The Alien Who Saved Me: Part I

The first time I saw her was in church. I had just elbowed my sister Mansa awake for the fourth time from her usual dozing during church service. I would have left her to sleep, but as the eldest, I was expected to ensure that my sister did not misbehave in public. 

She walked in while Pastor John was pontificating passionately about worldliness and the dangers of eternal hellfire. It was his favourite topic – one he could go on about for hours. When he noticed her presence, he paused mid-speech, mouth agape as the tattooed woman with multiple piercings in her ears and a ring on her nose walked into his church. Her dreadlocks were dyed pink and blonde, and to add insult to injury, she was wearing trousers and a flowery shirt that barely covered the top of her trousers. A woman in trousers was another abomination to  Pastor John. I would later learn that those were the most respectable clothes she owned, but at the time, I was both intrigued and scandalised by her outlook. She was the representation of everything Pastor John preached against in the flesh. 

Her entrance disrupted the otherwise monotonous and repetitive sermon as the congregation turned around or craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the alien that had appeared in their midst.

I knew who she was, of course. I had heard the whispers about the strange woman in town. I was also one of the three girls who were tasked by the palace to clean out the previous Maths teacher’s house in anticipation of her arrival. Unlike the previous occupant of the little house, she was not there to teach fractions or BODMAS. She was there to do some research on essential amenities the town lacked so that her foundation could help us. I had heard enough to also know that the only reason her presence was tolerated by the elders was that she was there to improve the town. They had been reluctant to allow an unmarried woman to come to the town by herself to work, especially one that looked like her. However, they had relented. The only thing that trumped Adepa’s sanctimonious moral compass was competition with neighbouring towns. Any improvement for the town that would make it better than the neighbouring towns was welcomed by the elders, even if it was the devil bringing it.

She was a beautiful woman, tall at 5ft 9 inches, and despite the multi-coloured hair, she looked formidable and confident – in a way I had only ever seen in men in my town. She took a seat on the empty pew on my right, sitting at the end like I was, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

The woman sat down through the rest of the service seemingly unbothered about the furtive and judgemental glances she was receiving from the rest of the congregation. I remember wondering what it would be like to have half of her confidence, and where she came from that not only allowed a woman to travel on her own to a strange town but also gave her the kind of confidence that would be considered disrespectful in a woman in Adepa.

From her seat at the back, she observed the proceedings, mirroring our actions as we stood intermittently.

Pastor John prattled on about a woman’s place in society, about honouring God by being a good wife and keeping the home and the husband happy, and the importance of a praying woman in a marriage. It was a sermon we had all heard many times before, and I could repeat it word for word. Later, he called Mansa Gyamfi forward to testify on the power prayer has had over her marriage.

Mansa went forward, and to the cheers of the congregation recounted a story of how her marriage had been in turmoil for the past two years; the devil had worked against her marriage and her husband was lost. He beat her and left her for a ‘witch’ who had plotted to destroy her home. She mentioned how she had wept to Pastor John, and he had encouraged her to pray and woo her husband back from the clutches of the witch. When she finished with the testimony of the return of her husband after a year of prayer, fasting and begging, the whole church erupted in applause and joy.

I remember feeling uncomfortable with the testimony, and for some reason my eyes had flicked to her, and when I saw her frowning at the reaction to Mansa’s testimony, it somehow made me feel better. Seeing someone else express a different reaction than everyone else – a reaction I often got during these testimonies – made me feel better because I thought no one else would think that Mansa going through all that trouble to get Kofi Gyamfi back was no cause for joy. 

After Mansa returned to her seat beside her abusive husband, Pastor John asked if anyone knew of anything that had as much power as a prayerful wife when it comes to keeping your marriage. It was a rhetorical question, one that the congregation knew not to respond to. When the woman raised her hand, the room went silent. To say we were shocked was an understatement. You could have heard a pin drop in the quietness that ensued.

“May I ask a question, Pastor?” 

At Pastor John’s stiff nod, she asked, “Do men also pray for the ability to remain faithful and good to their wives, or is praying for a good spouse a duty reserved for only women?”

For a few seconds we all stared at Pastor John, who could not hide his annoyance. “It is a woman’s duty to protect her marriage against the work of the devil through prayer,” he answered in a tone that broached no argument. He looked back into his Bible on the new wooden pulpit my father had built him, obviously seeing the conversation as over.

“Why is it the woman’s duty? If it is the man who is allowing himself to be used by the devil, shouldn’t he be the one praying over his problem?”

Even from my seat at the back of the congregation, I could almost see the steam coming from Pastor John’s ears. Nobody questioned him after he had spoken in that final tone, and especially not a woman. 

“You would not understand such things because you haven’t been saved. If you become a believer, you will understand the way of things.”

She didn’t say anything else, but she had planted a seed. It would probably be soon washed away from most minds, but she had planted a seed in me, and it took root.

Pastor John managed to continue his service despite his obvious discomfort with her presence. However, he was so rattled that he closed church early, much to our collective relief. You would have thought that the devil himself had come down to The Pious Christian Church to test him.

The second time I saw her was at school. I had sneaked into the Adepa School library to borrow a book without permission. I was a woman, and after fighting to be allowed to complete Junior High School with the boys, my love for books was no longer indulged or appreciated. I was expected to prepare for marriage and manage a household. 

The library was a 20-square metre room with three long aisles of bookshelves filled with over a hundred books that were donated by the same NGO that built the library for the school. There were textbooks, travel books that showed a fascinating world beyond the corners of my small town, and novels about interesting people around the world. Apart from the textbooks, the rest of the books sat there collecting dust as most of the boys who were allowed to read them were uninterested in their illuminating pages and the knowledge and adventures they offered.

It was easier at first to borrow the books when I used to clean the library, but after I was caught lost in the pages of ‘Pride and Prejudice’  two months prior, I was banned from the library and given the kitchen to clean instead. After that, I had to sneak in to borrow and replace the books.

So that day, there I was deciding between ‘The Gods Are Not To Blame’ and ‘End of the Tunnel’, when the door to the library suddenly opened. I had just enough time to dart behind the closest bookshelf before the headmaster, Mr. Poku walked in with her.

She walked ahead of him, browsing through the books and asking questions about how often the library was used and the times it could be accessed. From my spot behind the bookcase, I watched as Mr. Poku answered her questions with an air of importance, struggling to always stand in front of her. Women were supposed to walk a step behind men, after all. I stifled a giggle when he almost stumbled in his haste to lead the way after she abruptly turned to the next aisle.

“You said this library is used only during school hours?” she asked as she browsed the textbook collection. 

Nodding, Mr. Poku replied that the boys had important things like farming and football tournaments after school and could not be bothered with the library.

“And the girls?” she pressed. Mr. Poku frowned at the question, genuinely perplexed. “What about the girls?”

“You said the boys were too busy to read. Are the girls not interested either?”

Mr. Poku laughed and gave her a derisive look, informing her with the air of an exasperated teacher lecturing a particularly daft child, “I don’t know how things are where you come from, lady,  but over here, we train our girls to be godly women who are good wives and mothers. They stay at home and manage the household. They don’t need books for that.”

There was a slight pause before she murmured, “I see,” turning around the corner suddenly and staring straight at me. I had expected her to turn to the other side of the aisle instead of coming to the corner where I was hidden. When she caught me, I thought she would say something to betray my presence, but she didn’t. She turned around quickly and told Mr. Poku that she was ready to leave.

I thought of her for the rest of the day, even more intrigued after seeing her again. Unlike the rest of the town who viewed her as an anomaly, she fascinated me. I wondered again what it would feel like to be her.

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