Rowland Bingham watched two burly, richly dressed Africans stroll into the courtyard. Long, curved silver swords dangled from the men’s belts and glinted in the sunlight. At the sight of Rowland, the men drew their swords and strode toward the bench where he and his interpreter sat waiting to see the king.
The men uttered a storm of words Rowland couldn’t understand, but he understood their threatening voices and sharp swords well enough. The African he had hired to be his translator shouted back, and the two strangers lifted their swords and waved them in the air.
Rowland felt strangely calm, given the situation. He knew he was a lone white man, an unwelcome missionary in the palace of the Muslim king of Iwo. The nearest help was a four-day walk away, much too far to be of any practical use to him. He was at the mercy of the king’s command.
Just when Rowland thought the men were going to attack, a courtier arrived. He announced that the king would now see Rowland and motioned for Rowland to follow him.
“Be strong and of good courage,” Rowland whispered to his interpreter, also a believer, as they walked through the lavishly decorated halls of the palace. “Be not afraid, but speak and hold not thy peace, for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee.” This was a verse from his Bible reading that morning, one he believed was a promise that would keep them safe.
The courtier led them into a large, open courtyard. The king sat on embroidered cushions on a platform, shielded from the fierce sun by an umbrella. A large crowd of men, including the two with the menacing swords, stood behind him.
The king stood up. Instantly one hundred onlookers who lined the walls began chanting, “Let the king be strong. Let the king be strong.” The king lifted his hand, and the chanting stopped. Then the king turned his attention to Rowland. The scarlet turban on his head wobbled as he spoke. “I have decided that you must leave our town tomorrow morning. No one may supply you with food after that. There is to be no preaching.”
As Rowland’s interpreter translated the king’s words, a roar of applause was already rising from the crowd.
“You are dismissed,” the king snapped at Rowland. “The matter is closed.”
Just as Rowland was turning to leave, a man lunged toward him, yelling curses in the name of Allah. Rowland stood transfixed. He had never seen such hatred in a person’s eyes. He watched as the man deliberately raised his arm as if to signal something.
Rowland waited for mayhem to break out, but nothing happened. The man raised his arm again, but still no one moved. Disgusted, he spat at Rowland and walked away. As Rowland turned and walked from the king’s courtyard, the crowd parted to let him through.
That night two shadowy figures crept into Rowland’s tent. Rowland recognized them from the previous night, his first night in Iwo, when they had first come to visit him.
“You are very lucky to be alive,” the taller one said. “There is some kind of magic about you.”
“What makes you say that?” Rowland asked.
“That man who spat at you and cursed you, he is the head man at the mosque. Early this morning, before you arrived at the palace, he stirred up the people and organized to have you stoned to death as a warning that no other missionaries should disturb Iwo.” The man stopped and drew a deep breath before going on. “But when he gave the signal to rush at you, a great fear settled over the people and no one moved. Afterward they said magic held them back, and even the angriest men stepped aside and let you through. You had better leave fast. The king is very scared of you!”
For a brief moment Rowland was tempted to laugh at the thought that the king was very scared of him. Growing up in Kent, England, Rowland had been scared of everything—being alone in the dark, monsters under the bed, ghosts in the graveyard.
Back then he could not have begun to imagine himself calmly facing the possibility of his own death in a foreign land. Yes, it had been a strange and fascinating journey that had brought him to the Sudan interior.