I squatted down to rest my bum on a 20cm-high wooden stool: my legs bent, with my bare feet resting on the over-swept dirt floor of the mud-walled compound. The women and children had all retreated into the round mud-houses to sleep after an evening of shelling groundnuts. Lenny, however, had added some fresh tea leaves to the pot, placed it on the dying embers of the earthen stove, and asked me if I would stay and talk about Christianity with him. Shit, I thought to myself.
Lenny was a Kenyan VSO volunteer working on a project I was overseeing in the Gambia, and he was the most devout Christian I have ever met. Talking with Lenny was quite a challenge as he had a habit of inserting not only Psalms into the conversation at regular intervals, but also biblical passages, that seemed to have no link at all to what he was talking about. As he was exhibiting his extraordinary skill to recite from the Bible, his enthusiastic smile would straighten and die as he acknowledged my total lack of Biblical-text-recognition.
And here I was, miles out in the West-African bush, cornered by Lenny and his request to talk Christianity. I didn’t want to disappoint him by saying that I was feeling really tired and had to get up early to go out planting groundnuts with the women, but didn’t really want to have a conversation with him either. He pulled up a low stool opposite me, sat down resting his bible in his lap, and looked intently, directly, into my soul. Gulp!
Where did I grow up? On a dairy farm in Somerset.
Did I go to Church when I was young? Only for Carol Services.
Do I go to Church now? Only for Carol Services.
How much of the Bible could I recite? None. Oh no, hang on, The Lord’s Prayer. We recited it together.
Did I know any Psalms? I inwardly panicked: not only do I not know any Psalms, I don’t even know where they are in the Bible: Old or New Testament? I felt embarrassed at my lack of Biblical knowledge. I told him I don’t know any psalms. Really? Surely I must know one or two? I mentioned that we always sang hymns in assembly at school. That seemed to cheer Lenny up considerably. Which hymn did I know? Oh God! I straightened up, took a deep breath and sang:
‘Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said he.’
Lenny was happy: albeit briefly! The evening carried on in this vein: questions, answers – and Lenny dumbfounded by my lack of Christian knowledge. I was from one of the most powerful Christian countries ever in Lenny’s eyes! British missionaries had travelled all over the world converting millions to Christianity, himself being one of them. He had lived with missionaries, spellbound by their every word – they had given him hope in a poor rural community where there was none. How could I not know more of the scriptures they had shared? What were my Christian values? What did I believe in? Had I no faith? I had gone to a Church of England school – had they taught me nothing there?
As I laid down on the straw mat on the floor to sleep, next to Bassira and her three young children, I began looking for answers to all of his questions. How was it possible that I did not know more? What were my values? What did I believe in? Did I indeed have faith? Would I ever find the answers to his questions?
I set out on a journey to find the answers. I read a modern version of the Bible, I read the Quran: the Celestine Prophecy: Butterflies are free to fly: Spiritual laws of the Universe: The Alchemist, and many, many more. I watched Down the Rabbit Hole and many spiritual and quantum physics videos. I attended Protestant churches and spiritualist churches. I partook in healings and therapy sessions, trying anything and everything to get a rounded perspective of what faith meant to me. And now, eighteen years after that evening in The Gambia with Lenny, I still wouldn’t be able to say that I can recite a passage from the Bible, but I would say that I have faith: I have faith in myself. I have faith that the sun and the moon will rise and set and I have faith that I am loved and cared for as a child of the universe.
And Lenny? I last saw him in 2002 and smiled as he stood, shaking hands with a Muslim village elder, characteristically reciting a passage from Leviticus.