Drinking in Tongues
“Lord Jesus, we seek your guidance to deliver our son from Satan’s bondage. Yes, Lord, please show him the light, the way out of the darkness. That he can see your face shining down on him.”
My mother hovered over me, her hands placed on my bowed, blonde head. I could feel her smiling, trying hard to emulate His shining face. Dad stood behind me, hands firmly placed on my shoulders — a comforting discomfort at best.
“Yes, Lord,” he bellowed. “Through the blood of Jesus Christ, he has set you free, Vinton.” He breathed deeply. Then, in a stern voice not directed at me:
“Who are you? What is your name?”
My body shivered. I waited in horror for a hellish voice to emit from somewhere inside me.
Then in a more sympathetic tone: “Vinton, what names or words are you thinking or hearing right now.”
I thought for a moment. A fancy word popped into my head. I think I must have read it in a magazine recently. I read a lot in those days — televisions were not readily available in southern Sudan.
“Hmmm,” my father intoned. He made a slight smacking sound, trying to find moisture for his dry lips. He shifted. I felt his hands tighten as if he were navigating through a severe storm in the small Cessna he flew out into the bush several times a week.
“In the name of Jesus, I command you unclean spirit to leave Vinton immediately. You are commanded as Jesus said in scripture to leave this child of God forevermore. You have no authority here!”
“Kali tuto deli nat tatos shelok ta kappa…” my mother spit-fired under her breath.
“Yes, Lord Jesus. Heal him. We pray this in Jesus’ name.”
They were reaping great benefits. I still felt the same-old same-old. Just a little warmer, what with four sweaty hands laid upon me.
It should have never happened. I shouldn’t have had those drinks. I shouldn’t have disclosed my new faith. After spending sixth grade away at boarding school in the mountains just west of Nairobi, I had moved back with my folks in Sudan and had befriended a few local kids my age. My parents stood by unaware as these kids, and in particular, Wadi, led me down this path, this one-way ticket to hell.
I’m sure they believed I was simply acting out, a rebellious thirteen-year-old bowing to peer pressure. But I embraced my new religion with the same fervor with which they embraced theirs. I took the name Ahmed Mohammed Abdul Khemis. It just sounded right. And it legitimized who I had become in a few short months.
A knock at the door. I looked out my bedroom window and saw Wadi standing there.
“Sa’laam-ya!” I shouted out the window.
“Sa’laam-ya! Get out here this instant, man!” he shouted back, laughing.
“I’ll be right out.”
Wadi’s English was impeccable. He had attended the private British school in town, a privilege not afforded most local kids. But a kind-hearted Catholic nun for whom Wadi’s mother had worked as a housekeeper saw to it that he would get a decent education.
As we walked around the fenced-in compound where my family resided along with several other American and European missionary families, Wadi told me that a girlfriend had invited us for lunch. We walked back to my house. I left a note informing my folks I’d be back in time for afternoon tea, a holdover from the British colonial era that was held daily in the guesthouse foyer for all residents and guests.
We followed the road right outside our gate past the army barracks, where we could hear soldiers beating prisoners on certain quiet nights.
“I have to stop at my house to get money,” Wadi said.
Wadi lived around the bend in a typical mud hut/thatched roof setup on the opposite side of the barracks. Months from now, his father, a military man, would pick him up along with several other boys in one of those gray-green trucks, promising that a certain nurse would have a surprise for them. Indeed she did. One by screaming one, they were systematically circumcised in the military infirmary at the tender age of 13.
“What do we need cash for?” I asked.
“Oh, to pay for the Waragi she is sure to offer us.”
I often saw men — heathens, infidels rather — stumbling around our neighborhood, drunk as skunks.
“Yes,” Wadi said as we walked past children with extended bellies, taunting goats and mangy dogs rummaging through trash heaps in front of our neighbors’ homes. Big city living. This wouldn’t happen back in the village, he had told me once. “People will drink in private. Even my father–” he paused, choosing his words carefully. I learned that his father had all but abandoned his three wives and children many years ago. I never asked why. “Well, like a lot of men, he will drink his fill, then go to sleep. It is shameful for a Muslim to show himself in public drunk.”
“Tch.” I made a clicking sound in the back of my throat, a habit I’d picked up from my new friends. It signified disgust or disdain.
We walked a short distance through neighborhoods I had never set foot in: enclaves of thatched roofs surrounded by bamboo fences.
