A Personal View by GERRY LOUGHRAN
What happened when Thomas invited his pal
over for a spot of praying and hymn-singing
I don’t know why I thought of Thomas except this is January and it was January when the office called to tell me that Thomas had been arrested on a charge of drunkenness.
Impossible, I said. Thomas worked for me as a house servant; he was a fundamentalist Christian and would sooner drink acid than alcohol.
Well, they said, he is due to appear in court in Kibera in a few hours, so you better hot-foot it over there.
Kibera, then and now, was one of the biggest slums in Africa, no place for somebody wearing shoes and a suit, so I travelled by taxi rather than risk the loss of my car’s wheels, or indeed my car, if I parked there.
Joseph spotted me through the high wire fence around the courtroom-cum-police station. It was the previous night, he said. He had invited a friend over for a spot of praying and hymn-singing, then accompanied him to the bus stop. An officer who had been watching from a police car accused them of being drunk and demanded a “fine.”
Neither Joseph nor his friend had money for the bribe, so they were hauled to court, knowing they would be fined or imprisoned if they failed to pay.
Inside the courtroom, I saw the bespectacled magistrate bent over a ledger, pen in hand, as some ten or eleven, mostly rag-tag, men, including Thomas and his pal, filed in and stood in line with bowed heads. All pleaded guilty to drunkenness.
I forget what, if any, evidence, was adduced, but at the conclusion of this farce, identical fines were handed down, with jail terms in lieu. At no point in the proceedings did the bored magistrate direct a single look at the men he condemned.
A prison van was parked in the courtroom enclosure. I handed money through the fence for Thomas and his friend, who then walked free. Some relatives also paid fines, but about half a dozen men, perhaps guilty, quite possibly innocent, remained, waiting for the prison van doors to open.
The scene that day filled me with anger… the sheer unfairness of the affair, the suspicion that it was replicated day after day, its arbitrary nature – if Thomas and his friend had sung another hymn perhaps nothing would have happened to them.
I seethed at the corrupt cops, the callous magistrate, the submissiveness of the accused, the evil of the system. Plus, I have to say, the apparent absence of God.
Of course, there are boundless examples of innocent people suffering a lot worse than Thomas and his friend: every day in cancer hospitals and under the wheels of vehicles; people tortured for belonging to the wrong party, group or religion, or killed for being the wrong colour.
And so to the age-old question: Why does God let bad things happen to good people? The accepted answer is that what happens here on earth is down to us because God has given us free will.
See Ecclesiasticus 15: 14-17: “He himself made man in the beginning and then left him free to make his own decisions. If you wish, you can keep the commandments; to behave faithfully is within your power. He has set fire and water before you, put out your hand to whatever you prefer. Man has life and death before him, whichever a man likes better will be given to him.”
Most people would say that’s fine, if we do evil we should suffer the consequences. But when it’s haphazard, not a consequence of anyone’s act, what then? Why does God not intervene?
I suppose that if we wanted such a world of total safety in which there was no pain, airplanes and cars would never crash or if they did, their passengers would all be fine; there would be no need of hospitals because no-one would fall sick; the insurance industry would collapse and lord knows where we would all live because with nobody dying, the population would explode.
Silly, isn’t it! I am no theologian or social scientist but looking back on that time in Kenya, I sometimes wonder about a wider picture, the policemen, for instance. As public servants, they were likely as poor as many of the people they arrested and doubtless made up their pathetic wages by the occasional shakedown.
And the magistrate? That was an awful job for a man of education, handling petty offences in a slum courtroom day after day. Was he not bright enough for promotion? Had he made a mistake and been shunted sideways?
At least there was some logic here. A world where nothing goes wrong? I dunno. Not for me.
Newcastle-born Gerry Loughran is a retired foreign correspondent. You can contact him on Gerryo69@hotmail.com
The views in this column do not necessarily represent those of Northern Cross or of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.
Gerry Loughran is an outstanding journalist who has been associated if The Nation (off and on) for nigh on 60 years and still writes a weekly column. I will always count him among my special friends. Cyprian