From the lips of babes
© Folakemi Emem-Akpan
Ahmad holds his younger sister by one hand, drags his school bag behind him with the other. The sun is high up in the sky and relentless in its heat. Beads of sweat line the ten-year-old’s face, and the skull cap sitting atop his head doesn’t help matters at all. For a brief moment, he wonders how hot and miserable Adijat, his seven-year old sister must be underneath her black hijab.
Theirs is a Muslim school; it is mandatory for both boys and girls to keep their heads covered. Their headmaster, who is also an alfa, would literarily beat the demon out of whosoever dare disobey school rules. Their own father would do worse; he’d once beaten their mother to near-coma for welcoming a visitor with her head uncovered.
As they round the corner to their home, a squat ugly building that they’ve lived in forever, Ahmad’s heart begins to ricochet inside of its cage. Without his father’s knowledge, he’s made a new friend in the building just before theirs. The other boy is also ten years old and is an infidel, a Christian. Ahmad’s father would kill him first and ask questions later should he ever see his son talking to Philip.
“Go on home, Adijat. If Mama asks for me, you know what to say.” It is an inexcusable crime to let his sister walk home alone, but their father is off to work, and Mama would never tell on them. If anything, she tries so hard to protect her children against their father’s irrational anger.
Philip is waiting, as previously arranged. There’s a smile on his lips, as if there’s nothing more he’d rather do in the world than converse with Ahmad.
“You’re early today.”
“Yes.” Quickly, Ahmad pushes his friend into the doorway. There are neighbors who would love to tell Ahmad’s father that he’s now friends with a Christian boy. Better take precautions.
The living room is small yet manages to convey an impression of space. Faded easy chairs are arranged at opposite ends, and on the far wall is a painting of Jesus on the cross. Four other children are waiting, and for the briefest of moments, Ahmad is surprised to see Quadri, a much older boy from his school who lives farther down the street.
Dropping his school bag, Ahmad falls into the nearest seat and yanks off his skull cap. Overhead, a fan is slowly rotating. In no time, his sweat dries and relief courses through his body. Philip begins handling out Bibles.
“Last night, my dad read to us from John at our evening devotion. He made some notes for me when I told him we’d be meeting today.”
The Bible feels soft and familiar to Ahmad. With unease, for he’s not had much practice, he opens to the book of John. As Philip reads the from the third chapter and then turns to his father’s notes for further explanations, a surge of unexplainable joy courses through Ahmad’s body. Even though he’s young, he knows with an unshakeable certainty that he’s found the true religion, the only true God. He sits there, learning about sin and redemption, and even though Philip is as young as himself is, there’s no doubt in his heart that this is the right way.
When they finish, Ahmad pulls his new friend aside and whispers to him, “Can I come back for more, let’s say tomorrow?”
When Philip says yes, Ahmad quickly hugs him, waves bye to the other children and slips out of the house. But not before he remembers to wear his cap.
Outside, the sun is still as scorching as ever. He can see his mother at the entrance to their home, shrouded in a billowing black gown. He loves this woman so much. Perhaps when he’s old enough to get away from Papa, when he becomes a Christian, he’ll take his Mama along with him. And Adijat.
Hijab – A large religious scarf worn by Muslim women
Alfa – A teacher of the Quran