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I lived the first nine years of my life in England. Then, my family moved to Sierra Leone in the early ’70s after my father finished his studies. We settled into a new life in the country of his birth. Here, unlike in England, children are polite and rarely talk back to adults. 

*****

At 12, I enroll in a top girls’ grammar school. Its teachers smack pupils. In England, they no longer do that. We are in religious knowledge class, R.K., as we affectionately call it.  Mrs. Brown, a small, elegant, and fragile-looking woman, is teaching us, 25 girls in a cramped, hot classroom.  R.K. is the first lesson after my lunch of Fula bred ɛn bᴐl washed down with rɛs pap. Mrs. Brown has a melodious, storytelling voice, the kind that should keep you awake. But it is no match for the heat and slow-digesting starch in my stomach. I fall asleep. A ruler’s sharp sting on my forearm jolts me awake.  My classmates are laughing. When the laughter dies down, Mrs. Brown restarts her holy narrative with her sweet voice. I nod off again.

The sleep-ruler-smack routine happens during several more lessons. Mrs. Brown must want me to learn something valuable, so I decide to pay attention to her. She is talking about angels, like Gabriel, delivering messages to humans. I have seen pictures of angels, blonde, blue-eyed men with wings. Very handsome!

“When angels appear before people, why do they tell them to ‘Fear not’?  It must mean that they are ugly,” I ask. Mrs. Brown is furious. She tells me to stand up but does not answer my question. I am confused. All I have done is to ask.

Another time, Mrs. Brown is talking about Lucifer, the morning star. 

“Is Satan more powerful than God because there seems to be a lot more evil in the world than good? Hell must be bigger than heaven.”

Again, the class bursts into laughter, and again Mrs. Brown is furious. But I am paying attention in class, and I am asking her these questions because they bug me:

“Why did Jesus not come back and say where he had been. He was only 12-years-old?  Why did his Mom and Dad not ask him? He must have told them where he was going.”

“Why give us free will if you know we are going to develop the atom bomb and kill thousands of people?  It means God does not know everything.  Otherwise, he would never have given us free will.”

A lesson on prayer makes me ask: “How does God decide which prayer to answer?  Both football teams pray to win, and only one team can. How would God choose? That means God does not answer prayers.  He leaves it up to us to sort things out.”

Another lesson about creation begs the question: “What has God done since creating the world in seven days? That seems to be the only work He has done.”

Mrs. Brown’s face is always pure disbelief. She must think I am a joker or evil personified. She never answers my questions.

*****

Mrs. Brown taught when children rarely questioned what they were told. She took umbrage rather than stoke my curiosity. Even though they laughed, my classmates took more interest in R.K. now that I asked questions they had not thought of or were too scared to ask.

Many years later, I am talking to a younger friend who attended the same girls’ grammar school and was taught by Mrs. Brown. The friend gushes about her small, elegant, and fragile-looking teacher: one of the finest on R.K., she says. Before each lesson, she told us we should be aware that the bible was written a long time ago. That as it got translated, changes were made to it, and some things got lost in translation. She encouraged us to ask questions that puzzled and bugged us. Together we developed our understanding of R.K. On retirement, she was commended for twenty years of imparting knowledge and raising civic, god-fearing, and critical-thinking women.

Maxine Williams was born in the U.K. and has lived in both Sierra Leone and Nigeria.  She studied architecture and currently works in Housing for Local Government in the U.K.  She has been writing in her spare time for 10 years and writes for niche magazines.

Maxine Williams was born in the U.K. and has lived in both Sierra Leone and Nigeria.  She studied architecture and currently works in Housing for Local Government in the U.K.  She has been writing in her spare time for 10 years and writes for niche magazines.

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