Don Stoll

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Passion

The Lutheran church where the American couple would attend Palm Sunday service stood on the outskirts of a city. The city was a hundred miles east of the village of Wajuwatinga that they knew so well. But the Reverend Elijah had assured them that from Simba Lodge, where they’d spent the night, the walk would be short.

“Short even for white people,” Elijah had added.

Other buildings stood on the fringe of the dusty, sprawling open space that was as big as several football fields. The Americans would have thought it was waste area if they hadn’t been told it was used one Saturday a month for the market. Elijah had instructed them to follow the people holding palm fronds to the source of the sounds of joy. That source was the choir, a dozen men in white shirts and dark slacks or jeans and a dozen women in white blouses or T-shirts and dark skirts, swaying and dancing in unison at the front of the church.

Tim and Josie had taken seats far from the windows in case of rain. The windows reached from chest-level to half the height of the roof, about thirty feet. Elijah had warned them that the windows had no glass.

“Next year, God willing,” he’d said.

Tim remembered this as he surveyed the congregation.

“Was he hinting that we should pay for windows?” he asked his wife.

“If we start supporting churches, we’ll have to tell donors. Some of them will pull out.”

She looked at Tim out of the corner of her eye.

“But we could pay out of our own pockets,” she said. “And not take a tax deduction.”

He didn’t answer. She knew he was already unhappy that the service would be long.

“I was kidding,” she said, adding “Pretend you’re African: endure.”

Tim continued to look around.

“If you’re wondering why Elijah hasn’t joined us,” Josie said, “he’s become a big man in the Diocese. He’s expected to help with the service wherever he goes.”

“How do you know this?”

“By listening when he talks.”

Tim knew that he must try not to see Elijah’s father, Abraham Chiza, in the son.

To one side of the choir, a man wearing a beige suit opened a door. He admitted two men in white cassocks. One—the local pastor, Tim assumed—was very young. He walked with a stoop, as if worried that his height would intimidate the people of the congregation. Or perhaps the young pastor was intimidated by the presence of the other man, the Reverend Elijah. Elijah was short and round like his father, but he kept his back straight as he walked.

Abraham Chiza’s deteriorating relationship with Tim had culminated in the announcement that henceforth his son would serve as the Americans’ liaison to Wajuwatinga. If Tim and Josie wished to continue to build schools and clinics and clean-water systems in the village, where no one had e-mail as a way to communicate with America, then they would need to work with one Chiza or another.

“All of my children have made something of themselves,” Abraham had reminded the Americans. “They are not ignorant peasants, passing their lives by eating and drinking and sleeping and procreating like animals. I give you the Reverend Elijah to work with. He lives not far from Wajuwatinga and he is a man of God.”

In profile, the cassock gave Elijah a pleasing shape. Tim was reminded of his faraway school days, when he’d taken pleasure in using a drawing compass to make graceful arcs inside of right triangles.

A shrill cry from the back of church announced the beginning of the service. Tim interpreted the cry as a command to sit. As he sat, he twisted his head to see that the man who had emitted the cry was already parallel with the row that he and Josie had chosen. The man’s compact figure was clothed in a white T-shirt, white chinos, and white athletic shoes. He could only have traveled from the back of church so quickly by way of a sequence of leaps. His culminating leap had ended in a crouch from which he now emerged slowly, in time with the spread of a radiant smile across his face. He emitted another cry and bounded toward the local pastor and Elijah. He pivoted in mid-air and touched down silently on the balls of his feet, facing the congregation. He began to sing in falsetto.

“Famous guest-i,” a man in front of Tim said. “Go everywhere, praising the Lord.”

Amplified music overwhelmed the famous guest’s voice, but his fluid, loose-wristed gestures held the Africans rapt. He would kneel and reach toward heaven, or use his arm to brush sweat from his forehead. With his fingers he would wipe away tears from beneath his eyes. He would wag his finger to send a warning that he would soften with a cloying smile, or stretch his arms forward and draw them back to his chest as if scooping the congregation into an embrace.

