Among the mortals

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Liberia, land of strife and slavery and juju, is a country obsessed by religion. In Monrovia, the capital, every creed you could conceive of has pitched its mansion: the Methodists, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Lutherans, the Elim Pentecostalis ts, the Moonies, the Scientologists, and almost every imaginable born- again or Baptist congregation. Each church also has its own huge, hand-painted proclamatory billboard. Sides of walls are painted with Biblical quotations from Zephaniah, Amos, and other dark regions of the Old Testament. On the road to Chocolate city lies a huge, vaporous municipal rubbish dump where I once saw, sticking up in its midst, corrugated signposts painted in blotchy red capitals: time is running out, repent and be ready! judgement day is at hand, jesus is loving.

It was here that the Never Never Die church, perhaps the only sect in the world to promise its devotees eternal life on earth, once lived and moved and had its hugely popular being.

In 1989, just before the Liberian civil war began, I had hired a taxi in Monrovia and gone in search of the Never Never Diers. Past the rubbish dump, past a series of astonishingly decrepit shacks, we came to a small Catholic mission house. An elderly, benevolent priest issued forth. The Never Never Die church? He stroked his beard. Now the Soul Cleansing church, they had a branch nearby, but the Never Never Die, he had heard of it, once, years ago. n I jogged his memory: the Never Never Die church, officially called the Kingdom Assembly Church of Africa, was started up in 1970 by Richard Sleboe, a former Jehovah's Witness of the Kru tribe from Sinoe County, a large man with a distinctive white pigment on one hand, and a frequent and persuasive preacher. The church had blossomed, attracting more than two thousand members and opening additional branches - including one on the Ivory Coast.

The church had two pillars of belief: first, that Sleboe had made a pact with God ensuring eternal life on earth for his followers; and second, that all members of the church should have free sexual relations with the rest of the congregation. Both precepts led to problems. Never Never Diers who fell gravely ill were thought to "lack faith" and were reportedly neglected by the rest of the congregation. Meanwhile, the free-love ruling was naturally misunderstood by other Liberians, including three soldiers, who, on returning from leave to find their wives had joined the church, promptly brought a lawsuit against Sleboe. The soldiers won, and, in 1986, the church was closed down as a "house of n prostitution''. Some time during that year - the exact dateis unclear - came another, truly devastating blow: Sleboe passed away.

According to a study by Paul Gifford of the Theology Department of Uppsala University in Sweden, the Never Never Die church then entered into a period of "cognitive dissonance'' and, like so many churches in times of crisis, n split in two. One group simply denied that Sleboe was dead. After the Monrovia Daily Star printed an article about how he had suffered a stroke and died, a delegation from the church visited the paper's offices, bringing with them a recording, purportedly of Sleboe talking. In themessage Sleboe insisted, "I am Richard Kanton Sleboe. I want to express myself that I am doing my work. I am alive. As I've said before to the public, I will never die... I will soon appear before the public; right now, I can't appear in public. Even mymembers can't see me, except seven members. I am doing spiritual work.''

But a smaller schism did acknowledge Sleboe's death. They maintained that his teachings about everlasting life were correct, but that the preacher himself had overstepped the mark by calling himself God, and had been punished fo it. Members of the churchcontinued as before - being teased by neighbours, refusing to fill in life insurance forms, insisting that they never suffered sickness of any kind.

The priest listened to my spiel and shook his head. Yes, the story was vaguely familiar, but there were so many of these local churches. He smiled. "These are the little ways the people here express their striving after God.'' Then n he called over a young man standing in the street. They conversed in pidgin. The young man called another young man who was standing in the street, who, in turn, called a third young man. Several young men later, we picked up the trail of the Never Never Diers.

We parked the car at the end of a very long road. The houses continued after the road had stopped, and we were clearly on the edge of the marshland surrounding Monrovia. That day it had been raining, and we had to hop across puddles and balance on woodenplanks.