Several children spotted me and pointed. “Qu’adga! Qu’adga! Qu’adga!”
Children around town would chant this label over and over, alerting anyone who cared that white people were in the vicinity. Older children enjoyed daring the younger ones to try and touch my lightning-white blonde locks. But most were not so bold, fearing I was a J’inn spirit.
After rounding a corner, Wadi walked through an entranceway.
“Katalia!” he shouted.
A young girl in a long green gown and matching head wrap appeared from a hut on our left. She looked several years older than us. They exchanged words in their native tongue, one I had not even begun to master.
“Katalia, this is Vinton,” he said, smiling.
“Vinton,” she repeated, extending her hand.
She beckoned us into her hut. Another young man was already seated. A brother? We exchanged greetings and I took a place on one of the worn wooden chairs. She presented us with a large green bowl to pass around. Wadi dipped his right hand in, swished it around. I did the same. She served us a delicious meal of millet bread with a thick peanut sauce. After we had our fill, she passed around a white tub and soap. I watched perplexed as Wadi washed both hands thoroughly, this time with the soap.
After the bowl and a towel made its round, she smiled.
“Waragi bannata du?” she said to Wadi.
He laughed, nodded.
She turned and procured a dark, green bottle from an old wooden cabinet. I looked down and noticed I had been tapping my hand on my leg. I stopped at once, rubbed my hands together. I shifted in my seat. This activity was strictly forbidden on all fronts.
I lowered my head as she filled a small glass and presented it to Wadi. I would have to appear in public after this. Just one quick drink, I thought, then I’d run home and that would be the end of it. It would be time for late afternoon prayer and I would beg Allah for forgiveness.
Katalia passed the glass to me. I smiled, grabbed it and gulped. I was not prepared for the burning sensation but managed to hold it down. When I finally did breathe a floral-metallic taste lingered. Not bad at all. But I would drink no more. The glass made the rounds and when she held it to me I shook my hand in a polite but firm gesture. Wadi laughed. She giggled.
“It’s okay, man. This is good!” Wadi said.
His demeanor had changed. His eyes drooped, his speech softened. I shrugged, smiled, and reached for the glass.
We stumbled back to my compound. With each step I felt more and more like a different person, one without a care in the world. On the way, we stopped in front of a man lying sprawled out by the side of the road. Wadi yelled at him. He didn’t budge. We lost it.
Inside the compound we could hear people congregated in the guesthouse. Teatime. I opened the door and spied Tanya, an American girl my age whom we often taunted.
“Hi, Tanya. How are yooooou?” I said, giggling.
She stared down her nose at me. She was much taller than me. Her eyes narrowed.
“Oh my goodness! What is wrong with you?” she said, stressing each word.
“I’ve been drinking Waragi!” I beamed.
“You are sooooo drunk. I’m gonna tell your parents!”
Within moments my father escorted me home. He lifted me onto my bed. I screamed and screamed — for how long I’m not sure. After some time I looked out my door. My folks sat in our living room with the next-door neighbors. They held hands, forming a tight-knit circle.
“Jesus, we pray that–“
“Get out! Get out!” I screamed. “Leave me alone!”
My mother excused herself, walked up to me, placed her hand on my head.
“Vinton, we love you–“
She never saw it coming. Neither did I. I smacked her across the face. Hard. She backed off, started crying. My father stormed in.
“You will NOT hit your mother, young man! No sir!”
He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, his teeth clenched.
“No, Richard. Stop!” my mother implored him.
He let go and withdrew several steps.
I felt strangely calm, in control.
They turned to walk out.
Hushed voices continued to emanate from the other room, Jesus’ name interspersed.
“Allahu akbar,” I repeated, this time louder. “Ashhadu an la ilaha illa Allah!”
I slurred the last bit and started laughing.
“I follow Allah. I am a Muslim and you cannot stop me,” I slurred, parroting Wadi’s African-British accent.
They stared at me in quiet disbelief, my mother holding a hand to her cheek. Then they turned, walked out and sat with the others.
I fell back into my pillow, closed my eyes. I still heard faint whispering, but it faded as I drifted off atop a cloud into paradise, where seventeen virgin maidens awaited me with open arms.
Vinton Kevitt is a free-lance writer and musician living in Asheville, N.C. His work has appeared in “Southeast Performer.” His current master, a memoir, demands he detail his experiences as the child of Pentecostal missionaries.