The performance reminded Tim and Josie that the Africans marked neither gender nor sexual orientation as Americans did. Back home they’d often asked gay friends to accompany them to Wajuwatinga, even though the governor of one of the country’s administrative regions had called on residents to kill homosexuals.

“They won’t recognize you as gay,” Tim had assured them.

“You should see Tim squirm when the Reverend Elijah holds his hand,” Josie would add.

“I don’t squirm,” Tim would insist.

His blush contradicted his words.

#

The local pastor was speaking through a microphone.

“How did your Swahili get so good overnight?” Tim said as Josie translated.

“I understand the Passion in any language.”

The pastor’s musical voice rose an octave and he grew more animated. His white cassock became an irritant and he used his microphone hand to shove back his sleeve as he pointed to one worshiper after another.

“Peter’s denial,” Josie said. “Would these people also be cowards and deny Jesus?”

Hapana”: no.

Hapana.”

“Even if threatened with torture?” Josie said.

Hapana.”

“With death?”

The congregation shouted that they would never deny Jesus.

A man as tall as the pastor occupied the chair in front of Tim, who’d inched his chair to the right to look over the tall man’s shoulder. But as the pastor had become more ardent, Tim wished to make himself invisible. He inched his chair to the left until it butted against Josie’s. Neither the local pastor nor Elijah could see him. He closed his eyes.

#

“Thank God you don’t snore,” Josie said.

She pulled Tim to his feet.

“Now we’re the famous guest-is,” she said.

Tim had spoken often to church congregations. When they applauded and Elijah on his left and Josie on his right patted his back, he knew he had done well.

“‘Lifted heavenward by the voices of angels,’” Josie whispered. “Not bad for an atheist.”

“Know your audience,” Tim said.

The service ended. Elijah took Tim’s hand. He led the Americans toward the Land Rover that Abraham Chiza, no longer able to drive, had entrusted to his son.

“The local pastor doesn’t want to talk to us?” Josie said.

“I explained about the airport,” Elijah said.

“We need our luggage,” Tim said.

“The boy has it. The owner of Simba Lodge is Lutheran, so I arranged.”

Tim looked through the rolled-down window at a boy whose short stature and frightened eyes made him appear too young to drive. Tim offered his hand. As the expression in the boy’s eyes changed, he looked older.

“Nice,” Tim said, pointing to his Manchester United jersey.

“He can come to the airport to assist with your luggage,” Elijah said.

“We’re all right,” Tim said.

He saw Josie shake her head.

“But we’d love his help,” Tim said.

“We will get my wife and children from the house. They are excited about going to the airport. We have sodas.”

Elijah spoke to the boy in Swahili.

“He can drive to the house,” he told Tim and Josie. “I must drive to the airport.”

The boy drove. But as he prepared to turn in front of oncoming traffic, Elijah made a decision. The cars behind them honked their horns while Elijah and the boy swapped places.

Elijah made the turn off the highway onto a quiet road. He turned into a dirt lane and stopped in front of a high iron wall and gate. The boy got out of the Land Rover and used a key to open the gate. He came back carrying a blue plastic crate of Fanta. A woman and two boys and two girls followed him.

“You have met my wife and children,” Elijah said. “And this is. . .”

Josie repeated the names of the two young teenagers who were friends of Elijah’s son and daughter. Tim nodded at Elijah’s wife. Her English was as poor as his own Swahili. Elijah and his wife were observant enough of tradition so that Tim and Josie knew her only as Mrs. Chiza or Mama Edmund, after her first child. This bothered Tim. Josie had a different perspective.

“Everybody starts off with a first name, but you don’t need it anymore once you’re a mother. You’re honored with a title.”

Edmund and his younger sister, Maureen, were visibly excited.

“I like the airplanes” Maureen said in English.