There, at the very end of the path, stood the Never Never Die church. We walked up some steps and entered a small, very dark room with an earth floor, dark, unpainted walls and one small, windowless grille open at the side. In the half-light, I could just make out two very emaciated old men and one old woman, all sitting on the floor, plaiting coconut fibre into two ropes which were tied at one end to two rickety old chairs. The old men and the old woman looked as if they had been sitting plaiting rope for a very long time, and when we entered they looked up with dazed expressions. One of the men rose to his feet. He was so thin that the tendons in the back of his knee protruded. We exchanged greetings. Then there was a pause.

"You are the Never Never Die church?''

"Hallelujah!'' they replied.

Wondering how they would explain Sleboe's demise, I said, "Please take me to your leader.''

Comforter Sleboe, they replied, was not present at the moment...

"Will he be here this evening?''

No. He had gone on his travels. He would return shortly. If we came back at 4.30, the church would be holding its daily service, and then we could learn more.

I returned at the appointed hour. The congregation - the two old men, the old woman, one younger woman, two youngish men - sat on two benches, with the women at the back. The rickety chairs had been rearranged. The chair with barely any seat had been placed at the side of the room; and perched on top, in pride of place, was a large, old-fashioned alarm clock, with the two bells and a dinger. On the other side, directly opposite, stood the other, less rickety chair. This had clearly been reserved for me.

The service was conducted by the two younger men. One of them gave a few stumbling readings from the Gospel, but mostly they chanted to a hip-hop rhythm while the audience clapped. It was a feat of memory - the delivery fast and extremely fluent, often with biblical readings reduced to little more than mantra-like chants that included the chapter-and-verse reference number: "Matthew se-ven, ver-er-se se-ven.'' "Jo-hn fourteen, ver-er-se thir-ir-teen.''

However, the preachers ensured that the two basic precepts of the church were made evident: how God had commanded us to love our neighbour, and that He had given His only begotten son, "that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life'' (John 3:16). They also explained that Counsellor Sleboe, in accordance with the promise in John 14:13 ("And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the father may be glorified in the son''), had asked God for everlasting life on earth for himself and his followers.

At one point in the service, there was mention of other nations coming from overseas to hear the word and spread the message. As if on cue, members of the congregation looked towards me with fond, pleading expressions.

A pause occurred in the proceedings and it became clear that I, too, was expected to perform. As I stood up, my brain foraged in some forgotten back drawer and pulled out a lengthy spell of quasi-religious verbal fluff. I watched n on as words flowed from my mouth. It was no doubt a lamentable performance, but the Never Never Diers seemed quite satisfied, and eventually they drew the service to a close with a song which went: "We will never die! Ooh! Ooh! We will never die! Ooh! Ooh!"

Afterwards, the congregation embraced me warmly. One of the old men was very warm indeed, rubbing a very bony chest against mine. I must have looked aghast because he laughed and said it was all alright, sister. Now I was part of the Never Never Die church...

I thought that would be the end of the Never Never Diers. For, in December 1989, three months after my visit, the rebel leader Charles Taylor invaded Liberia. A savage civil war ensued and Liberia carved itself up into battling fiefdoms, laying waste to much of Monrovia. Amid all this turmoil, it seemed unlikely that the Never Never Die church, which, if the service had been anything to go by, was already down to its last seven members, would survive. n n Recently, I returned to West Africa and asked after the Never Never Diers. People in Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast had never heard of the church. Nor had some missionaries in central Monrovia. But again I hired a taxi and took the main road: the rubbish dump had gone, the intersections all looked the same and I realised I had only the vaguest recollection of the route.

Eventually we stopped by the side of the road where a woman was frying fritters. A man wearing a pyjama top with a heraldic crest on the pocket approached. Yes, he remembered the Never Never Die church - that was the church which had promised eternal life. Of course people had subscribed: "Who wanna die? Everyone wanna live forever. Who wanna die?''

