The lie returned to haunt me when Mary messaged asking if fellow Kenyans and I planned to hold special prayers for the impending Pope Francis visit to Africa.
I replied that I was not aware of any such prayers. I also explained why I thought it was unlikely. She responded quoting some liturgical practices and precedence that were abracadabra to me. But for my information and invitation, her prayer group would be meeting in her hostel that evening with the papal visit to Africa- to Kenya, Uganda and Central African republic- as the main agenda.
I was keying my regrets when she sent another message. Is it true, she asked, that Kenya had specifically invited the Pope to pray for the government over corruption?
Not keen on a long back-and-forth text conversation, and partly out of curiosity as to the source of her claims, I opted to call her. She claimed her friend had read somewhere in the Economist or the Times (she wasn’t certain!).
Mary said although she wouldn’t want to question the Pope’s wisdom in visiting “Kenya and other corrupt countries”, his itinerary smacked of selective bias.
If in deed corruption was the key consideration, why was the Pope skipping her country? And wouldn’t Nigeria have been an obvious first-stop option in Africa? She recited a couple of countries that she believed merited Vatican’s attention ahead of Kenya strictly on a corruption scale.
That’s why she was inviting me to their prayers. Members were reaching out to a Kenyan for finer details of the corruption mosaic in the country. It would help them background their prayers and give them a sip from the cup of suffering before the Pope. Importantly, too, it would wash away their sinful gripe against their imagined papal bias.
But I couldn’t take up Mary’s invitation because of lying to her two months ago.
Her invitation had resurrected an internal dialogue I had been having. I found myself musing whether I should take pride in having been effortlessly sly or be ashamed of repaying kindness with dishonesty.
Mary had triggered the lie. We had just walked out of the registration center with the exhaustion of a long day written all over my face. I was lost in thoughts on how to thank her and her countryman, Mark, for wasting their whole day on me when her question interrupted my thoughts. Could I please tell them where I was staying?
I had been contemplating buying them coffee. Food would have perhaps been a kinder option judging by Mary’s cracked lips and Mark’s intermittent yawning. But my quick mental monetization of their assistance dissuaded me from such charity.
True, they had been exceptionally kind to me with their unsolicited company and assistance. But perhaps theirs was work for idle hands. I didn’t think it merited me being so generous with them.
My duck-out-of-water image must have attracted them to me. I was stranded on the city map trying to figure out my bearings when the pair walked over. They were from Ghana – or so they claimed – and had both just concluded their studies in my new campus. Was I having problems with my registration? Did I mind them helping me with the process?
Now, there is something about a West African accent that instinctively raises my antennae. I know this fear perhaps unfairly wraps the saints and the scoundrels from the region in one blanket. But the con-artists especially from Nigeria are Africa’s most famous “investors’ club.” I had also read that Nigerian crooks masquerade as citizens of neighbouring countries to escape their nefarious reputation and to drop the guard of potential victims.
I was tempted to play it safe by pretending I was a PHD candidate researching on human behavior around maps. But then I also thought cowards die many times. Besides, neither Mary nor Mark looked particularly well fed. And neither looked like carriers of obvious physical strength. In fact, they looked haggard and spindly.
I figured that save for some hidden weapons or some juju in, say, groundnuts, I could protect myself from their possible aggression. I also recalled my mother’s advise never to eat or drink anything from strangers.
Mary was the natural leader of the duo. She took over my program with that do-as-I-say tone that discourages any prevarication. It meant trashing what I thought was my logical plan for the day. I must admit though that when evening came, her program made a lot of sense. As a result, what I initially anticipated would take me at least three days was over in just a few hours.
There had not been a break (even to take water) and hence my thoughts of suitable refreshment. And in all that time, the ‘Ghanaians’ had been nothing but god-sent pair of benevolence guiding me through the labyrinth of offices and piles of paperwork. However, when Mary asked about my residence, my initial fears of exposure resurfaced.
And so I lied. I was staying with a friend and his family until I found a suitable place, I said. And to discourage them from entertaining any ideas of visiting, I quickly added that my host’s place was packed and that the family was not keen on visitors.
But I tried to cushion their disappointment by taking their phone numbers. I promised I would inform them if and when I secured a place of my own. As I saved them as Mary Con and Mark Con respectively on my phone, I knew the truth was another lie. When Mary asked for my number and she immediately dialed to confirm, I had to hold my phone very close to my chest lest she discovered the name I had assigned her!
As we parted, Mary invited me to her church. In her typical kindness, she offered to pick me from either the college or home on Sunday morning. I imagined this was another fraudsters’ old trick: hiding under God and church to fool their prey. So I declined by declaring my faithlessness not so much as a confession but to dissuade her. It didn’t help that she wasn’t exactly aesthetically endowed and that she physically resembled a former workmate I didn’t particularly like.
My guilt began to set in when she told me where she was staying. It turned out we were sharing the same hostel albeit different blocks. By then, I had lied so passionately and glibly that a retraction was inconceivable. I consoled myself that the whole thing was a set up. Con artists tend to be meticulous researchers. They had probably been spying on me well enough to know where I was staying.
Mark apparently lived elsewhere. So they parted ways and Mary said she’d be walking straight home. I also intended to do the same. But walking with her was not tenable courtesy of my lies. So I pretended to be receiving a call and walked away while waving her a bye. And after she had crossed the road, I followed suit keeping what Okonkwo in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart called a “manly distance.”
Mary occasionally texts to check how I am fairing. She even informed me that she got a job and invited me for a thanksgiving prayer. I have also seen her a couple of times at the hostel. But having lied from day one, I make a point of religiously avoiding her. I wonder if she’s genuinely friendly. Or is she perhaps a patient con woman?
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