Clouded Witnesses

By: Ben Wright

Tags: In Those Days Fall 2023

Clouded Witnesses

i. promised land 

The Lord said to Abraham
“Take your family and go to the land I’ll show you”


(it’s not colonialism, I swear)


so we left our recliners to gather dust,
abandoned our parkas for a world without winter,
we crossed an ocean
for God and
minimum wage
to a land of sand

every morning the call to prayer blares from minarets
tactically positioned throughout town
there is no rest for the wicked
they must rise for Allah just like everyone else


children and the disabled gather in the streets to beg
assembled at traffic stops to cast tearful glances into car windows
the children are ‘working’ for their education
having been sent out by imams to fund their koranic schooling
a one-armed phone card salesman puts them to shame
reinforcing Western ideals
single-handedly lifting himself up by his bootstraps


other children drag carts through the streets crying
“deleaudeleaudeleau” – water
sold in plastic bags–
others hold bissap instead
blood red
to be torn open with bare teeth
and sucked from like vampires


the bags are pitched in the open streets,
gathered in piles with other trash
and burnt
black smoke and soot filling the air
houses are walled and gated to keep out strangers and maintain ‘cleanliness’


the old expat lays out his wisdom:
“a night-guard is okay
a night-guard and a dog is good
just the dog is best”

the neighbourhood children throw rocks over the walls at our dog
so we must chain him when we open the gates
lest he charge out in search of vengeance


at Eid goat blood runs in the streets
skinned corpses lean on spits around fires
the feast is shared with friends and family
my father is served a ‘delicacy’ by our night-guard
when asked what it is the man begins drawing in the sand with a stick
and sheepishly says “it’s – you know –
it’s the part that makes it a man”

the Chinese exchange ‘monuments’
(convoluted round points, mostly)
for mining rights to uranium

(it’s not colonialism, I swear)

school starts with violence
at the French school
I am beaten on the playground
and my friends are touched by older boys in the bathrooms
and we are left without words

at the English school
I am beaten again
I can speak this time, but my teacher declares that
“nobody likes a tattletale”

“they say I walk like a woman–” “don’t make it political or I will kick you off the stage”
(the queer graduate’s last words on stage) (the ex-military missionary’s warning)
? where can I find these “apolitical speeches”
(at the missionary boarding school)


My bullies have become my friends, but
has the wrath of my youth dissipated  but
or has it simply passed me over? but

ii. sand saints

and the Lord said to Abraham,
and “I’m sure gonna give you tons of kids
and as many as there are stars in the sky
and sands on the beaches”
but Abraham was a very tired man,
and pure of heart,
and so that much sex would be egregious
and he said, “two’s good, thanks”
but the Lord said, “too bad”

a missionary met a banker on the travel bus and
as they shared stories of their work     and 
the banker declared     and
“I think we should leave other people’s cultures well enough alone” and
The missionary replied, “Good point,   and
I’ll be sure to keep my cash, and
investments, goods, imports, exports, fiscal policy, and
et cetera, et cetera, and
to myself” and

(it’s not colonialism, I swear)

we hit the road for a conference four nations away and
four hours in our radiator is boiling fumes and
so we pull to the side of nowhere, and
pop the hood– and


our water has gone dry but
a hut emerges from the bushes, but
strangers fill the reservoir and but
we ride on but


night falls and
there is a bush taxi driver under the hood and
he has immersed himself in the darkness of the engine and
(you’ve heard of god from the machine, and 
well, here’s a total stranger from Backroads, Nowhere) and 
slashing leaky hoses only to reaffix them and
his name is a strange maxim in a foreign tongue and
roughly translating to “Health First” and
he works his miracle so well and  
that there is not another stop and
when we finally reach a mechanic there is little to be fixed and


and after several millennia counting
and specks in Sheol, learning the same names
and a thousand times over
and (originality is long dead)
and he sighs


and if one more goy starts a singalong about him
and like he’s Barney the Dinosaur
and demanding a rewrite of the family tree,
and Abraham will cry out



iii. fear and trembling

and for nine months there is nothing but dry wind

and in the ‘winter’ months the temperature falls
and to 68 degrees at the chilliest
and ‘cold’ locals bundle up in ski jackets,
and the season also carries in harmattan dust
and choking the asthmatics,
who turn to turbans for protection


but then the summer rains come,
but we dance in the muddy streets,
but our clothes drenched and sticky


but with rain comes life and death –
but the river which runs through the capital
but on the shore of which lies our school
but floods

and hippos wade into the playground
and the library is carried out on canoes, books wrinkled
and waist high water taints the walls forever
and with thick brown streaks


and the red mud bricks of our ministry center,
and uncured (“we don’t get much rain”, the architect said)
and after a night-long downpour
and burst


and a man and his daughter are crushed
and beneath the weight of three storeys 


but the dust rises before the rainfall
but (which may never come), the sky is
but burnt orange as it drops to meet us
but the world is concealed in a dusty cocoon

the Lord laughs
and for Father Abraham and I
and have made the same error
and as the seashore envelops us in blinding love


but we have only the beginning of wisdom

and are totally unprepared for its everlasting end

Are we there yet, Lord?