We pressed for details of the church and the man said his neighbour had once been a follower. He walked over to a bungalow set back some 50 feet from the road, talked to his neighbour in the doorway and returned with his neighbour, and I wondered, just for a minute, if he would turn out to be one of the rope-plaiting Miss Havishams. However, he was younger - in his late forties, with great, drooping eyes and two deep creases on either side of his mouth. When asked about the Never Never Die church, his lower lip jutted out with disgust. Yes, he had been a member of the church. No, he had had nothing to do with it since Sleboe died. He looked away, then added that the Messiah was still to come, God had sent His only son to earth to save us... And the manin the heraldic pyjama top interjected: "Who wanna die? Everybody wanna live for ever. Who wanna die?''

Turn right, they had said, by the garage. And suddenly, five years later, it all comes back. There is the Liberian Nail Factory. And the Survival Cafe. On the right, we pass a bright yellow church with arched windows painted on the wall, and on the left a new chapel belonging to the Salvation Army. Then, just after a checkpoint consisting of an old oil drum and a soldier holding a limp piece of rope, the road ends.

We take the winding, but now puddleless, path. There, by a clearing at the end, stands the Never Never Die church. From a shack nearby, a tiny old woman comes out. She yelps with joy and suddenly hugs me tight. A crowd gathers round, including a bemused middle-aged man in shorts who is introduced as the minister. The tiny old woman, who is called Genevieve, turns out to be the tiny old woman from last time.

The minister opens the church. Although some minor changes have occurred - a new advertisement for Rhino batteries, a metal template with the alphabet - it is substantially the same: brown walls, earth floor, two benches, two rickety chairs, a few mysterious pieces of string hanging from a nail. The alarm clock, Genevieve assures me, is still used for services.

Yet something seems to have changed. Somehow the Never Never Diers no longer inspire such thorough hopelessness. Perhaps it's the absence of the emaciated old men, who have apparently "fled with war". Or perhaps it's the new generation of Never Never Diers - for around us is a positive undergrowth of small children. Or perhaps the change is more subtle, less tangible. Maybe the Never Never Diers have found themselves a niche.

The minister, who had retired into an adjoining cupboard, emerges wearing a pair of checked trousers. He is incurious and answers questions in only the vaguest terms. The war had been bad, but not too bad. The rest of the congregation had fled the city. Life was hard and there were many other members of the church now, but they were all away working...

Then he asks, "You read the Good Book, sister?'' I bluster evasively. His eyes cloud over and he begins: of course there are two Gods - a creating God, who was good, and his mortal enemy, the ruling God, who was bad. The ruling God had ousted the creating God and had in turn produced ten Gods of his own who now ruled the world. The ten Gods had fallen out among themselves and this accounted for the presence of turmoil and war in the world.

The minister returns to the cupboard and brings out three pages of yellowed paper with a typed letterhead announcing the "Kingdom Assembly Church of Liberia''. He crosses out the word "Liberia" and scrawls "Africa'' in its place, then hands me the document. It turns out to be a closely argued biblical exegesis by the "spirit of the creative God'', Richard K Sleboe. According to Sleboe, there are not only two Gods, but also two Adams and two creations.

I vaguely remember the two-Gods business - but the document makes no mention of the ten Gods. Are the deputy Gods a new elaboration; a perfect and appropriate mirror of the new Liberia, shattered into fragments by the war?

The sun streams in through the window grille, and we go out to the back of the church through a door with the words "Never Never Never'' chalked on the wood. There is a banana tree and a clothes line. And the congregation, which has now swelled to 18, gathers for a photograph.

As we leave, the minister asks when we will return. We say that, well, it is a long journey to England, maybe we will come back in a few years, but maybe never. Again the minister's eyes look cloudy. Genevieve squeezes my arm. She hunches up her shoulders and smiles. All along she had been expecting me. They hadn't had my address, but they knew, they just knew, they were sure, that I would come back.

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