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March 3, 2015 / 12 Adar , 5775
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Sister Giovanna


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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