In January 1984, a 12-year-old was shipped off to Catholic boarding school by his parents to begin his secondary education in Vryheid, northern KwaZulu-Natal.
That young man was yours truly. Innocent and idealistic, I joined 200-odd other young people aged between 10 and about 20 years old at Inkamana High School. One of my mentors was one Mrs Lesala, who instructed our grade-eight class in English and history.
Despite the fact that she was one of only two black teachers in a sea of German, British and American instructors in the school, I didn’t particularly like her. She seemed to me unnecessarily abrasive. That was 23 years ago, but the lingering memory of Mrs Lesala in my mind is that of a perpetually short-tempered woman.
Until one glorious Monday mid-morning in February, that is. We had an English double period from about 10am onwards. As usual for that morning slot, I was dreading Mrs Lesala’s appearance to give us grief about our atrocious spelling, synonyms, passive voice etc.
That morning she walked on to the creaking wooden floorboards of our classroom with more spring in her step than we had ever witnessed. She seemed … (was it possible?) … rather jovial. She was actually whistling. Sprightly. Making eye contact with our snotty-nosed selves. She even shared a joke with one troublesome fellow, Poka from Barberton. They had never got along before.
And then abruptly, she put down the English grammar book, stepped up to the blackboard and started writing what looked like a poem. Ten minutes later our classroom and the adjoining corridor was filled with the melodic sounds of our innocent, sweet voices rising to the skies in unison. Mrs Lesala had just abandoned our English lesson to teach us a hymn we had never heard before.
No explanation. No reason advanced. I still remember the melody like it was yesterday. The words are a little bit fuzzy.
“Oh my Redeemer
What a friend Thou art to me
Oh Thou my refuge
I have found in Thee
When the way was dreary
And my heart was so oppressed
‘Twas Thy voice that lulled me
To a calm sweet rest
Nearer draw nearer
Till my soul was lost in Thee
Nearer draw nearer
Blessed Lord to Thee”
Five days later, Mrs Lesala perished in a horrific car accident on one of the province’s roads. She used to commute to Pietermaritzburg, about 250km south-east of Vryheid, to spend her weekends with her husband who was an attorney with a practice in that town, if my memory serves me well.
The news of her death was broken to us around dinner time on the Monday following her accident by our head boy, a chap we called Javas (a senior Department of Education official these days). A stunned silence descended upon the room.
Northern KwaZulu-Natal is notorious for its violent thunderstorms at that time of year. A vicious storm was raging outside. The lights went off and, after a few minutes, someone had lit some candles. And then in the dim, listless candlelight Javas started singing the first notes of the Nearer Draw Nearer hymn, in a quivering voice. He could not have been more than 18 at the time, yet his voice had a deep, rich maturity.
We buried her the following weekend. At some point, the church was flooded with angelic voices singing Nearer Draw Nearer in hushed tones. By that time I had learned that she had been teaching other grades the same hymn. It was the first of a few dozen moments in my life when I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that God exists.
Jarred Cinman recently wrote an intellectually sound, compelling piece on these very pages entitled, “Why atheists are just plain right”.
I guess I could go on a pseudo-intellectual rant and try to use my story to poke holes in Jarred’s rationale. I could point out that atheism is an ideology that attempts to prove the impossible; the non-existence of a God. And I could point out that atheism cannot exist in the absence of the existence of the concept of a God — which, paradoxically, serves as further proof of the existence of God and how atheists are smoking some really strong shit.
I could point out that applying one’s intellect in an attempt to understand matters of the spirit is a bit like switching on the microwave oven in order to catch up on some SABC news. Wrong appliance.
But I won’t go down that low road. All I have is a song. And I’m willing to put my pragmatic, cynical Thought Leading reputation on the line by sharing this irrational, superstitious side of me.
Eat your heart out, Jarred Sin Man.
“Nearer draw nearer Blessed Lord to Thee”
Ndumiso Ngcobo is the author of the recently released book Some of My Best Friends Are White. (Two Dogs, ISBN 978-1-92013-718-2)