“Did you remember to say the traveller’s du’a back there, son?” Aboo(1 asked. I just nodded. Through the windows, my eyes savoured the view. I could never get tired of watching the beautiful scenery of the Highlands of Kenya surrounding our city. We could go miles in the shadow of the green forests, then suddenly out in the open, passing a savanna. Sometimes I could vaguely smell the pleasant scent of eucalyptus plants, and sometimes see valleys stretching below us. Not far from Nairobi the capital, which was called ‘a place of cool waters’ in the old days, patches of tea plantation rolled out like carpet.
Namalu, Uganda. That was our destination, at least three days driving from Nairobi, where we started. It was my first time going on a long trip, and this particular one was no picnic.
“I wonder if it’s gonna be there, Mzee(2,” Ali, Aboo’s assistant, suddenly spoke, “they promised one would meet us halfway between Namalu and the border.” Aboo just nodded slightly, then, sensing my confusion, he explained, “I asked for a tractor to accompany us, in case we get stuck in the mud or something. It’s in the contract.” I nodded, then again looked out to enjoy the view. But then a thought crossed my mind so I asked,
“Aboo, how bad is the journey in Uganda?”
“You mean besides the road blocks, the thick and sticky mud and puddles in the roads, the bandits, and the landmines? Well, there’s always civil war, you know.”
I took a deep breath. Civil war. Yes, for it was 1981, and the civil war was the reason we headed out there; to deliver the aviation fuel Uganda needed for relief flights by an aid agency helping the refugees of war.
Aboo swerved a little to avoid a puddle and, with his eyes still on the road, asked,
“Have you been saying du’a, Aboo(3?”
“Um .... nnno, Aboo. Which du’a?”
“We could sure use ayatul kursi right now.”
I didn’t say anything, but started reciting the ayatul kursi in my heart. A flock of bright, pink flamingos flew in the sky. They were headed south from Lake Nakuru. I also caught a glimpse of a hippo, a bit further among the woods on the side of the road. There were quite a number of soda lakes around this region, a haven for hippos and many kinds of birds, especially flamingos, making it a paradise for birdwatchers. I turned my head left to look at Ali, and noticed that his lips were moving slightly. He, too, was saying du’as.
After we passed Nakuru, I got drowsy from looking out, and from reciting more than a hundred of ayatul kursis. When we finally stopped for lunch and salah, I asked Aboo, “Shouldn’t we recite something longer later?”
“Like what? What do you have in mind?”
“Well, how about Yaseen?” I say, shrugging my shoulder a bit.
Yaseen was about the longest surah I’d memorized. It surely would keep me awake. A warm smile came on my father’s face.
“It’s good, but for me ayatul kursi will do.”
“Why?” Surely Aboo knew Yaseen by heart, too. And the longer the surah, should be the better, right?
Aboo smiled and said, “Because the ayah says, ‘All things in the heavens and on earth belong to Him’, and that means us included. On the road, that is what we always have to bear in mind, in order to give up our lives to Him and Him only. We can’t really rely on people, you know. But we can always rely on Allah, for He is always there, never sleeps, never feels tired, and like the ayah also says, knows everything about everything. ‘He’s the ruler of heavens and earth’, ain’t He? So, we should keep reciting the ayah to keep ourselves tawakkal. If I should recite a long surah like Yaseen, I’d probably concentrate more on the surah, what the next ayah will be, instead of trusting Him wholeheartedly.”
Just then, we were stopped by a roadblock. Aboo and Ali went down to meet the policemen. I panicked, and found myself reciting the ayatul kursi furiously. I was scared we were going to meet some problems. Police corruption was not a strange thing, either in Kenya or Uganda, and I knew we had no money. But it was shameful for a big teenager like me to cry, so, scared as I was, I resorted to the ayah kursi. Fortunately, they soon came back, and not long after we resumed the journey.
