by the thought that a Dalle somewhere is slaving for the Catholic church, forty-one years after the death of my grandfather.
Dalle Abraham is a writer from Marsabit Kenya.