1. Oke Konran-Imoran
Papa Davina, also known as Teribogo, preferred to craft his own words of wisdom. Such, for instance, was his famous “Perspective is all.”
The early-morning Seeker, his first and only client on that day and a very special, indeed dedicated session, looked up and nodded agreement. Papa D. pointed: “Move to that window. Draw back the curtain and look through.”
It was somewhat gloomy in the audience chamber, and it took a while for the Seeker to grope her way along the wide folds to find the middle parting. She took the heavy drapes between both hands and waited. Papa Davina signaled to her to complete the motion, continuing in his soothing, near-meditative tone: “When you step into these grounds, it is essential that you forget what you are, who you were. Think of yourself only as the Seeker. I shall be your guide. I do not belong to the vulgar traders in the prophetic mission. The days of the great prophets are gone. I am with you only as Prescience. Only the Almighty God, the Inscrutable Allah, is Presence Itself, and who dares come into the Presence of the One and Only? Impossible! But we can come into His Prescience, such as I. We are few. We are chosen. We labour to read his plans. You are the Seeker. I am the Guide. Our thoughts can only lead to revelation. Please—pull the curtain apart. Completely.”
The Seeker moved along with the other half. Daylight flooded the room. Papa D.’s voice pursued her.
“Yes, look out and tell me what you see.”
The Seeker had come up on the opposite incline, which was total, unrelieved squalor. On this face of the hill, however, what leapt instantly to her gaze was a far more eclectic jumble. Far down below were scattered ledges of iron sheets, clay tiles, and rusted corrugated tin rooftops, pocked here and there, however, with some isolated but neat rows of ultramodern high-rise buildings. Threading these zones of contrasts were snarling lines of motor vehicles of every manufacture. And the city was just getting into its morning stride, so there were pulsating beehives of humanity, workers on pillions of the motorcycle taxis meandering between puddles from the night rain and overflowing gutters. A sheet of the lagoon shimmered in the distance. The Seeker turned and described her findings to the apostle.
“Now I want you to bring your gaze closer up to the level at which we are in this room. Let your gaze rise upwards from that city where it festers, bringing it closer to our level. Between where you stand and that scene of frenzy, what else is there?”
The Seeker did not hesitate. “Garbage. Piles of waste. Just like the other route—it was an obstacle track, threading my way here. Just mounds of the city’s waste deposit.”
Davina seemed satisfied. “Yes, a dung heap. You did come through it. But now here you are, and would you say you are standing in a dung heap?”
The woman shook her head. “Not in the least, Papa D.”
The apostle nodded, again seemingly satisfied. “Close back the curtains, please.”
The Seeker obeyed. The room interior should have returned to its earlier gloom and she expected to half grope her way back, but no. Multicoloured arrows, rather like the emergency exit lights on the floor of an aircraft, directed her feet towards a different section of the chamber. She did not require the safety recital of an air hostess to inform her of their purpose—she followed the lights. They stopped at a stool, exquisitely carved. It reminded her of an Ashanti royal stool that she had seen in pictures.
“Sit on that stool. I have to take you on a journey, so make yourself comfortable.”
Now it was the preacher who stood up. “There are many, including our fellow citizens, who describe this nation as one vast dung heap. But you see, those who do, they mean to be disparaging. I, by contrast, find happiness in that. If the world produces dung, the dung must pile up somewhere. So if our nation is indeed the dung heap of the world, it means we are performing a service to humanity. Now that is . . . perspective. Shall I point out yet another?”
The Seeker nodded. “I am listening intently, Papa D.”
“Good. Even from the moment you spoke to me on the phone, I knew you were no ordinary seeker. Your voice reached out to me as belonging to someone eager to learn. I counsel all kinds. Every strand of humanity passes through those gates. You’d be surprised what contrasting souls have sat on that very stool, if I chose to tell you.”
The Seeker smiled wryly, gestured away the offer. “Papa Davina, that is why I am here. Your reputation cuts across not just the nation, but the continent.”
“Ah yes, perhaps.”
“And even beyond.”
“Oh? So tell me, what have you heard? Those who directed your feet here, what do they say of Papa Davina?”
“Where does one begin?” The woman sighed. “Well, let me take the most recent, the candidate from the Seychelles . . . You prayed over him, and the world knows the results.”
Davina executed a self-deprecating gesture with his hands, turning them into limp vessels that ended with palms upturned, as one who gave the credit—and glory—somewhere else.
“For you, I have mounted a . . . special perspective.”
