STAINED GLASS

The boy was trying hard to fix his mind on the landscape the of printed words of the novel held open in his hands. He never liked reading, he never did like it one bit and he hated tests and exams. Good a thing he was a very jovial fellow and had made a lot of friends that allowed him a seat close to theirs during tests and exams. It wasn’t any easy, trying to copy correctly while keeping a wary eye for the examiner hovering about ready to deal any cheat a blow with the three-piece horse whip dangling from his grip. The final external West African School Certificate Exam had turned out to be the easiest, a jamboree. They had all contributed a fee per subject and the examiners had written out all variant forms of the correct answers for the five hundred examination candidates in the hall. He had made A’s and B’s, flying colours with little labour other than a little fee and the desire to copy correctly from the chalkboard.
He had heard that the book ‘There Was A Country’ was a masterpiece, the latest in the literary landscape of the country and so he had desired to be among the people that had a thing to say about the latest work of Achebe whenever the subject was discussed. He borrowed the book from a neighbour’s collection-he hated reading as much as he hated buying books even if it contained the codes to break open Saint Peter’s gate-and was struggling with the first chapter when the sitting room door flew open.
It was his mother and father. They stamped their feet against the floor to shake off the wet soil that clung to their shoes from walking the untarred streets before stepping into the sitting room each, clutching their own copy of ‘Catholic Hymn Book’ and prayer bulletins folded in half along their length.
“Daddy welcome, mummy welcome” the boy greeted cheerfully, sitting up and laying the book beside him on the worn sofa, spoiling for an episode of joke.
They were a close-knit family, bonded by a unique sense of friendship that transcend age and generational hierarchy; in their good moods, they shared jokes, parents and children, they shared their pains and they comforted each other, they ate what little they had and no outsider could tell that they hardly had more than enough to spare their dog a hearty meal. But the parents were a strict pair that doled out punishments in such generous measure as the offence required, and the children understood when they were being corrected harshly even though the home wasn’t a perfect democracy where everyone had his say or could dare veto their albeit docile father’s decree.
“Daddy welcome, mummy welcome”.
If they heard his salutation, they didn’t acknowledge but filed in silent procession like two deaf mutes- their foot wears in their hands so as not to soil the carpet- through the sitting room towards the doorway that led into their joint bedroom. He heard the bedroom door shut lightly and he could guess that his parents’ discussed in suppressed tones behind the sanctuary of their closed doors like two best friends with a secret to share. He knew the reason for their spiteful attitude towards him, he saw it coming and he was always expecting this treatment every once in a week, it wasn’t the first time and he was already getting used to it. Every day of the week was always life as usual, but on Sundays, he was despised because of his stoical refusal to attend mass.
The bedroom door opened and his parents filed out just as they did in; the father behind as if protecting his wife’s hind. She branched into the kitchen and he proceeded to the dining area, taking his seat at the head of the table of six, his back to his son.
She sauntered into the dining area from the table, carrying a plate of food in a platter and placing it before her husband. She returned to the kitchen again to get some drinking water for her husband. The boy got off his perch on the sofa and made dauntingly for the dining table. He sat next to his father, the man still ignored him. he made to dip his finger into the bowl of stew, his aim for the piece of chicken wing that sticking its tip out of the oily broth like an iceberg.
“Stop!” his mother hushed from the doorway. His hand froze startled in mid-air as the adrenaline surged through him waiting to know if to fight or flee at what perceived danger his mother must have sensed.
“This food is for only those who went to church today. It isn’t meant for ndi amaala; heathens”
His parents were staunch Catholics, dogged adherents to the teachings of the Roman Church. They believed it all, questioned no part of it and lived their religion, bearing with pride like a badge all the deprivations they might suffer for their dogma. They had brought him up in the faith as every of his siblings, he had attended Bloc Rosary and Catechism as a child, kneeling before the miniature Virgin flanked on both sides by burning candles with hands clasped in solemnity, chanting the much he and other children had successfully crammed. He had gone on to attend a Catholic School were his parents had hoped the priesthood would catch his eye. He had flirted with the idea of being a priest for the pomp and pageantry; the colourful priestly robes, their ease of overseas travels to countries he only heard of, the plush SUVs handed to them as gifts from wealthy parishioners and the gifts of eggs, yams, plantains and chickens plied upon them by the poor parishioners. He noticed that the families of priests seemed to live an easy life, but what didn’t go down well with him was the prospect of being someone else’s sacrificial lamb. He couldn’t fathom why he would be a celibate with no wife and children while he married wives for his brothers and secured a future for their children, and so to the subtle disappointment of his parents, he settled with the idea of only admiring the pomp and pageantry of the priestly life he never envied.
