But meeting with Flo, the adwaka, wasn’t my first excursion into the currents of belief that ran through Atiak. Before that, I spent time with the local parish priest, the only other foreign resident of town, besides the Earth Birth homies. Such a figure is just returning to the scene out here. During the war, the catholic church pulled its representatives out so that they wouldn’t meet with bad fates. The return of a priest is a sign of stability, a token of the church’s renewed attention. It is therefore unfortunate that the priest is so unimpressive.
After meeting him for the first time, we went on a brief walk through Atiak, during which he said hello to people in the limited Acholi that he spoke. Before coming to the main road, we came upon a collection of huts whose doors all faced a clearing. On the ground sat a woman washing her face from a basin of water. She was bleeding profusely from her nose and her lips were swollen and bruised. A dozen children and a few women stood around her. The Priest asked someone in the crowd what happened. He received an answer then turn to me and Rachel, beckoning us to leave quickly. Rachel asked what happened. The woman had been beaten, he said.
Rachel pressed him quite harshly about why his best response to this event was to flee the scene. We were super outsiders, but he was literally Atiak’s supreme moral authority and he had come upon some seriously wrong shit. In Gulu, I saw the Nuns straight up remove children from abusive environments and send them to safer places. I have heard tales of Nuntastic confrontations in which the habit rockers cuss cats the fuck out for not acting right. So I expected a priest to be ready to kick in a door, to overturn the moneylenders’ table and send them crying out of the temple. Or at the rock bottom, to offer consolation to a woman who had just been beaten.
Instead, he told us that this is what African men were like. Presumably, he was excluding himself. He also told us that perhaps he would send a catechist to the scene to check on the woman and scold the husband. We asked him if he did this in the many times we saw him in the days that followed. We eventually just stopped asking.
I suppose, then, that it was my desire to complete an imperfect circle that brought me to mass on a subsequent sunday. The Church was a quaint structure, lacking the general extravagance of most catholic enclaves. Bullets from the war still sat within the brick and mortar of the outside wall. Pains of stained glass were missing from most windows. The simple benches that served as pews faced the altar, upon the wall of which hung a large statue of White Jesus in the absolute agony that was Roman execution. On the left front wall was a painting, a kind of close up of the Anointed One’s face. His eyes were turned upward as though he were in a kind of ecstasy. I found myself wondering what he might whisper to me if I could get close enough.
In front of the altar was a collection of drums and instruments I didn’t recognized. They were played by young people and their songs were just beautiful. Like they were playing to an audience of ghosts instead of the women and children that almost totally made up the crowd.
The Priest didn’t know enough of the language to address the church in Acholi. I don’t know if that was fortunate for me. He spoke the kind of sermon that I have heard pastors give on the radio quite a lot here. A sermon about the illegitimacy of other religions in the face of Christianity. He told his congregation to not consult witch doctors, to nourish themselves and find their answers only in the church. It occurred to me that most of the people in this town couldn’t read in any language; they couldn’t even crack a bible to determine things for themselves. All they had was this Priest.
A couple days later, on the radio I heard a woman reading the famed Pauline passage in which women are admonished to be “subordinate” to their husbands. The command was joined by simile to the relationship between the church and God. A few days after that I heard some women who had come for prenatal talking to Rachel about how there is nowhere for them to go if their husbands beat them. Once the dowry has been paid, they said, their families will no longer accept them. Their fathers will simply send them back. I have been told that it wasn’t always like this, that spousal abuse used to be a community issue and mad cats would be all up in your shit if you, the husband, abused your wife. Maybe this is true. But years of colonization, disease and war can change things. I guess I can’t expect a single papal emissary, who is after all a product of these forces, to make it better.
There is yet another encounter with the supernatural that I had in Atiak. On the night of a lunar eclipse, I pulled a card from a tarot deck. I flipped it over to discover that it’s face was completely blank. Olivia found this amusing. The forces that guide the tarot, she said, were telling me that I don’t need to be pulling cards. Whatever I am supposedly looking for, whatever answer I want, I already have well within my grasp. I laughed it off, but a slow torment followed me to sleep that night. I guess even the forces that one doesn’t believe in can hold great power. I can’t figure if that’s all the better or worse for belief.