Gerald worked out early every morning – a walking routine he created for himself. He liked how people walked past with swift steps on their way to their various businesses, minding their own. Gerald’s walk did two things: enabled him to talk to God, and he learned the routes in Wilderness. His daily workout routine started at 5 am, but he did not leave the church premises until 6:30 am, as he waited for more light.
He prayed about everybody he encountered on the way: the mothers who rose early to prepare their children for school, people who set up to sell their wares for the day, those hurrying to work, and even the loitering area boys.
On entering the heart of Wilderness, the environment changed; even in the near daylight, it seemed as if darkness hovered, blended in and dominated. The toppling houses, the roads filled with rubbish heaps, the aggressiveness and anger the inhabitants reacted with at the slightest provocation, and their penchant to distrust first and ask questions later. He avoided this part of Wilderness; however, God led him this way today and who was he to say no? He did not want to end up in a giant animal’s belly. He took the scriptures at its literal meaning.
He moved through a street with measured steps. He noted the name scrawled on the wall of a house, Winner’s lane, before the commotion before him caught his attention. Some men gathered around a man like vultures. The assailants looked like area boys, harassing the one on the ground for money. Gerald pleaded with God not to send him to help and tried to turn around to leave the street.
“Keep walking,” He heard in his heart.
He continued forward, and as he passed the scene, he spotted her. She stood over the man on the ground like an Amazon. The smile on her face made it obvious she held the reins. He was not aware he stopped walking. She captivated him with the aura of power she held herself up by, but the mark on her face registered more. The scar called to him like an old memory, willing him to remember. His eyes followed every move she made until the group released the man and all walked away.
“She is the one,” He heard again.
Gerald realised he had been standing in the same position, fear forgotten. God’s words registered. He looked up at the sky, mouth open for a while, passers-by looked at him funny. He closed his mouth and continued walking; this time away from the street.
“I don’t understand, Father, which one?” He asked.
He spoke out loud and did not get a response. He understood to whom his Father referred.
Back at the parish, Gerald took a bath, readied himself, and walked down to the communal dining area for breakfast. Pastor Josh, the Parish Pastor, sat at the head of the table, reading the papers.
“Good morning, Pastor,” Gerald said in greeting as he took a seat.
“Ah, good morning, Gerald.” Pastor Josh responded, smiling.
A handsome man who could hit fifty soon, Pastor Josh treated Gerald with a bit more kindness than necessary. The ready smiles and constant approvals seemed a bit much in Gerald’s estimation. The Pastor dressed in the required black shirt and grey trousers with a name tag sewn on his shirt. Except for the weight in the stomach area, Pastor Josh wore his youthful face creased with smiles, and strode with a strong and confident gait.
“So, Gerald, what are your plans for the day?”
“May I follow you on your visitation rounds? I need to acquaint myself with the area. My walks are not as revealing as I would like because I’m avoiding the area boys as best as I can.”
Pastor Josh smiled as he put his paper down. “Not a problem. You will get used to them—some areas, faster than others. The people are neither trusting, nor do they appreciate strangers.”
Gerald smiled at him. “Don’t worry, pastor. I believe this is God’s place for me. I will acclimatise soon.”
The pastor nodded and turned to read his paper. “In time, my boy, in time.”
Gerald thought about his task to assist in the Wilderness Parish. He remembered the day he returned to Haraya, the graduate of an international cooking school in Switzerland. He arrived ready to do God’s work, the call on his life a priority which consumed him. Cooking was his second love.
The first sight that welcomed him as he arrived at the airport was the poor, women and children. Youths milled about the roads, waving their cardboard paper, chanting freedom choruses, demonstrating for better governance. On one of those cardboard sheets, the name Wilderness stood out, painted in red, the paint bleeding on the paper as if it wept.
His parents could not answer his questions.
“Listen, boy, the deplorable state of the people started from way back, the fault of past governments. The new administration can’t correct everything. Eat the food you took your time to cook and be merry with your family. Let those people care for themselves. They’ve been doing it for decades.” His father said, ignoring the way his son gaped back at him.
Gerald went to God. The day after his arrival home, he took a taxi to Wilderness; the cardboard sign stuck to his heart. Overwhelmed at the raw stench of human sweat, foodstuff on display on the roads, dirty gutters reeking to the heavens, and rubbish heaps, he couldn’t stay five minutes in the area.
Wilderness laid heavy on his chest, and he continued to ask God what to do. From experience, he waited, knowing the burden from God was an assignment God would lead and guide him through. As a member of The Transformation Place Church, Worldwide, he asked his church members in the Church’s headquarters for details of the Parish Pastor of the Wilderness branch.
