Botiyasi dropped out of school after grade six.
The years rolled over. Winters followed the rains. Summers returned.
When certain preachers visited, Botiyasi wondered, and puzzled over their messages. Their words did not sound like the lessons he had learned in school.
I want to learn how to preach, he told his wife. He walked twenty miles to the best preacher he could think of: Bicycle Sianjina.
Teach me how to preach! he demanded.
Hey, fellow, Bicycle said, this is planting season. Whats your panic? Wait until after harvest.
Ill help you plough. Teach me as we walk behind the oxen.
Botiyasi stayed at Bicycles village for three months. He turned the fields, planted, fertilized and weeded. And listened. Holy fire kindled, then blazed. Time had come to return home.
When he reached his village, he gathered people. A new congregation began regular worship services under a central tree in his village. Some folk liked his devotion and fervor. Most did not. Botiyasi refused to honor the ancestral spirits. This angered traditional tribesmen. When two of Botiyasis children died, these animists found an opening to challenge his careless ways. They pounced on him.
You see? Your forefathers have punished you! Honor them before they bring bad luck to us as well!
I trust Jesus, Botiyasi said. You need to trust him too.
Who stays in that new hut? Botiyasi asked as he cycled through a nearby village one morning.
That one off to the side? a local said. Oh, thats just one of Fathers distant cousins. He lived at Chikankata Leper Colony for years. Now hes come home to die. Botiyasi pushed his bicycle toward the hut.
Hey! Botiyasi stopped and looked back over his shoulder. Dont go there. He has leprosy, man!
Botiyasi ignored the warning and marched toward the hut.
You gonna die man!
Botiyasi kept walking. Already he could smell a problem. The hovel stank like an overflowing latrine. Dont be a fool. You think Jesus will protect you from leprosy?
He does whatever he wishes, Botiyasi said. If Jesus walked here, he would visit this mudaalathis old man.
The grass wall made a good place to lean his bike. Botiyasi took a deep breath and held it as he ducked under the low thatch. He peered through the door and retched when he saw the old mans condition. Nobody had helped the leper to the bush to relieve himself. Feces smeared the withered body. Urine soaked his shabby clothing and tattered blanket.
What a vile way to die, Botiyasi thought. I need a hoe and plenty of soap. He scraped the hut clean and buried the filth. While he heated water to bathe the old man, he walked to the river, a sliver of Sunlight Soap in his pocket. He knelt on a stone at the waters edge and began to scrub the old mans rags. Then he walked back to bathe the old man. There wasnt much to wash, his skin was stretched tight over his frame. Veins stood out on his arms and scalp. He was just a black skeleton. As Botiyasi rubbed soap over the fingerless hands, he felt the scales and scabs beneath his fingers. He scrubbed the toeless feet and worked Vaseline into the cracked heels.
Dont go there. He has leprosy, man!
Children chattered. Botiyasi looked up from his work. A nervous group toted a food bowl toward the hut. The youngsters crouched at the door and scooted the enamel dish across the sandy floor into the hut. The children scampered away, giggling. Botiyasi poked a finger into the stiff food. Yesterday's tallowed leftovers clung to his skin, cold and greasy.
Those kids are all the company the old fellow has all day, Botiyasi realized.
He lifted the old mans head and helped him sip warm gruel. Jesus loves you! he laughed. You are not too old or sick to pray. Then he began to sing. Izuba talibbili! He crooned and rocked the frail body in his arms. Night never comes to heaven. Supper over, he opened his Bible and read aloud. Page after page, until the ancient slept.
Botiyasi served the old man every day after that. Every day they prayed, and Botiyasi read and sang.
One afternoon the old lepers fingerless paw scraped at his arm. Baptize me, he said. Baptize me now, little brother. I want to be with Jesus.
Of course, mudaala. You honor me.
Botiyasi rose to his knees. He shoved his sturdy arms under the slight body and lifted. The burden was not great. He carried the old man down to the streamdown to a place well below the pool where people drew their water. People do not like washed-off sins in their drinking water, Botiyasi knew. He wanted no criticism about that.
He waded, the leper in his arms, into the chilly pool. There he knelt, easing the old man into the water until all but his trembling head lay beneath the lily pads. Botiyasi pronounced the ancient words of blessing, then dipped the old mans head. As he came from the water, still in Botiyasis arms, the newborn ancient grinned up at the young man, exposing all three of his snaggly teeth.
Thank you, young brother, he quavered. Now I am ready.
Back at the hut, Botiyasi toweled the scrawny body. He covered the leper with a blanket, and rose to go. Pray for me, young man. Pray for me, the quavering voice wheezed. Was that the sparkle of tears in his eyes? I dont want to wait.
What would you have me say?
I am ready to die now, the old man whispered. Pray that Jesus will take me home. Pray that he will take me home right now.
Botiyasi just stood there a moment, speechless. He choked, then cleared his throat. Kneeling beside his friend, he spoke the request the old man coveted. After a quiet moment he rose, stooped under the low door post and climbed on his bicycle.
Pray that Jesus will take me home.
Next morning, Botiyasi found the old man dead.
Ha ha ha! the locals mocked. What a Christian you are! You pray for people and they die! Ha ha ha! You will soon die of the same disease, you silly fool.
Botiyasi hefted his hoe. The same hoe he had used to clean the floor. Perhaps those who taunted him thought he might strike at them. Instead he turned his back on them, found a decent gravesite, and began to hammer the earth. The same strong arms that had buried the old man in water the day before, now laid him in God's earth. The same embers that once boiled the old mans soup, served now to incinerate his shack.
Job done, Botiyasi dusted his hands and swung a leg over the saddle of his cycle. As he cranked the pedals toward home. He began to sing, Izuba talibbili
Forty years have passed since then. On his deathbed, Botiyasi gave instructions for his own funeral. Weep if you wish, he said. But dont wail like people who have no hope. When you put my body in the ground, my spirit will stand by you and watch. I want you to sing Izuba talibbili. When you start to sing that hymn, I will leave you, and enter the gates of heaven.
From the May Namwianga Newsletter, 1997 with love from Roy & Kathi