As he grew up, he started to observe and question. He saw some illogical pattern to norms and then he became restless and began to question further, to investigate the wholesomeness of his world to his wellbeing. He observed that the parishioners in the parish he worshiped consisted of a class of two extremes; the rich and the poor. He noticed that the poor were the dogged adherents to the faith, believing that poverty was their cross to bear in this world, a burden they had to bear with stoicism on their journey to Heaven. He noticed that the rich cared less for dogma, their cross was their riches and to secure a place for themselves in heaven, they lavished their riches-the opportunity cost for dogma- on church projects (like increasing the length of the church steeple so it tapers into the heavens or procuring a new bell from a country far across seas so that early morning worshipers scattered all over the city could hear the bell calling for morning mass). He noticed that the priests dined with the rich parishioners in their homes but deemed it too much of a bother to disturb the humility of the poor ones with their hallowed presence.
A university was opened years back, a church project aimed at inculcating tenets of the Catholic faith into graduate professionals in the spirit of “education without religion turns children into little devils”. Elaborate fund-raisers were held and after millions of naira were pumped into the project, a new university building priding in the best of academia from across Africa and standing on twenty-five acres of lawns, walkway, love-gardens, fountains car-park and all the many facilities that shamed her sister institutions was launched. The admission process was as easy as swallowing a mould of garri, but the annual fees including compulsory accommodation within the hostels was at a staggering nine hundred thousand naira, way beyond the reach of peasant parishioners. They did provide an annual scholarship slot for the poor only on the recommendation of the bishop of the diocese though.
Every Sunday during mass, a special collection was called for the welfare of the university. The priest would exhort the parishioners with words that amounted to ‘givers never lack’, ‘he that waters shall be watered’ and ‘give and it shall be given unto you’. The boy watched aghast from his seat on the pew far behind (he often came late to church after the front pews of the large cathedral must have been taken by the more faithful whom he couldn’t imagine what time they left their homes for mass or if they slept the night on the front pews) as men, women, boys and girls filed towards the massive collection chest past the altar from whence the priest sprayed holy water on the anonymous crowd as they proceed to empty the fruits of their futile sweat into a scheme unbeneficial to them. He had been put off for five consecutive times by the rigorous admission process of the public university system and he didn’t dream of gaining admission into the Catholic university because his parents couldn’t afford the fee nor was he an altar boy or a servant of the church to win the bishop’s recommendation for a scholarship.
He knew his mother was an unwavering believer in the church, but he attributed his father’s dogged piety on his joblessness -he had been laid off on his job at a rig for a contracting firm after the expiration of the contract and ever since, he hadn’t found another job, but worked a piece of land growing cassava which they processed into garri for their subsistence, gift to the parish priest and for sale in that order). Yes, his parents were poor, but he feared they would remain poor in their state of mental servitude for as long as they would live. He believed only the poor to be religiously fanatical.
He knew their catechism instructor back when he was still a child. The man made them recite lengths of the catechism, driving home the lessons with a whack on their heads with the stout stick that also served as a baton and scepter. When not conducting classes, he was seen leading the Boys’ Brigade band, attending one of the many unions, legions or groups that made up the church community or running some errand in the service of the parish. The man, now in his late forties still look as hungry as he did was years ago. He had not yet married possibly because he had not the means. On one Sunday, when the boy went to church because it was a Mothers’ day, he saw the man expertly twirling the silver baton in the air while the band played with much fervor as the bishop in his pomp Episcopal robe adorned with gold embroidery and holding his golden staff that glimmered in the sunlight walked past, flanked by a dense crowd of priests as they escorted him to his convoy of Mercedes SUVs waiting upon him like a chariot of horses for a Pharaoh. The boy watched the irony of the drama before him; their former catechism instructor swirled and swirled to the frenzy of the drummer boys, the perspiration trailing down his face and sticking his white shirt to his body while the bishop and his escort of white-robed priests crept into the luxury of air-conditioned cars and drove away leaving him to swirl his baton depressed to a crowd of insignificant spectators like himself.
The boy had spat his abhorrence for the injustice and senselessness he saw around him. He had withdrawn from the lot and resigned to fate. He knew he couldn’t change a thing and so he readily forgave his parents and especially his mother for their bigotry, their calling him heathen, for despising the safety of reality, for taking for granted the gift of freedom that life freely offers, for being blind to the beauty of reasoning and for their naivety in putting so much stock in a fellow flawed human as being the interpreter of The Divine.
He had come to know better than to look at the world through the stained glass of long-held beliefs.

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