I realized then and there, how powerless I was. If police and corruption could scare me that much, I couldn’t imagine how much the landmines, robbers, or battles would affect me. I decided to keep reciting the ayatul kursi, and see how tawakkal I could get.
Two days later, we passed the border. My heart throbbed from the sensation. Here I come, Uganda, the Pearl of Africa! People had been telling me how beautiful Uganda was, even more beautiful, though a bit less developed because of the war, than Kenya. Now, I could see it for myself.
Cool, invigorating breeze welcomed us through the window, for it was right after Shubuh time. On my right side, Mount Elgon, an extinct volcano, towered 4000 m above us. With the help of the still rising sun, I could see caves doting its slopes. I had heard that elephants often went there, feeding on the salt found in the caves, which make Mt Elgon the only place in the world where elephants would go underground. But I guess it was too early for the day, for I could see no elephant in sight.
Despite of the magnificent view, I could feel the tension rising. There were robbers in Kenya, but there were many more in Uganda. And we would continue to meet roadblocks, and the rain and puddles were so much worse, that we started needing the tractor, badly. We were also worried we might encounter a fight between the two warring groups. But for me, the scariest of all was the landmines. Every time we passed a mined area, Aboo would drive very quickly, many times passed the speed limit. His theory was, if we drove quickly enough, even if we went over a mine, we could escape the explosion. But with drums of kerosene loaded on our truck, it was a fat chance. The blast might catch on the kerosene, or, we might even get an accident from driving too fast, and get blown up anyway.
All the dangers we had were so real, and still no tractor in sight, I did feel myself closer to God. Even the lush, rich green forest enshrouding us as we went around Mt Elgon, as beautiful as I had imagined, ceased to comfort me. One thing always followed directly after another that I found myself continuously reciting the ayah kursi, each time getting more sincere than before.
Finally, we were only a few miles from Namalu, our destination. Right after I spotted a housing compound on Namalu suburb, Ali shouted, “There it is!! The tractor!” Sure enough, we saw a tractor going behind us.
“Well, what do you know, right in time...,” I said cynically.
“At least we have something,” Aboo calmly said.
“Yeah, now we’re saved!” Ali exclaimed, giving his own thigh a slap of joy.
As soon as Ali said the word ‘saved’, KERR-SPLASH! Down went the truck into a deep puddle. Aboo put on the gas, but the truck didn’t budge. Ali got out to fetch the tractor to pull us out. Hours passed, with no improvement. Aboo then decided, “There’s no other way. We have to roll the drums one by one all the way to Namalu.”
And there we were. Stranded, with a distance of only about five to ten minutes driving to our destination. But we couldn’t drive there, so we walked, rolling the drums one by one, all the way. They were all such huge drums, that it took all three of us plus the tractor driver to get each one out. And only after all the drums had been hauled to the ground, could the tractor pull the truck out. Even then, it was no easy task. The deep puddle made the truck keep slipping and swaying, many times almost roll to the ground. I had never had one day half as tiring as that particular day, and I could swear neither had Aboo nor Ali.
That night, after prayer when we lay down in bed, relieved but exhausted, I told Aboo, “I guess that’s the irony of life. With all the danger we faced along the way, we were okay. And just as we almost arrived, calamity caught us unawares.”
Aboo looked straight at me, his face sober, and said, “Istighfar, Aboo. You want to know the reason we got stuck? Because we relied on people and things. Remember along the way, we kept reciting the ayatul kursi? We were relying on Allah for help, so Allah helped us. But then, just because we saw the tractor, we forgot Allah and started relying on the tractor instead. And the tractor couldn’t pull us out! Even without the drums it was difficult. That was actually Allah’s way of showing us, what’s the price of relying on something other than He, the Greatest. Never, ever, fail to rely on Allah, and only Allah. To do otherwise will always be futile. Let that be a lesson for you, Aboo.”
It was indeed a lesson, and wallahi, did we learn it the hard way....