A friend introduced him to Pastor Josh, and, after a brief discussion, Gerald donated to the Parish. He continued to do this for a while until God asked him one evening as he prayed.
“Who can I send?”
Gerald stopped praying. God’s expectations were clear, but Gerald’s mind was not. He sat down at his writing-table. “Do you want me to go, Father?”
“Who can I send?”
He looked up at the roof and replied, “Send me.”
The next week, he got a letter inviting him to the Church President’s office. They had met once or twice since his return from Switzerland, but the invitation baffled him. He got ready and went to meet the man.
Their conversation still shocked Gerald whenever he thought about it. The President heard about Gerald’s support and interest in the Wilderness parish, and since the parish needed help, would he be willing to assist the pastor with his duties? The executive council prayed about it and chose Gerald from a list of others, including young pastors.
A second request for his help also came Pastor Josh, as he tabled his need for aid before the Executive body of the Church. He informed them about Gerald’s heart for God, for Wilderness, and his generosity. Although Gerald did not possess any pastoring experience, the council, in making their decision, hoped his passion would help the Parish and its pastor.
Gerald, in shock, agreed, knowing God had spoken. He would never forget the President’s last words.
“God may have brought you back to Haraya for Wilderness.”
To the utter disappointment of his family, he gave up employment in a Swiss luxury hotel, an opportunity his parents boasted about amidst their friends, for the job in Wilderness. His mother had still not forgiven him.
He started work as the Pastor’s assistant the week after the discussion with the President. He did not know how long the job would last, but believed God stood with him in his assignment.
At last, the cook laid his food out before him, cutting off his thought process. She smiled at him, and he winked at her. She reminded him of his grandmother and how she tolerated his opinions on cooking. Gerald turned to eat, a wistful smile on his lips.
Pastor Josh lowered the paper. “Did she accept the tips from you?” He asked in a whisper.
Gerald smiled. “She did, and I am still alive. The flavour of the rice this morning will stay on your tongue till lunchtime. Try it.”
Josh nodded. “Good. I was waiting for your verdict before trying anything.”
He opened his plastic food cover and looked at the rice. The appearance was not much better than before, but the aroma beckoned to him and he ate before passing judgment. As he tasted his first fork full, he looked up at Gerald, his eyes widening with every chew.
“The sauce still lingers on the tongue. It’s as if she cooked it on firewood, like the rice my grandmother made for us as children. Fantastic, my boy!” the Pastor said, grinning, before he leaned forward close to Gerald, “but please help her with the presentation and keep mentoring her on new recipes. If that is all you do, we will be forever grateful for your presence. Hah! At this rate, we will soon start eating gourmet food here.” He said and turned back to his food, clapping his hands as he dug in.
Gerald continued eating; his smile gone and his appetite with it. He chewed slowly, his mouth moving as he listened to the Pastor’s noisy activity. Gerald glanced at the Pastor, assessing the man’s motives for the first time and hoping he was not over-thinking things. He laid his thoughts before God, asking for wisdom and guidance.
Gerald followed as Pastor Josh left the parish for visitation at 2 pm that afternoon. Pastor Josh warned they would visit a dangerous part of Wilderness-a brothel on Winner’s lane. The Pastor visited there every Wednesday and always bought groceries for the girls, as he referred to them. Gerald expected the cook would go to the market for the groceries, but Pastor Josh explained it would waste time and recommended they buy what they needed at a local store.
At the store, Pastor Josh bought foodstuffs in cartons and other feminine things for the women. Gerald looked away, embarrassed at how Josh picked intimate female items with ease. At the counter, the shop owner smiled at the pastor, greeting him like an old customer. Gerald noted the huge amount of bills exchanged for their transaction.
They packed the shopping bags into the car and sped off. Gerald prayed as they drove along the streets of Wilderness. He prayed for the children, the youth, mothers, and fathers. The thought of the amazon with a mark flashed in his mind-his girl. He shook his head.
“Are you alright?” Pastor Josh asked, glancing at him and back at the road.
Gerald smiled: “I’m fine, sir. I feel drowsy. I need more sleep.”
Pastor Josh nodded, concentrating on his driving.
What a lie, and when did the girl become his? Someone he did not know? What would his mother think about her background and upbringing? She almost gave up on him with the Wilderness news. Now she would disown him outright.
Gerald closed his eyes. Father, I thank you for this situation. I don’t know what you want me to do with this gift. I believe there is light to guide me on this path. Take the glory, my God. He opened his eyes as their car entered Winner’s lane. Gerald looked around, hoping to see her again. Pastor Josh stopped the car and parked it in front of an old bungalow.
The house, like other bungalows lined up on the lane, possessed communal rooms for bathing, cooking and attending to visitors. They contained eight to ten rooms lined in a hallway, on the left and right, facing each other. The present owners either rented them out room by room, or their children still lived there. In the present, the houses remained standing only in the ghetto, reserved for the poor.