Edmund looked at the Fanta. “Lots of flavors,” Josie said without enthusiasm.

She looked toward the house.

“Where’s Daniel?” she said.

With quick movements, Mrs. Chiza ran her left hand down her right arm from elbow to wrist and then her right hand down her left arm from elbow to wrist.

“He’s looking for his Lions jacket,” Elijah explained. “The one my father gave him.”

“Does he need help?” Josie said, but Daniel appeared.

“You know that the lion is important to my father,” Elijah laughed.

“Your father is a lion,” Tim said.

Josie jabbed her knee into him.

Daniel, the orphan, was thought to be between sixteen and eighteen. Elijah thought he’d lived in their house for about ten years. Tim and Josie had asked a couple of times why he never spoke and Elijah had explained that he was simple.

Jambo, Daniel,” Tim and Josie said.

Simba,” Josie said.

Daniel touched the image of the blue lion outlined in white high up on the left breast of his Detroit Lions jacket. The sleeve came halfway up his forearm as he reached.

“He needs a new jacket,” Tim said.

“He likes the lion,” Elijah said.

“And he doesn’t want a new one,” Josie said.

Tim watched the boy who’d driven examine the sodas.

“What is your name?” Tim said.

“That boy doesn’t know English,” Elijah said, and then, “Is it all right to sit in back? If my wife and the children are in the middle they can be with the soda.”

Tim and Josie moved to the back of the Land Rover.

“I have only the seat belt for myself,” Elijah said, “so that boy should sit in front because behind the front is safer.”

Mrs. Chiza and the teenagers reviewed the seating arrangements. They agreed that Mrs. Chiza and Edmund and Maureen and Daniel ought to be in the middle and the other two young people ought to be in back with Tim and Josie. Elijah set off.

Edmund rested his hand on the crate and looked into the back.

“Passion Fruit?” Josie said to Tim.

“I don’t need the toilet now,” he said. “And I’m not pushing my luck.”

They shook their heads and Elijah shook his head. Everyone else took a soda.

“You know that my father has diabetes,” Elijah said. “Sometimes I will eat ice cream because it’s not common, but soda is everywhere now so it’s best to refuse.”

“What flavor do you like?” Josie said. “Of ice cream.”

Elijah shrugged and adjusted the rear-view mirror. He found Tim and Josie’s eyes.

“When I was in London for a conference of the Church, I saw a man eating an ice cream cone in the street.”

Tim and Josie looked at each other.

“He was your age, Tim, and eating an ice cream cone.”

He turned his head to the side. Tim and Josie watched him mime the act.

“To eat ice cream in bowls is good, but cones are for children.”

He grinned over his shoulder.

“I was with our bishop in Piccadilly Circus and when he saw the man with the ice cream cone he made a joke: ‘Is this why they call it a Circus?’”

Edmund had finished his soda. He looked at his mother, who spoke to Elijah. A brief exchange followed, ending when Elijah raised his voice slightly. Edmund opened another soda.

Josie spoke to Mrs. Chiza, touching her scarf. It featured elephants, lions, and Maasai. Tim pointed to the phrase, repeated all along its border, that began Mungu anapenda. He knew it meant “God loves.”

“‘God loves all His creatures,’” Josie said.

Mrs. Chiza spoke to her husband.

“My wife says Edmund was too busy playing football to eat lunch,” Elijah said. “She is worried about the soda, so I said he must stop at three.”

The tone of Elijah’s voice seemed conciliatory.

“Mrs. Chiza and I often discuss the future of Africa. She says the future is with its children. She says that because mothers understand children, Africa needs women leaders.”

“Yes,” Josie said.

“But what kind of leadership? God created us man and woman, with all our differences. No one believes that a woman’s knowledge shouldn’t be valued. The important question is what kind of knowledge and what is its proper place.”

“America and Tanzania have women in their national legislatures,” Josie said.

