A Miracu-less Miracle
Reviewed by Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva
The protagonist in Tope Folarin’s Miracle, a young man in need of healing from bad eyesight, a member of the congregation, could easily be my brother in Christ, a friend from Church or even me. This could have been a diarised version of someone I closely know. From the start of the story, Folarin sets the stage for a dramatic event. The congregation is set in motion as if in united anticipation for an out of the world experience which they can only receive in this particular service. Notice the movement of their heads:
“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 and lowers them slightly.”
And from the Pastor’s prayer, we are able to place the story in a specific context. From the Pastor’s prayer, we know that these Nigerians represent many back home.
“Dear Father, we come to you today, on the occasion of this revival, and we ask that you bless us abundantly, we who have made it to America, because we know we are here for a reason. We ask for your blessings because we are not here alone. Each of us represents dozens, sometimes hundreds of people back home. So many lives depend on us Lord, and the burden on our shoulders is great. Jesus, bless this service, and bless us. We ask that we will not be the same people at the end of the service as we were at the beginning. All this we ask of you dear Savior, Amen.”
This particular prayer encapsulates the entire story. It is a service where people expect miracles to happen, it is a revelation of the disappointments bound to happen when expectations are very high, as with these Nigerians who came to America and indeed, the young man in the story who is hopes his bad eyesight will miraculously be healed. These Nigerians are an extension of the great need back home: they have travelled not for their own pleasure but for the greater good of earning an income to support people in their own country. This is a noble ideal, but also comical because it just shows that neediness does not disappear with geographical distances, it is merely the infrastructure that changes. If anything, Folarin perhaps wants us to realize that they would have been better off if they had stayed in Nigeria. In America, they have their own burdens to deal with, the ones that come with resettlement, in addition to the burdens of those back home.
In many modern day fundamentalist churches, miracles are apparently received from men and not from God. This man, the prophet, who is introduced later, in this instance, takes the form of a superior being, in front of a platform with assistants. He is God’s right hand man: without him you can forget about your miracles, and this Folarin portrays aptly.
When the prophet enters the church, it is more laughable than grand. He is so frail that he has to be aided by two men, and he is also blind. His blindness is, however, transformed into a symbol of his spiritual greatness, and his separation from the mere mortals in the congregation:
“We murmur as the two men help him to the front, and in this charged atmosphere everything about him makes sense, even the irony of his blindness…His blindness is a confirmation of his power. It’s the burden he bears on our behalf…He can see more than we will ever see.”
And to crown this church entertainment, as soon as the Prophet reaches the stage, the attendants turn him around to face the congregation. As a reader, I imagine a famous pop star who starts her performance with her back to the audience before making a spectacular turn to face an adoring crowd. The Prophet may not appear as stunning as the pop stars but he certainly tries: the few wispy white hairs clinging to the sides of his shiny head are framed by a large pair of sunglasses, and a flowing white agbada sweeps from his neck to the floor.
Miracle manages to be both entertaining and deeply serious. Folarin clearly wants to create a humorous atmosphere but, at the same time, he also wants us to realize the desperation that leads so many people world-wide into irrational acts. Miracle has attributes of both The Whispering Trees, Abubakar Ibrahim’s Caine-shortlisted story, which likewise uses the metaphor of spiritual blindness, and Foreign Aid, by Pede Hollist. In Foreign Aid, Hollist writes, amongst other things, about travelling to America to make positive changes for people back home.
In an interview with The Brittle Paper, Folarin mentions his background, having been born in America to Nigerian parents, and his journey of identity — the evolution from being just black to being African, and questioning whether he was actually African enough. An excerpt of the interview is below:
Brittle Paper: At home and abroad Nigerians tend to organize their lives around the belief in divine intervention. Is your story a criticism of this world view?
No—my story is not a criticism of this worldview at all. My story is more concerned with the performative aspects of Christianity, and how these aspects—especially in the diasporic context— invariably have more to do with economics, culture and community-building than anything else.
Or perhaps I should merely say that I wanted to do two things in Miracle; first I wanted to tell a story about the diaspora, and second I wanted to tell a story about community-building.
The story begins with a first-person plural voice—‘we’—because I wanted to convey how the hopes and desires of a diasporic grouping intersect within a religious ceremony.
In Miracle, the Prophet screams at the ceiling before leading the congregation into fervent prayer, admonishing all the evil that is in the way of any miracle. He urges them to pray in order to receive American passports, good grades, money and other miracles they so desire. He also distances himself from any mishap by stating that any failure to receive a miracle is due to their unbelief. His mortality comes into play after this when he coughs and in return, asks the congregation to pray for him. This is central in the story and gives the congregation a chance to realize how worldly the situation actually is; instead, because of the build-up to this point, they just confirm that they will pray for him.
Zunguzungu, who blogs at The New Inquiry, explores the move from We to I, explicitly. When the young man, who is the target for a miracle that day, is pushed to the center of the aisle, the focus is on him and he can no longer hide in the crowd of unity prayers or familiar Nigerian songs.
For the first time, doubt creeps into the story and it takes an individual to bring this out, as is the case in so many situations. When the prophet asks the young man if he has breathing problems, the man begins to question if the prophet has actually heard his heavy wheezing. It is usually an outspoken or courageous individual who brings to the surface what others are afraid of or are blinded by. This is a reflection of how we get lost in crowds to achieve different means, and how we are too afraid of questioning the status quo.
When the man’s glasses are removed in preparation for his being miraculously cured of short-sightedness, the prophet asks him if he is willing to receive the miracle. The prospect of seeing things clearly and being able to participate in basketball and other activities fully is appealing. This sense of clarity can be applied more widely: the young man is able look more clearly on life’s situations as a result of this miracle service.
The next part of the story is, interestingly, the closest we come to an actual miracle. When the prophet asks one of the attendants to hold up his fingers so that the young man can tell the congregation how many they are, the young man guesses the number of fingers correctly.
In closing, the next morning the young man again reaches for his glasses in order to see properly. Although the story contains no actual miracle, it does contain many truths about survival in the sprawling, complex life that we live.
Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva is a Ugandan writer and also coordinator of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation that conducts annual poetry competitions for poets from the continent.