The bungalow housing the brothel looked different. Fenced roundabout, with a small gate in front of it, it resembled a widow’s cottage. At two in the afternoon, young ladies littered the front yard, sitting, playing games, and looking out for potential customers.
Once the car stopped, some girls came out to greet pastor Josh and to help with the bags. A few ladies choose to help Gerald, casting inquiring glances and flirtatious smiles. He smiled back at some, and nodded at the others, saying hello to each one. Pastor Josh led him to the meeting room-the brothel bar. Five young ladies followed them into the small room. Gerald stood by the door, leaning against a wall, and paid attention as Pastor Josh made the meeting as interactive as possible.
He tried to assess Pastor Josh’s teaching style and wondered how he would have done it if he was in the Pastor’s position. He looked around the bar to the two small windows on opposite sides and bare walls, and spotted the girl by the window looking at him. She winked.
Her beautiful skin glittered with oil like another membrane. Gerald nodded at her and looked away, back to the walls. The walls were blue ages ago, but now stained with age and dust, acquired other colors. The paint work looked like the work of a depressed artist.
Gerald noticed someone standing by his side at the door. He turned and faced the amazon, and all speech evaporated from his head as he gazed at her.
“Have we met?” she asked.
She smiled. “Why are you staring at me? Never seen a beautiful woman before?”
Gerald looked away. “No.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
“Well, Mr. Looker, are you here for the girls? You’re a bit early,” she said, smiling.
“No, I came with Pastor Josh.”
She looked at Pastor Josh and back at him. “Oh, you are one of those,” she said and turned to walk away.
“One of what?” he asked.
“Those,” she called out.
“What in God’s name is she doing here?” He asked out loud. He also wondered about the mark on her face, why he couldn’t get it out of his head.
“Do you know Amara?” The oiled-up girl from the window asked. She stood in front of him, invading his space with each step. Gerald spotted Pastor Josh leaving the bar and looked at the girl again. She was a beauty, but the coldness in her eyes and smile put him off.
“No, I don’t. What’s your name?” he asked.
“Nma,” she said and turned to Pastor Josh as he came to stand by Gerald’s side. “You didn’t introduce us to your friend, Pastor.”
“Ah, forgive me. Everybody, this is Gerald, my new assistant in the parish. He will visit with me from now on. Gerald, the beautiful lady with you, is Nma. This pretty one in front of me is Oge, and,” Pastor Josh turned to point at the other girls, “these are Nkoli, Anwuli, and Funmi. Say, welcome girls.”
After the visit, both men remained deep in their thoughts on their way back to the parish.
Just before Gerald fell asleep, Amara’s face flashed in his mind and zapped away like smoke. It wasn’t the face she had grown into, but the face of the girl with the mark, who had saved him many years ago. Gerald sat up in disbelief, recalling all that had happened the first time he met Amara; it seemed impossible.
He had tried to forget those memories for the past eighteen years. He yielded them to God years after the incident, when the most-skilled psychiatrists had failed to help him with the nightmares. Amara saved his life. How could he have forgotten her?
Years ago, Wilderness, called a different name, appeared well above the poverty line, but signs showed the degeneration process creeping in. He got lost one afternoon after school and missed the school bus, when his class toured the area on a school excursion trip.
The area boys, children as well, chased him around for a while, when a girl about his age, with a snake-like mark on her face, stopped the chase and dared the boys to touch Gerald. The commotion happened in front of her mother’s shop, and the woman rushed out to chase the boys away. After listening to him, the girl’s mother gave him enough money to get him out of Wilderness by bus. He thanked her and turned to leave, but the girl stopped him.
“Can you go home from here?” She asked. He shook his head and looked down. “Come, I will take you to the bus stop.” She said, leading him by hand.
Amara took him to the bus stop and put him on a bus going to the Central, his side of town. She explained his predicament to the driver, asking him to drop Gerald off at the right stop.
He tossed on his bed, still unable to believe the amazon woman was the same girl, and stood, unable to sleep. Gerald picked his Bible and read, seeking wisdom as he turned to Jeremiah 32: 37-41:
‘Behold, I will gather them out of all countries where I have driven them in My anger, in My fury, and in great wrath; I will bring them back to this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely. They shall be my people, and I will be their God; then I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me. Yes, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will assuredly plant them in this land, with all my heart, and with all My soul.’
He knelt to pray.
“This is my plan for Haraya. You will marry her as I have married Haraya to myself. She will be yours, as Haraya is mine. Do not be afraid; I am with you.” The Holy Spirit said.
Gerald bowed his head low to the ground and worshipped.