“Yet America has not had a woman President,” Elijah said.

He laughed.

“My father does not trust the Muslims,” he said, “and I agree that they are a problem. Yet I remind him that there is wisdom in their recognition of the differences between men and women. Muslims don’t understand development and progress. But maybe in their beliefs about men and women we can find common ground, which can be a basis for progress.”

It was Tim’s turn to jab his knee into his wife.

Elijah modeled the careful driving that he was instructing the boy in the passenger seat about. Josie, who liked to arrive at airports early, tried to stay calm by reminding herself that one more cautious driver on Tanzania’s roads would be a good thing.

Edmund began a third soda.

#

Everyone in the Land Rover stared straight ahead, except for Josie. She looked for Mt. Kilimanjaro. Elijah had grown tired of giving driving lessons. But after driving for many miles he broke his silence.

“May I have your opinion of Pastor Michael’s sermon, please?”

Before Tim and Josie could answer, Elijah continued.

“I think he missed an opportunity. I told him there would be two white people among the congregation, so he could have drawn a parallel between Jesus’s rise from the grave and the rise of Africa that we are witnessing.”

“You think it’s important for white people to know that Africa rising?” Tim said.

“Africa was once great, but then the Muslims introduced slavery.”

“I think white people took slaves, too.”

“Tim means that we know white people took slaves,” Josie said.

“Because the people had become conditioned to slavery,” Elijah said, smiling again. “They adopted the timid ways of peasants. They allowed the great trade routes that had brought so much wealth to fall into ruin by withdrawing into their villages in the ignorant hope that they wouldn’t be noticed. Yet such people are ripe to be made into slaves.”

Tim cleared his throat and Josie said “Well. . .”

“Now, with Africa on the rise, white people like yourselves are lending a hand. And you will not be cowards, like Peter. You will not deny us!”

“Well,” Josie said.

At that moment Edmund put his head between his legs and vomited.

Mrs. Chiza covered the vomit with her beautiful scarf. She stroked Edmund’s back. The windows were rolled down. Elijah spoke almost inaudibly to his wife. She answered sharply.

Tim breathed through his mouth until Josie whispered to him.

“It doesn’t stink because he only had soda in his stomach.”

Tim and Josie looked for a shop, but Elijah kept driving.

“We should get paper towels,” Tim said.

Josie whispered again, “Everything these people have to endure, you think this bothers them?”

Elijah drove on.

“There!” Josie said.

They all looked at Kilimanjaro.

The drive took two hours. Kilimanjaro International Airport was quiet. Elijah parked near the entrance and everyone got out of the Land Rover to exchange farewells. Daniel started to walk toward the entrance. Elijah said “Maureen” and his daughter followed Daniel. She took his hand and brought him back.

Josie spoke in Swahili to the boy whose name they didn’t know.

“Alexander,” he said.

“Alexander,” Josie said to Tim.

She hugged Mrs. Chiza.

“I hope her scarf isn’t ruined,” Josie said to Elijah.

Mrs. Chiza stared at her husband, who inspected his shoes.

“Too much Orange Fanta,” Tim said to Mrs. Chiza.

“Passion,” she said.

“He was drinking Passion Fruit,” Josie explained.

With her thumb and index finger Mrs. Chiza raised the scarf. Tim was a student of the different colors of Fanta. He saw that, compared to the lurid color of Orange Fanta, the color of the shallow pool on the floor of the Land Rover was pale.


In 2008, Don Stoll and his wife founded their nonprofit (karimufoundation.org) to bring new schools, clean water, and clinics emphasizing women’s and children’s health to three contiguous Tanzanian villages. Don’s fiction has appeared recently in Green Hills Literary Lantern (tinyurl.com/y2lfxysm), The Galway Review (tinyurl.com/y6nxt9nv and tinyurl.com/y4vdsqhe), and The Airgonaut (tinyurl.com/y67mzfmv).


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