originally published in The New Yorker Magazine, June 9, 2008
It was one of those rainy, miserable days in Nairobi. Since I had skipped morning Mass at Hekima College, the Jesuit school of theology where I was studying, I had to get out my umbrella and walk to Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, near Adams Arcade, on the edge of the Kibera slums. I had more on my mind than the drizzle and the sporadic lightning. I felt the weight of all the papers I still had to write—on the sacraments, on social justice, on canon law. I thought about the dreaded four-teacher panel I would face at the end of my studies. Would I be ordained? Should I present myself for ordination? The child-molestation scandal had just broken in Boston, and I had been too ashamed to reply to e-mails from family and friends asking about it. The small community of Jesuits I lived in had seemingly endless, niggling problems, and the thought of sitting down together later that evening to talk about who was not cleaning up after snacks or who was monopolizing our communal cars only added to my stress.
As I walked toward Ngong Road, the drizzle gave way to driving rain. Clad in winter clothes, I was warm enough for the ten-minute walk to church. Now I pulled my huge multicolored umbrella closer to my head to shield myself from the wind.
On the premises of Guadalupe, under the eaves of the wooden kiosk where sacramentals were sold on Sundays, were two children.
“Broder, money!” one said to me.
“No money,” I said.
“Shilling, kwa bread,” the other insisted, touching his stomach.
I ignored them. I knew they were part of the gang of street kids that hung around Adams Arcade. I was sure they had recognized me, as they did most of the seminarians. They were no more than seven or eight years old. Their hair was wild, and beads of water sat on them like morning dew. They were barefoot, in shorts, and their wet T-shirts stuck to their bloated stomachs. They squatted side by side, each rubbing his palms together as if praying to some god of warmth. Their eyes, hard and calculating, took in the few people arriving for Mass: civil servants, slum-dwellers, traders, reverend sisters.
Before I knew it, the street kids were under the umbrella with me, feeling the pockets of my trousers, giggling. Even though there was no money in my wallet, I had transferred it to the breast pocket of my jacket. I’d heard too many stories of these guys picking pockets. I tried to dismiss them politely, but they’d already noticed my wallet. Being Nigerian, I didn’t know enough Kiswahili to explain that it was empty. I wanted to shout at them, to force them away, but through the open door I could hear that Mass had already started.
I invited the boys inside, hoping that they would shake their heads and withdraw to the kiosk. Instead, they followed me into the cavernous church. I had gambled and lost.
I handed my furled umbrella to one of the boys so that I could hold their hands to control them. We walked up the central aisle to join the sparse congregation that ringed the sanctuary, the big Guadalupe mural looming beyond the altar. Suddenly, they scrambled out of my grasp. When I looked back during the first reading, I spotted the crooks sitting on a pew, playing with the umbrella. I was beginning to get angry. If they ran off with my umbrella, how would I get home? Throughout the readings and homily and the Offertory and Consecration, the kids chatted away. I could see their mouths, wide open, moving in never-ending prattle.
As I walked back to my seat after receiving Communion, I was unsettled to see that they had slipped into the line going up the aisle. They were very quiet now, their gaze fixed on the golden ciborium as the priest took out the wafer to place on the tongues of the faithful. Occasionally, the boys glanced at the other children in the line and copied their gestures, joining their palms together, bowing their heads. Then they would watch intently the mouth of someone who had just received. Fear gripped my heart—fear that some churchwarden would be incensed by their sacrilege and, as in the church of my youth, drag them outside by the ear; fear that the priest would deny them at the last moment; fear that I might never risk as much for the Body of Christ. I held my breath, already feeling guilty that I had set them up for a possible fall.
As soon as the two boys had received Communion and turned away from the priest, they chewed hastily, with exaggerated movements, their mouths like the mandibles of a spider devouring an insect. Then they lost their composure and hurried out excitedly. After Mass, they returned my umbrella.