My grandfather was a proud man who never compromised when it came to his culture and values. Many knew him as Ashumba, the Lion, a name that was passed on from ancestor to ancestor. Ashumba, the man who did everything with fierce passion except for one thing, show love. He believed that showing affection makes a sloppy job of raising children. So when we visited him over the school holidays we worked because to him we were extra hands on deck! There was no difference between the seasonal farm workers who toiled in the fields for a daily wage and his offspring who stood to inherit the fruits of all his “blood sweat and tears”. We all had to work! Like any young people would feel, to us, this was torture, abuse, exploitation…child labour! But every school holiday we were shipped off to live in his household.
After long grueling days helping around the farm, we would spend the evenings of walking around on eggshells lest we were summoned to perform some needless duty for “loitering”. No offspring of his was to ever be seen as good for nothing! He insulted the laziness out of us – an exorcist of laziness, some would call him.
When I look back at those years, I am thankful for the lessons we learnt under his care that have helped us endure the best and the worst of times with reasonably level heads.
As his children and grandchildren grew older, one could say he softened up a bit.
He loved sitting in the living room after supper staring at the blank television screen. There almost seemed to be sacredness to those few hours between supper and bedtime when he just sat there in silence. Too afraid to ask or interrupt his peace and quiet, we let him be until one day I was brave enough to go and sit with him. For a long moment, nothing was said, we just sat there and I understood it was probably a place of contemplation. As timid a teen as I was by then, I summoned the courage to ask him, “Where did you come from grandpa?” The look on his face seemed to be that of being overwhelmed, perhaps relief. Almost like, “I am glad someone cares enough to ask.” We must have sat for hours as he narrated how his father died when he was just 2 years old and his mother left him in the care of an uncle as she went off to remarry. Raised under a heavy hand, mostly fending for himself, all he knew was hard work. When other children may have been going through potty training, he was already fighting for his own survival. The calluses on his hands seemed to be a reflection of the stone wall that had formed around his heart, numbing the ability to feel any kind of emotion. Above his own personal battle, witnessing the war that raged in the 60’s and 70’s didn’t help either. Emotionless as always, he expressed neither anger nor gratitude for the hand life had dealt him.
Oftentimes I had wondered why he was so hard and somewhat cold but only after that day did I realize it emanated from his view of authority and his image of who God was – shaped by his upbringing. He never doubted the existence of God but strongly that believed the gateway to God was through his ancestors. Ancestors who had left him as a defenseless tot. His logic was that God was far too unattainable for mere mortals like you and me to approach. God lived so far away that only those long gone had the ability or time to travel there and plead on our behalf and in turn the living had to appease them by making animal sacrifices. Due to the ancestors’ long trips to God, they would apparently be thirsty therefore they required a special brew made and offered as a form of worship.
God was a wrathful being who was quick to administer discipline without much debate and wasted no time listening to your side of the story. Grandfather spared no rod, whip or cane. As you can guess, I was the recipient of a few lashings in my time. Mostly because I was too undiscerning to notice when he was angry and also too slow to move when the others had long scurried off.
Despite unknowingly inheriting the legacy of my grandfather’s “rough childhood”, the desire to find healing was the doorway to finding the truth. Surely dead people couldn’t do a better job of communicating with God than the living, my young mind would silently reason. Moreover, if they apparently consumed intoxicating drink how was I to be assured they would get the message to God and not fall into a ditch somewhere along the way? Despite my distorted view of an authoritative do-what-I-say-and-if-you-don’t-you-will-go-to-hell kind of God, I began to fumble my way towards Him. My picture of God was still that of an awe inspiring version of may grandfather. Instead of piercing words, he had fire coming out of his mouth and smoke out of his nostrils. Kind of like a sterner looking Merlin sitting up in the sky with a huge cane waiting to administer punishment for my every wrongdoing. The more I tried to do right, the more I seemed to fail and it was just too exhausting. In moments of failing to “reach the bar” or “be the model child”, going into hiding seemed the best solution until I felt I had done enough to redeem myself. Self redemption is a myth by the way. If truth be told, how does one pay their own ransom if they are caught up in a hostage situation and happen to be dead?
It is only when I began to have my own version of “Smackdown” with God that I realized the way to him was a street called love. Love he demonstrated by giving his Son Jesus, a ransom to rescue hostages like myself. Hostages to generations of bitterness and anger. Hostages to circumstances and situations that shaped our lives even before we were born. Hostages to our own frailties and fleeting desires as human beings. Knowing that a gruesome death on the cross took away the wrath that was meant for me, is the reason I can look back and smile even at the memory of a few of the whippings I took. It is the reason I can take away the good memories from the past and learn from the bitter ones. It is also the reason I learnt I could mourn my grandfather, keep his legacy alive but remember the fact that he is gone…dead and with me remains only memories, lessons I learnt and nothing more. He can neither bless nor curse. I chuckle when I think, if my grandfather were the ancestor assigned to present my recommendation, I bet God would have a very bad impression of me.
And by the way, experience tells me, there is never any point playing Smackdown with God. When I throw my best punches it is as thought he just keeps saying “Is that all you got…?”