As he spoke, Papa D. appeared to dissolve into the peripheral gloom, but the chamber, whose curtain opening she had barely been able to find moments before, became gradually suffused with light, as if in replacement of the daylight she had just effaced. It proved to be just the beginning. Under the Seeker’s gaze, the drab consultation chamber was turning into a fairyland. The woman gasped. Her host, one arm outstretched, appeared to be spinning slowly. In his hand was a little silvery gadget that also moved with the widening arc. Clearly he was standing on a sunken turntable. Papa D. pointed his control to the ceiling, and there was light. Next, another nearly inaudible click, and a gurgle of water interrupted the silence, its source gradually revealed as a cleft in a rock that had risen magically, a spring whose glistening waters cascaded in a lulling caress, then snaked into a grotto and vanished forever. An undulating vista of hills and valleys, plains and plateaus, shimmered into distant horizons, while soft luminous tubes rose from the floor towards the ceiling, bathing the chamber in a psychedelic sheen. Gradually an alcove shimmered into view, then another directly opposite, then a third at ninety degrees, and finally a fourth to complete an emerging three-dimensional installation. The alcoves were evenly spaced, emblematic as housing for the four compass points. On the floor, made of polished wood tiles, a large embedded map of the zodiac embarked on its own progressive illumination. From the ribbon folds that served as capstone for the archway across each alcove, a spiral of smoke billowed downwards, then began to curl all over the signs of the zodiac. The Seeker was enveloped in a medley of incense.
She heard Papa Davina’s voice: “I was speaking of other perspectives. You see, if you inhabit a dung heap, you can still ensure that you are sitting on top of it. That is the other perspective. It is what separates those who are called from the common herd. It sits at the heart of human desire.”
The Seeker sighed. It had been a long journey to this moment, a journey of startling contrasts and revelations, both physical and mental. Tutored in the mandatory protocols of the prophesite, she had embarked on full compliance, even to the contents of the pink envelope she had brought with her and laid solemnly on a small altar-table that stood by the entrance to the building. What was at stake did not permit any deviation from redemption rites of passage, a number of which she would normally consider degrading to her social status. After all, it had taken a while, nearly a full year, to arrange this audience—it was not the moment to place salvation in jeopardy. On the way she had caught sight of scavengers glancing slyly at her, transferring their gaze from hillside foraging to Papa Davina’s eyrie, as if to say, Ah yes, one of these days we also shall qualify to mount those final paved steps and be admitted into the Prescience.
They had heard all about it, heard stories of the magic interior that spelt transformation, belying the exterior of chapped walls and cracked cement. News filtered through and touched lives of longing with intimations of a changed destiny. Some played the football pools religiously, others the annual National Lottery and more, but craved that final touch of the magic wand—Papa Davina’s blessing. They dreamt of the day they themselves would climb the paved approach of twenty-one glistening steps and be ushered into his Prescience. Active or dreaming, they hoarded images of the splendour of the recluse, the magician known as Papa Davina.
The Seeker felt thankful that her sister had faithfully contributed her tithes to Papa Davina’s ministry. One did not earn a private audience with Papa D. until after at least a year of attending the open services that he conducted below for all and sundry, and with an unbroken record of tithing. Her sister had even transferred her “redemption coupons” to her. There were, of course, exceptions for emergencies. To bypass any unplanned constraints, the seeker must first cover the year’s arrears—among other charges—and at double tithing. Emergencies covered vicissitudes such as court trials, where divine intervention was needed to soften the judge’s sadistic soul and pronounce a full acquittal, sometimes even citing the prosecution for abuse of process and contempt.
Her own predicament was not that drastic, and as some patients are prone on visiting the doctor, she was not without her self-prescription. Hers was simply a case of poor business choices, a spate of ill luck that had persisted for three years, leading to losses. Then there was the bane of customs levy on goods that barely survived the depredations of sea pirates now massively invested in the nation’s eastern creeks. Nothing that could not be offset by the allocation of a single oil block. This was what mandated the recourse to Papa D.
And now, finally, she was face-to-face with Destiny, a pursuit whose fulfillment nested in the hands of the sole guardian of the prophesite. There the Gardener of Souls—another of Davina’s titles—stood, arm outstretched as one who wielded the staff of Moses, his electronic gadget a wand that could make barren rock yield its most prized, procreative, life-sustaining secret. But that was a primitive era when Moses could produce only water—the staff of modern-day Moses was tuned to oil gushers. The black gold, nestling beneath farmland and ancestral fishing ponds. Perspectives changed with modernity.
As if her thoughts were being read, the visual display was now augmented by the aural, as the sonorous and wheezing pipes of organ music began to dispense an uplifting composition. It transported her to lands yet undreamt of, to visions of the attainable. Papa D.’s voice gathered together the emotions that had sprung up in her troubled, frustrated mind and, at his chosen moment, brought them down to earth.
“There is a drawer attached to your stool—by the right side. Pull it out. You’ll find a folder and a fountain pen. Old-fashioned fountain pen, not ballpoint. Open the folder and extract one sheet.”
The Seeker obeyed. Her hand touched the folder, and she needed only that one touch to feel the luxury of the finest vellum. “I import it directly from Jerusalem,” revealed Papa Davina reductively. The Seeker was already persuaded that this was papyrus on which the angels wrote the Book of Life.
“Write on it what it is you seek,” he invited.
Copyright © 2021 by Wole Soyinka. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.