Dr. Justin Obi's Hanging - Part I
Every night, Bertie and I knelt over Mommy's custom-made couch in our living room and recited the same prayers. With the precision of a memorized roll call, we ticked off names: Distant family members, supporters in America, local mission partners and neighbors, and a list of people who didn't know Jesus. Nightly prayers and morning devotions were fundamental to our daily routine—cultivating our spiritual growth.
I said it just as I imagined it should be stated.
Before we knelt, Daddy opened his King James and read a few verses from Lamentations.
"Through the Lord's mercies, we are not consumed, Because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness."
After a short devotion, he announced the order in which we would pray, knowing that Bertie and I would doze off and end up curled on the floor before everyone finished.
"Georgie, you go first, then Bertie, Becky, and then Rosy. After the girls, Doris, you pray, and I'll finish up. And don't forget to pray for Dr. Obi."
Daddy met Dr. Obi, a Nigerian inmate, at Monrovia Central Prison, on one of his visits there, so we knew about his troubles. He needed saving on more fronts than one.
"Dear Heavenly Father,
I pray for Uncle Bill, Aunt Louise, Cousin Deborah… Uncle John, Aunt Elizabeth, Cousin Esther... Uncle Jim and Aunt Barb, Billy Boy, and Louise…
I pray for the Harpers, the McNeils, the Griffins… Auntie Grace, Auntie Shirley, Auntie Nancy... The Cantys, Miss McCleary, Miss Herron, Miss Stephens, and Miss McCombs…"
My voice lowered, and my head nodded. Becky jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow. I gasped like a fish off its hook and continued.
"I pray for Faith, Grace, and their husbands, Paul and the other Paul. Benjamin, Saturday, and Annie."
I took a breath. “And keep the whole world safe."
Again, I nodded and, this time, woke from my stupor to Becky's pitched voice, "And Dr. Obi."
I didn't understand why Daddy wanted to help him. Dr. Obi murdered two people. I wasn't sure how we were supposed to petition for him, so I said it just as I imagined it should be stated.
"I pray for the bad man in prison, NOT TO BE HUNG."
"In Jesus' name—Amen."
Our security came from Daddy's faith.
Daddy and Mommy didn't shield us from the reality of suffering. After all, we lived in Africa with little escape from hardships. The hungry children, the half-naked women, the funerals, and the fact that a man's neck might end up in a noose became routine.
I don't recall being afraid of much except the Heartmen who roamed about at night. Our security came from Daddy's faith, and we trusted him. He reminded us often why we were in Africa. "to bring good news to the poor... to proclaim release to captives, and to set free those who were oppressed..."
He'd stretch out his right hand to demonstrate a point. "The Lord holds us up with his right hand. Not His left hand, mind you, but His right, His righteous right hand."
We believed Daddy and found comfort in knowing God protected us by holding us in his grip. I lifted my head, studied Daddy's large hand, and tried to imagine how much grander God's would have to be to fit all of us in His palm. As large as the universe itself, I supposed.
Daddy made weekly visits to Monrovia Central, a sprawling compound on Center Street close to the ocean and less than ten miles from our house in Sinkor. Dr. Justin Obi, a prisoner there, had recently been condemned to hanging by the newly appointed President.
If Dr. Obi were to be hung, Daddy didn't want him going to hell, so leading him to the Lord was his top priority. But he also prayed for his pardon and made sure his girls did too.
One Saturday, Bertie and I startled Daddy while he raided the pantry. "Shhh. Come help me, but don't tell Mommy." We knew what he was up to. A few supplies were already sitting on the counter: chloroquine pills, bandaids, rubbing alcohol, bars of soap, and a stack of miniature Bibles. He was gathering items to take to the prisoners.
Mommy was visiting our piano teacher, Mrs. Reeves, down the road, and we knew she'd be back soon. A thrill surged through my veins. Daddy wanted us to be his eyes and ears. His spies. I. Was. Elated. He pulled out tea bags, a box of sugar cubes, and a few cans of sardines from the pantry.
"Mommy counts the cans," Bertie said. "She's gonna know."
Daddy handed me a plastic bread bag and told me to open it. Then with an empty tin can, he reached deep into the oversized croker sack on the floor and filled it with rice. Over and over, he poured cups into the bag until it filled within inches of the top. He tied the loose end in a knot and set it on the counter with the other loot.
We loved smuggling food out of the house with Daddy. Sometimes we stole too, usually just bread though, when our friends said they were hungry. We knew how the knawing in their bellies felt. Two meals a day was all we got during the years we lived in Sinkor. Food was scarce, so Daddy decided it wouldn't hurt us to follow the same eating schedule as the Liberians—a small breakfast before school, even if nothing but tea and bread, and then one other meal in the afternoon, which consisted of rice and a stew made from local crops. On Sundays or if ex-pats visited, Mommy made an American meal.
On weekdays we used only two pots—one for rice and one for soup. Mommy rationed the rice to one cup per person. That's a lot of rice when cooked, and since there were six of us then, she cooked six cups daily for our afternoon meal. We ate until our tummies poked out like balloons. After scarfing down a full cup of cooked rice in one sitting, I felt like a six-year-old camel, although there was no regurgitating. The rice stayed put and kept me satisfied for a full twenty-four hours.
Daddy and Mommy fought a lot over him giving away our supplies and how ministry took precedence over her concerns. Their voices elevated, and the shouts made us cringe. We'd run out of the room, find the closest exit to the outdoors, and leave them inside with their hollering.
Sometimes Mommy's griping got so bad that Daddy would say things he didn't mean. "Doris, I'd rather live on the rooftop than hear more of your nagging." And then she'd raise her voice a little bit louder. The fight wouldn't end until Daddy gave up and Mommy got in the last word.
But who could blame her? The responsibility she must have felt, having to feed six or eight or however many showed up for a meal, on a budget tight enough to squeeze guava juice from a potato—while Daddy snuck behind her back, giving away our rice and sardines.
~ a draft excerpt from my WIP memoir