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?

ii. sand saints

and the Lord said to Abraham,

“I’m sure gonna give you tons of kids

as many as there are stars in the sky

and sands on the beaches”

but Abraham was a very tired man,

pure of heart,

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”  

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”

(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,

strangers fill the reservoir and

we ride on


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”

he works his miracle so well  

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

specks in Sheol, learning the same names 

a thousand times over

(originality is long dead)

he sighs


and if one more goy starts a singalong about him

like he’s Barney the Dinosaur

demanding a rewrite of the family tree,

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 

to 68 degrees at the chilliest

‘cold’ locals bundle up in ski jackets,

the season also carries in harmattan dust

choking the asthmatics, 

who turn to turbans for protection


but then the summer rains come, 

we dance in the muddy streets, 

our clothes drenched and sticky


but with rain comes life and death –

the river which runs through the capital

on the shore of which lies our school


and hippos wade into the playground

the library is carried out on canoes, books wrinkled

waist high water taints the walls forever

with thick brown streaks


and the red mud bricks of our ministry center,

uncured (“we don’t get much rain”, the architect said)

after a night-long downpour



and a man and his daughter are crushed 

beneath the weight of three storeys 


but the dust rises before the rainfall

(which may never come), the sky is

burnt orange as it drops to meet us

the world is concealed in a dusty cocoon


and the Lord laughs 

for Father Abraham and I

have made the same error

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?