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January 20, 2015
African Voice
How a Deathbed Wish Led Me to the Gospel
by Imo Eshiet

ďLife can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forward.Ē †Kierkegaard

Aba, Nigeria temple

My paternal grandfather was quite a guy. Though he passed decades before I was born, if principles are indeed truths that guide decisions and actions, then I am pretty much in his debt.

As I struggle daily to live with a family of five kids and a wife, I keep wondering about this ancestor. How did he live 72 years and retain his sanity without high blood pressure with all the crazy tensions of running a harem of 36 wives, an unknown number of concubines and, not to forget, a colony of children?

Let me quickly add that though it may have been good enough for his times, it is not his plural marriages that fill me with awe for him. Rather, he earns my respect from the way he raised his children and the values he inculcated in them.

For instance, it was not until my adult years that I knew that my army of uncles and aunts were mostly half brothers and sisters. In a village where brothers and sisters from the same mother and father thought nothing of doing one another in, it was an instructive lesson seeing my own folks live free from ill will for one another.

Until they started passing away in quick succession, the family often ate and drank together. At such moments, an animated hubbub and ringing laughter would boom out as they ribbed each other with jokes, shared memories, puns, sarcasm, and sizzling anecdotes.

They seized every opportunity to come together: weekends, holidays such as child births, death in the family, marriages, graduations, Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other anniversaries. Then the village air hung heavy with the mouthwatering aroma of barbecued goat, the poundings of mortar, and the smells of wine they consumed by the gourds amidst merciless teasing, shouts, ululations, and funny nicknames that only they could call themselves.

If they had any disagreements they used such occasions to settle the conflict without the intervention of outsiders. Each time I recall the amity among them I often wonder how Grandfather managed to forge in them such strong bonds.

When aunts whose marriages were on the skids returned home with their children in tow, they were assigned lands and helped to build homes to raise those kids. Such welcome was uncommon in a culture where women had no inheritance from their parents.

This domestic harmony certainly carried over from their fatherís callings. A chief priest of divination who watched over the religious destiny of his people through the religious observances of an assortment of gods, he needed a quiet life to be in tune with the numerous deities he served. His household and clan knew and respected this need for peace and serenity.

Aside from his various cult activities, he also presided over a native court set up by the British colonial authorities. To give colonial subjects a sense of participation of sorts in their affairs, the British governed through a system of indirect rule. Locals who already had remarkable stature among their people were used by the British as intermediaries between the people and the colonial government.

These men retained their leadership roles, thus freeing the British from day-to-day interventions in local affairs so they could concentrate on broader issues of administration.

Along with a panel of other judges, Grandfatherís job was to arbitrate in land and domestic crises. Just as his work of divination required concentrated devotion, dispensing justice too called for carefully and quietly thinking over court cases.

Such ponderings may have agitated his conscience. In his animist religion there was a deity behind every phenomenon. Some of these gods were cruel and capricious. They demanded human sacrifice every now and then. Victims were frequently intertribal war captives, strangers, or other fringe elements in society. Occasionally, though, it came painfully home.

Women who had twins and their twin babies were considered harbingers of evil and therefore sacrificed to the gods, irrespective of whose wives they were. Other folks met death by smoldering. If a prominent chief died, wives and servants were buried alive with his body so they could ease his journey to the afterlife.

The British spiritedly fought these practices but discreetly turned a blind eye if the chiefs involved were like Grandpa, powerful enough to cause insurrections.

These grisly killings may have eventually taken quite a toll on Grandpaís mind, but he bided his time. If he had publicly shown his revulsion he would have been dethroned by rival powerful chiefs who would have kicked viciously because, as the main custodian of tradition, he was not expected to betray what he had sworn to uphold.

He began by sending his sons to the new schools introduced by the British. If anyone got hot under the collar over that, he could easily defend it using the British as the fall guy. He knew that at school his boys would be mandatorily proselyted and converted to the new religion, which seriously frowned on any form of blood sacrifice.

He became even more unflappable on his deathbed. He summoned his family and proclaimed something dramatic. His gods and cults, he announced, very well suited his time and his ancestors. However, the emerging times were a song that demanded new dance steps.

He urged them that upon his death, they should embrace and stay faithful to the new religion of Christianity. The eldest son who was himself advanced in age could continue with tradition, but he warned the rest from dabbling with his religion.

In Africa, deathbed wishes are not lightly treated, so my aunts and uncles heeded their fatherís wish. Some wavered between the old and new religions having a foot here and another there, but none forgot the old manís advice. But before they died even those who had rebelled against Christianity made a turn around, founded and pastored churches.

I got the gist of Grandpaís wish from my mother, who seemed to know more about the family than Father himself. When I graduated from college and crossed the Red Sea of poverty and had no more need for God, my alarmed mother repeatedly reminded me of the dead manís wish. In between I flirted between church and trending local cults.

When I felt the churches themselves had turned their backs on sharing and kindness, I broke loose completely ó to my motherís consternation.

I remained that way until contacted by missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a year before my motherís passing. Although she belonged to a sect lividly against the Church, she promptly endorsed my choice.

In the course of missionary discussions, I learned I would meet with my visionary grandfather in person one day. More, I was touched that it was my turn to bring him to the true gospel he groped for but had no opportunity to receive in mortality.

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