“Your blood cleanses me. I praise you, Savior.” I heard them singing these words as I approached the church. When she saw me, the girl beating the drum dropped her sticks and ran off screaming, as if she had seen a ghost.
Wearing nothing but a burial cloth, I walked into the service, a Muslim imam proclaiming Jesus. Twelve hours earlier, my heart had stopped beating.
My father, a Hutu, was one of the first Muslim sheikhs in western Rwanda, but my mother, a Tutsi, was a witch and priestess of a native African god. My family practiced folk Islam, which merges Islam with traditional animism. Folk Muslims will vigorously defend the Quran and Muhammad and then resort to witchcraft when feeling threatened or seeking an advantage.
After having two daughters and making every known sacrifice and appeal to Allah and the African spirits for a son, my father was ready to divorce my mother when I came along. I was named Swidiq Kanana, and from birth I was dedicated to Allah with a blessing to be a leader of the Muslim community of Rwanda.
These plans were disrupted when the country descended into civil war, followed by genocide. The ethnic hatred that tore the country apart tore our family apart as well. My father divorced my mother and married another witch, while my mother and her children were left to seek charity. Needing food, I took to living on the streets at age nine.
As a teenager, I learned how to bury my pain through drug use, but also how to profit through it. After entering school, I could identify people who were looking to escape problems and pain. And I capitalized on it. I took monthly trips to Congo and returned with drugs to sell, first marijuana and eventually cocaine. By getting other students addicted, I could require them to convert to Islam if they wanted to keep getting their drugs. I longed for my father’s approval and sought to remind him of his hopes for me to become a Muslim leader.
My recruiting success was soon noticed by the Muslim community. Because I had memorized the Quran, I was appointed as the imam of the Muslim school. Even as a teenager, I gained renown as a Muslim apologist through muhadhara, or open-air preaching and debate. Few of Rwanda’s Christians understood how the Old and New Testaments fit together, and it was easy to cast Muhammad as fulfilling Old Testament prophecies about a prophet like Moses or a king who would conquer the nations. I was finally fulfilling the blessing of my birth.
All that changed one day in my final year of school. While I was warming up for a basketball game, something in my brain seemed to burst, and I was overwhelmed by sounds and swirling images. I stumbled around, trying to escape the roar. Everything and everyone was terrifying. I had lost my mind. Diagnoses would range from drug-related psychosis to spiritual oppression.
The priest of a local god told my mother, “When he was born, he was given to you because of your sacrifices—not from this Muslim Allah. He belongs to the gods, but he has broken the bonds. This madness is their punishment.” Ceremonies and sacrifices were performed, but nothing changed. My mother then took me to a Western psychiatric hospital in the capital, where I received a strong sedative and stayed for several months.
The Muslim leaders blamed evil spirits. Attempting an exorcism, they placed a Quran on my head and began to recite the Surah Al-Baqarah, the longest section of the Quran. Suddenly I leapt up and began beating them until policemen arrived and subdued me.
After I’d spent nearly a year on antipsychotic medications, a Christian friend of my mother asked, “Why can’t you try Jesus? Bring Swidiq to see our pastor.” They went to the Anglican church on the nearby hill. The pastor opened his Bible and showed my mother the story of the man who pleaded with Jesus to heal his son, saying, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
The pastor and four church members fasted and prayed for seven days, singing songs of peace and laying hands on me each night. On the seventh night, I felt as though I were coming up through water. I heard the name Jesus said over and over until I began to know myself again. Walking home that night, I believed Jesus had restored me, that he was stronger than evil spirits, stronger than Western medicine, and stronger than the Quran. But I didn’t know Jesus.
What followed was a situation faced by many Muslims today. I could not deny the power of Jesus’ name. But telling the truth risked bringing shame on my family and being killed. During salaat, or daily prayers, I found myself praying not to Allah but to Jesus.
This dilemma endured for seven months as I again tried to finish my final year of school. One day, while working on an assignment, something in my gut went wrong. I thought my organs were being pulled apart, and every breath felt like a knife cut. The teacher rushed to get help as I fell to the floor, foaming at the mouth.
My father took me to a famous Western doctor who had been in Rwanda for decades. He was puzzled. “Things are bad,” he said, “but there’s nothing I can point to. There’s no obvious medical cause.” Within a week, doctors at the best hospital in Rwanda began palliative care. With my first dose of pain medication, a prickling sensation crept from my spine to my extremities. I was completely paralyzed, with no way to communicate.
Around 9 p.m., I became terribly alert. Seeing a change in me, people rushed into the room. I felt as if my heart were being tugged until it was dragged out through my mouth. It was a strange sensation, more spiritual than physical. At the same time something like a strong wind swept me up, and my heart stopped.
The next morning, 12 hours later, with my grave dug and my body being washed and clothed for burial according to Muslim tradition, I coughed, tossed aside my sheet, and stood up. People ran away screaming!
Confused, I looked around, realizing someone must have died. Turning to a huddled group staring at me, I saw a familiar face. It was Jesus. He raised his hand and gave me a knowing smile.
In an instant, what had passed during the last 12 hours came rushing back. I recalled seeing in my mind’s eye four man-shaped figures wrapped in blood-soaked black robes. Each one held a weapon in gnarled, taloned hands. They bound me and began torturing me, mocking my powerlessness to resist. I believe they were demons. One had set his axe on my chest and lifted it high when someone else entered. I knew immediately it was Jesus. In his presence, the others fell back, dismayed, and seemed to evaporate.
I have no idea how long he stood looking at me, but I felt perfect contentment. When he finally spoke, he lifted his hands, revealing holes in each one, and said, “You are among those I died for, so do not deny it anymore. You must tell others. Reveal it.”
I obeyed the Lord Jesus. That day, I went directly to a church, still wearing my burial cloth. And for the last 18 years I have been telling others about him. Although my father and the Muslim community first tried to kill me, both he and my mother, along with my siblings and many from that Muslim community, have found Jesus. Today, I am an Anglican pastor who preaches across Africa, calling Muslims and native animists to Christ and calling Christians to walk in the light.
The Lord has delivered me from several attempts on my life, and close calls have left my body scarred. But I know the meaning of my suffering, and I know I carry the blessing of Jesus’ name.
Cedric Kanana is the author of I Once Was Dead: How God Rescued Me from Islam, Drugs, Witchcraft, and Even Death. The coauthor, Benjamin Fischer, is rector of Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Idaho.
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