Very recently, I stumbled on Tope Folarin’s ‘Miracle’, the award-winning Caine prize story for African writing for 2013. He happens to be the fourteenth winner of this prize. His story clinched the award among fine authors like Elnathan John, Abubakar Ibrahim and Chinelo Okparanta.
This work of his is a fast-paced literary narrative that is exquisitely and utterly compelling. It conveys a message of everyday happenings; the tussle between faith, miracles, clergymen and the ordinary worshipper.
‘Miracle’ mirrors a distinct image of the life of Nigerians in Diaspora. In some way, it reflects the notions of the author’s existence, which has mostly been spent outside Nigeria. The author however does not dissociate from the uncanny belief of Nigerians in God and religion- and of course, miracles.
One cannot quickly classify this work into any genre, considering it is an excerpt from a forthcoming work ‘The proximity of distance’. The title of the work is short, clear and concise. It is descriptive enough for the reader, and a word in common use by many- Miracle. In the long run, the story comes to center around that one word, for it is what brings all the worshippers together.
In this story, a congregation gathers at a church to witness the healing powers of a blind pastor-prophet. The story portrays the gullibility of religion and those entangled in its deceit.
The story starts with clear descriptions of motions carried out by a group of people. The setting is a revival service at a Pentecostal church in Northern Texas. The writer narrates from a first person perspective, though at first the narrative is sort of Omniscient, yet still first person. It begins this way:
‘OUR HEADS MOVE simultaneously, and we smile at the tall, svelte man who
strides purposefully down the aisle to the pulpit. Once there, he raises both
of his hands then lowers them slightly. He raises his chin and says let us pray.’
The writer’s use of plural pronouns simply depicts the surreal way of spiritual worship; where people of different backgrounds, different families and with different problems come together and soon, are tangled as if they were one person, raising hands, singing a song, jumping, praying or dancing at the same time.
This theme is further highlighted in the third paragraph of the story:
We sing along, though we have to wait a few moments at the beginning
of each song to figure out what he’s playing. We sing joyful songs to
the Lord, then songs of redemption, and then we sing songs of hope, hope
that tomorrow will be better than today, hope that, one day soon, our lives
will begin to resemble the dreams that brought us to America
The writer also at this point displays the alternate, fragmented lives of these Nigerians in Diaspora, uprooted from their country-home, and hoping to find their solace in the common thread of religion.
We also see the familiar lifestyle of the typical Nigerian to always resort to divine and spiritual means to find solution to his problems. At this point, I am reminded of Hymar David’s ‘America or die’, where he tells of a young boy who is made subject to a prophet’s ramblings and prayers by his mother who wants him to go to America, no matter the consequences. I am also reminded of Wole Soyinka’s ‘Brother Jero Plays’
What happens here clearly reveals to us that the struggle of many Nigerians to go ‘abroad’ at all costs does not come with the many luxuries they have associated America with. On getting to America and realising the struggle to live a proper life continues, or even worsens, the Nigerians resort to a spiritual solution, where most of their faith is anchored. They depend on a miracle.
Another theme the writer tries to convey within the narrative is that of doubt even in the church. While the worshippers are hopeful, and believing that they will receive their miracles at the revival, they have elements of doubt as to when and if ever their miracles will come
In our hearts we stop asking if and begin wondering when our
deeply held wishes will come true. After his sweating and shaking and
cajoling he shouts another Amen, a word that now seems defiant, not pleading.
The blind pastor-prophet who comes on the scene early in the story is the man upon whom these people have deposited their child-like faith. They have heard so much about this man and now they come face-to-face with him, ready to receive their miracle.
The use of a blind prophet in the story to perform the miracle of opening the eyes of a boy who could barely see without the aid of his heavy glasses, is a good contrast in the story. It may not have been intentionally done by the writer but it creates a fine irony, and yet, gives a firm reason for the congregation to believe in the power of this man to perform wonders.
I begin to believe in miracles. I realize that many miracles have
already happened; the old prophet can see me even though he’s blind,
and my eyes feel different somehow
The blind old prophet begins his task with a display that is supposed to reinforce the fact that he can see into the spiritual realm in spite of his physical blindness. With this, he cleverly packages his act. The author leaves out nothing of the incessant cajoling carried out by clergymen in Christendom.
Soon, the young boy is called out for his specific miracle. His hesitation to come out when he is called out is a reinforcement of the theme of doubt among the lot who though, believing for a miracle, have some doubt in the recesses of their minds.
The prophet further convinces them to let go of the doubt and believe. This is not far-fetched from what happens in our Nigerian churches, and how, the men of God, who have been entrusted with the care of the worshippers in spiritual matters, make merchandise of them, capitalising on their naivety.
Another surprising thing in the story is that the prophet mentions the asthma which the young boy is suffering from but offers no remedy for that. He only proceeds to perform a miracle on the eyes, another evidence of falsehood which the congregation had refused to see.
I find myself surprised at his indirect reference to my asthma. But now
the doubts are bombarding me from every direction. Maybe he can hear
my wheezing? It’s always harder for me to breathe when I’m nervous, and
I’m certainly nervous now.
“Yes sir,” I reply.
He brushes his
fingers down my face, and my glasses fall to the ground. Everything
“How long have you been wearing glasses my son?”
His continuous desire to get the boy to fall down is unsettling. When the young lad finally falls, he comes to understand the ploy. Yet the congregation which he had belonged to a while ago cannot see this. They are blinded by their need for a miracle.
He shoves my
head back until I fall, and the attendant behind me eases me to the
floor. I finally understand.
The part of the whole narrative I find very hilarious is the final part of the boy’s ‘miracle’
My lids slap open, and I see the same fog as before. The disembodied
heads are swelling with unreleased joy. I know what I have to do.
“I can see!” I cry, and the loud cheers and sobbing are like new
“We must test his eyes, just to make sure! We are not done yet!” yells
the prophet, and nervousness slowly creeps up my spine like a centipede.
“We have to confirm so the doubters in here and the doubters in the world
can know that God’s work is real!”
One of his attendants walks a few feet in front of me and holds up a few
fingers. I squint and lean forward. I pray I get it right.
“Three!” I yell, and the crowd cheers more loudly than before.
“Four!” I scream, and the cheers themselves gain sentience. They last
long after mouths have closed.
“One!” I cry, and the mouths open again, to give birth to new species of joy.
The story accurately shows how religion has been used ignobly as a corrupt tool to deceive the needful lot, and in conveying this message, the writer does it so well. In the end, the boy returns to using his glasses, and so the miracle that was presumed to have happened at the church was only a caricature.
I find Tope Folarin’s work simple, easy-to understand, and interesting, presenting an all-too familiar scene which we witness every day, even in Nigeria. The lessons to learn are many. The writer does not condemn religion, faith or clergymen, but cautions worshippers to open their eyes and see.