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Sister Giovanna


The blade of the penknife sliced cleanly into my thumb and a thin stream of crimson blood appeared immediately, getting thicker by the second. I dropped the penknife onto my lap and reached for the green hem of my school skirt. I pressed it tightly against my thumb. Only then did I glance up at Sister Giovanna who was standing, as usual, slightly to the right of the black board. I raised my hand and hoped that she would call on me soon.

“Yes?” she looked at a point above my head.

“Please may I go to the bathroom?” I whispered. Of course she heard me; no one spoke in Sister Giovanna’s class unless they had to.

She nodded to the point above my head. I contributed little to the class. I spent every Religion lesson sitting at the back of this second grade classroom in Consolata Primary School with my guide book, The Holy Land, open on my desk and my ears closed to all her polemics.

I slipped out and ran to the bathroom. I held my thumb under the running faucet and watched how the two sides of the neat slit were pushed open by the force of the water. After a few moments, I knew that the wound was bleeding less: the water that was flowing down the drain was more fuchsia than crimson. I ran into the toilet holding my thumb high and pulled of a wad of white toilet paper to fashion a bandage. I washed the basin clean and rubbed my foot over the drops of blood that speckled the floor, leaving no trace of my pain.

Once I was back at home, I showed my mother my cut and earned myself a trip to Dr. Veronica Sacks for an anti-tetanus shot. My entire arm throbbed for two days.

The next day, in the Religion lesson, I paged through my book obediently, the pen knife once again safe in my father’s drawer where it belonged. Occasionally, when the pictures of my traveler’s guide had become monotonous, or when the accompanying text became too convoluted to decipher, my eyes and ears would open to Sister Giovanna’s snapping.

“The Ten Commandments were divided between two stone tablets: three on one side and seven on the other,” she called stridently. Every head in the class nodded. Lest any one in the class think that the asymmetrical division came about because the Lord couldn’t divide, she went on to explain the reason for this division. I knew she was wrong because every Friday evening, when I glanced at the stone tablets above the main entrance to the Nairobi shul, I clearly saw that the Ten Commandments were divided with five on each side. But I was much too afraid of Sister Giovanna to contradict her.

Recalling my mother’s repeated warnings not to listen to this lesson, from my temporary position at the back of the class, my eyes began to wander round the classroom. There next to the empty seat that was my usual place, was Anita, my close friend and a fervent Moslem. In front of her sat Bernard, a half-caste who never told us if he followed the religion of his father or mother. Earl, a quiet Hindu who probably went on to join his father’s thriving business sat next to Bernard. Jeremiah, a true Italian Roman Catholic, Sister Giovanna’s pride and glory, sat in the front row. Andrea, a Protestant Asian friend, was next to him. The rest of the class, twenty-five students in all, was a mixture that followed this pattern.

At this point, the class began to chant their way through the Ten Commandments, pausing momentarily after the third. My arm throbbed in rhythm and my heart beat out the lesson I had learnt: You shall not play with a pen knife in Religion class. You shall look at your traveler’s guide.

In Nairobi in the 1980s, the Consolata Primary School, run by Catholic nuns, offered high academic standards and was therefore a popular schooling option for many families. When my parents enrolled my brother and me they were following a family tradition of sorts: my cousins had also attended the school.

“Gail and Doron were such good students,” Sister Giovanna told me on many occasions.

Each time I chose the quickest way out: I nodded and tried my hardest to look suitably contrite and apologetic that I was incapable of maintaining the family tradition.

Indeed, these were the very words she tried to use when my mother made an appointment to see her after my brother and I mentioned that we had been to church despite my mother’s express wishes that we be excused. When I was much older, my mother relished telling me how she had faced Sister Giovanna.

“Devorah and Ian will not attend Mass. They will not eat your crackers and drink your wine. If it happens again, you will lose them.”

Sister Giovanna probably considered us lost already. But she was quiet for only a moment, before her good training helped her find a different approach. “Tell me, how do you think our Savior was born?” she asked my mother.

“In the same way that Devorah and Ian were born,” my mother answered.

After that Sister Giovanna excused me from Religion class. My mother was told to provide for my soul herself. Since I could not wander through the school corridors alone for one lesson a day, I was to read a book in the back of the class. My father found me The Holy Land, a traveler’s guide to Israel, in The Catholic Bookshop on Koinange Street in the city centre and that became my syllabus for the year.

One day Sister Giovanna smiled at the morning assembly; then she announced that the school would be putting on a performance at the National Conference Centre. Rehearsals were to start immediately.

I was so excited. I was uninhibited and had no fears of performing. I was sure that I would shine. Alas, from the moment the school was divided into five groups representing the five continents, from the moment I was put into Europe and expected to memorize the simple dance routine, from that very moment I incurred Sister Giovanna’s wrath. Each time I joined the row of dancers and fluttered about the stage weaving my way in and out the wrong way round, Sister Giovanna’s ire increased.

“Salame (salami),” she whispered in Italian at me and pinched the top of my arm between her right thumb and forefinger. I was skinny; she was determined. The first pinch was a semi-failure; by the third she could hone in on the tender underside of my upper arm and tweak with ease. I don’t know if I was more upset by the pinch or by the insult: as a Jewish child, a salami I was not.

I tried hard to master the simple steps. But when even I realized there was no chance I would ever co-ordinate my feet, hands and smile, my smile left me. My excitement evaporated faster than the rain of the tropical outburst that fell on to the hot earth precisely at 4.00 pm every afternoon of the rainy season. Inhibition and fear moved in. All my emotional energy was directed at self-preservation. I longed to be excused, but this time, unlike Religion class, there was no dispensation. Despite my poor performance, I was needed in the show. In our multi-racial school, there was simply a dearth of white faces for Europe and, despite Sister Giovanna’s misgivings, I had to be included.

I have a vague recollection of arriving at the National Conference Centre, which, until now, I had seen only on my way to school. The two buildings, the tall tower and the cone shaped conference chamber, were foreboding in their cloaks of grey stone. Of the performance I had so anticipated, I recall nothing.

It was shortly after this performance that my parents moved me to another school. We had driven past Hillcrest many times, always wondering what lay behind the tall wire fences of this private school. On the first day, I discovered that there was no Religion class. But every morning, all of the students, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Born-Again Christians, Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs and the teachers would join together in a prayer addressed to the “Friend of all children.” We asked God to help us at school and to bless us, our parents and our teachers. This solidified the tentative stirrings of longing for a spiritual connection that I felt whenever I walked into the Nairobi shul. It was the beginning of a personal relationship with a God who I knew cared what happened to me.

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The blade of the penknife sliced cleanly into my thumb and a thin stream of crimson blood appeared immediately, getting thicker by the second. I dropped the penknife onto my lap and reached for the green hem of my school skirt. I pressed it tightly against my thumb. Only then did I glance up at Sister Giovanna who was standing, as usual, slightly to the right of the black board. I raised my hand and hoped that she would call on me soon.

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