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A Much-needed Presence

Mon, Feb 19, 2024

Stampede of Sheep into Water, 1861 | Aivazovsky | Painting Reproduction

We had it coming. As sure as the hii jua ni ya mvua prophecy. You know that muggy heat that threatens to suffocate, if not bake you, that alerts you of the impending downpour? A keen eye would have read the signs.

We had only just started to get the hang of being a teenager. Only just making peace with our new bodies loaded with impulses, we did not understand, much less control. Then, we reported to boarding school. We had longed for it alright – for me; I could barely wait to wear the signature green and yellow of the best girls’ school in our locality. I had a brand new blue metal trunk, the kind every self-respecting high schooler had to secure their clothes, toiletries and some snacks if you were lucky. I had my strip of stamps, a notepad and some addresses scribbled in a diary; I would soon be writing and receiving letters. And, of course, the folded fifty shillings note my mother slipped me by way of pocket money.

In all that excitement, no one mentioned we were embarking on a life of always carrying a spoon in your skirt pocket, that precious tool which could determine whether you had or missed your lunch. Or that after a few days of turning up our noses at the weevil-infested fare they served, we would soon be jostling to be first in the dining hall. Or the clothes-sitting – guarding your laundry as it dried because your blouses and socks, no matter how well labelled, could disappear faster than you could say sunshine. Or the evenings spent walking around the school with your bucket, hunting for a water-yielding tap; otherwise, you would not be showering the following morning. The clouds were indeed gathering.

One scream is all it took for them to release the torrent. We had settled for evening preps, and the rules were clear: complete your assignments or review what you had learned during the day, but under no circumstances were you to open your mouth; talking was not allowed. A scream tore through the quiet evening, and like a musical round, the rest of the class joined in; the next class picked it up, and on and on it went. Within no time, girls were pouring out of the classrooms, stampeding like a herd of sheep with the wolves on their heels, running to only God-knows-where.

I remember the adrenaline, the fear, fleeing for dear life, sure that it was the end of the world; never mind, I had no idea what kind of danger was upon us. What was happening? No one seemed to know the answer. The darkness only heightened the sense of impending danger. And so we continued screaming and running. I don’t remember how calm and order were restored or how the administration managed to calm the several hundred scared and hysterical girls, and we eventually got to the bottom of the matter.

It turns out my classmate Lydia, who sat at the front of the row farthest from the door, had been minding her business, possibly a math assignment, trying to figure out what the dang logarithm was when she raised her eyes and a reflection on the window pane next to her caught her attention. She turned to look, and the scream instinctively tore through her lungs, upended the whole school, and brought us within inches of a collective heart attack. She had locked eyes with a pair of compound eyes on a triangular head borne on a slender, elongated body, with the front legs only just visible and folded in the pose that gave the creature its name; it was a praying mantis!

One cannot help but recall and compare the reaction of ten of the twelve undercover agents sent by Moses on a recon mission to Canaan when they locked eyes with the people there. They had been sent to get a feel of the lay of the land before the Hebrews went in to take possession. They returned home united; they would not going to attempt entry. A hysteria worse than the one that gripped the hapless teenagers in boarding school spread through the crowd. The community started weeping aloud and protesting against their leaders. The blaming started, and accusations started flying, “this is a plot to annihilate us.” They revolted, determined rather to go back to Egypt and to slavery than attempt to enter the promised land. Only through Moses’ intercession did the Lord not blot them out of existence. One look at the Canaanites and these spies shrank into grasshoppers.

In our case, one can argue that the praying mantis set off the rumble of the potent mix of hormones, homesickness, the newness of boarding life, and maybe even hunger, as the food never seemed to be enough. We are living in an even more potent mix – political polarisation, technological disruption, wars and rumours of war, escalating cost of living, scandals, and over-information, and it feels like we are always on the edge of combustion. Usually it takes only a tweet, a comment on Facebook or on a WhatsApp group to bring down the house. Even within families, when a crisis like, say, death or illness happens, sometimes you are left dumbfounded by the irrational actions of members, blaming, accusing each other, withdrawing, or breaking down emotionally.

In his book Generation to Generation, Edwin Friedman says that anxiety can move through human systems the way a virus moves through the population. He shows how any system can be threatened by crisis and chaos, and it is bound to break down unless there is a non-anxious presence in the system. This person remains calm when everyone else is in a panic.

Now, more than ever, it feels like we need those non-anxious presences to talk us from flinging ourselves off the ledge of hysteria. The kind the psalmist talks about – people who do not fear bad news; they confidently trust the Lord to care for them (Psalm 112: 7). I am re-reading Mark Sayers, A Non-anxious Presence, who shares a framework for understanding and navigating the present reality and challenges. He shows how times of change, flux and uncertainty can be an opportunity to build resilience and a foundation for revival and takes the reader on a journey of how they can be that non-anxious presence. You might want to look it up, too.

For us in Kahuhia Girls School, we got off lightly with only a telling-off by the headmistress or the teacher on duty. For the Hebrews, it delayed their entry into the promised land and set them wandering in the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years.

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