Beneath the earth there is rock and beneath the rock there is water and beneath the water there is something unknown, something violent and furious and unknown, that is no friend of living things. And when it stirs, the rock and water and earth fall away, and we die.
The first earthquake on record coincided with the arrival of the first White Fathers so it could have been a sign that the newcomers and their new god were not welcome. But the fathers were shrewd, so it became a sign that the judgment of their God was nigh.
That was then. Nowadays it was only Father Anatole and Brother Armand who remained to keep the faith.
This is a people who live in a valley just at the end of a mountain slope. They grow food and keep livestock. It is the 21st century so they are poor. Their health is precarious and their education scanty, their feet are rough and large and their skins hard. They gather themselves at night in low thatched huts at the bottom of the slope and these are their lives, a small huddle of thatch under a mountain.
When the things that happen, the things that afflict the poor, Brother Armand and Father Anatole are called in. They arrive at the village on their bicycles to perform their ministries. The sudden deaths of newborns. When the crops wilt even under the rain and hunger follows. When someone dies and needs burying. When someone weds. When someone leaves in search of hopes the city and when someone comes back having found none, the priests cycle down to the village to perform ministry.
There were old men who spoke of a second earthquake after the one that broke them away from their old gods and brought them into the fold of the new, and so this one was to be the third in record.
But first the slope would change. Time changes. The harvests were becoming weaker and the villagers needed more earth, more water, more wood and more land. So they moved upwards. The mountain god was defeated and they did not fear him anymore. They cut down his trees and tore up his earth. They planted their farms. They burnt his trees.
Then one night the rain came. The rain came down hard, as if with a hurt to avenge. It wailed and cursed as it blasted the village with grey. It was only as the houses fell that those in them knew that the houses were falling. The earth was breaking apart beneath the huts. The water above and the water beneath washed the huts down.
In the aftermath there were many to bury, and many already buried to remove from wreckage and lay down again in a way they could rest. There were questions. There were many questions. Where are our homes? Where is our food? What shall we do? Why did this happen?
The priests came down on their bicycles. They arrived at the pit of sinking homes to meet despondent men and women too torn to cry further and they trod over the mud through the village in silence for a long while. The two priests decided to separate their roles. Father Anatole would tend to the faithful. Brother Armand would tend to the falling.
One asked: “Brother Armand, why does God destroy those who love Him?”
“To test their faith,” the priest replied.
“Why does He test the faith of those whose faith is weak and will not stand the test?”
Another did not ask. She just said, “Brother Armand, there is nothing left to believe. It has all been washed away.” She picked up her mat, rolled it up and walked away.
An old man walked to him with a small boy holding his hand. “Brother Armand, it is the old gods. They have returned.”
There was one man who sat quietly on the ground for a long time, so long that Brother Armand thought he was silent until he noticed that his lips were moving. Brother Armand drew closer and he could hear that the man was whispering, as if he was just talking because words were leaking out of him and he did not care to stop them. His face was empty and his hands were blank.
About how he struggled through the shifting and swirling mud chasing to find his daughter. How he saw the back of a small body sink just out of arm’s reach. How just out of arm’s reach was the same as a world away. How he saw the black mud wash over the small body and take it below. How he yelled and how nothing heard. How he stood in the water and hoped it was not his child until he realized that even if it wasn’t, he was never going to see his child again and that hope was wasted breath.
“God will do what He will, no matter what I hope,” the man was saying. “I will praise His glory and I will praise His name. I will fear Him and I will keep His ways. But I cannot love Him,” said the man. The words left him and he remained hollow.
Brother Armand stood before this husk, this vacant thing that looked like a man and said, “My child,” and the reply, the whisper, was even more ghostly. “My child.” As if he had named something eternally distant. Forever away from him.
Ernest Bazanye Sempebwa is a Ugandan living and working in Kampala.