Return From The Land Of Death

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By: Israel Umoh
The clergymen gaitly walk into the tastefully built chapel. The host gently escorts men in the cassock to the pulpit, genuflects and retires to his seat. Seated with him are his brothers and sister. From time to time, he scribbles things and gives to the usher. Occasionally, he gazes into the space and soliloquizes “I am alive! God, you are wonderful.” He sobs, wipes his face and concentrates on the event. The pianist rummages the keys to produce right tunes. Copies of Efik Hymnary Songs are shared. Bibles with different translations are ready. And the solemn assembly begins.

Mr. Aniekpeno Tom Mkpanang was the host at the solemn thanksgiving service that showed appreciation to God for preserving his life. The ambience was festive. Mkpanang, a permanent secretary in Akwa Ibom State Ministry of Culture and Tourism wearing light-brown caftan was humble. The colourful service was held on Tuesday, April 9. Chapel of Goodness and Mercy in his country home, Ikot Akpa Nkuk, headquarters of Ukanafun local government area of the state played host to men and women of goodwill.

Outside the expansive but aesthetically designed mansion with high-quality and splendoured homes housing the chapel were members of Applause Band set in colourful attires. Beautifully dressed damsels lined up the route to the chapel to usher in guests to the sanctuary of praise. And the music oozed out scintillatingly for the esteemed guests. The hall sat 60 men and women from different walks of life while dutiful cameramen strutted the arena.

After introductions by Idiongo Akpanuko, the master of ceremonies, the service commenced fully at 11.15 a.m. Emmanuel Udofia, the Bishop and the Primate of The African Church, Nigeria, offered the opening prayers thus, “…You delivered him (Aniekpeno) from the pit of death. You delivered him from the pit of sickness. You delivered him from the pit of sorrow. Father, I thank you and glory be unto your name…”

Thereafter, Udeme Simon, the arch-bishop of Great Faith Church, Uyo in a call to service declared “I am not here to conduct a funeral service. I am not here to bury anybody. But I am here to celebrate the gift of life.” The congregation chorused “Amen!” He sonorously rendered in Akwa Ibom dialect “Amanam o (3x), Eyen Abasi amanam, sosongo (We thank you o (3x), Son of God, we thank for your marvelous deed). The hall went into ecstasy. And dancing ensued.

Shortly, the service was a display of worship songs ably anchored by Margaret, pastor and wife of Simon, who reeled out “Afo ikpong edi Obong (3x), baba efen iduhe o, afo ikpong (You are the Lord (3x), there is none beside You Lord). Again, she rendered “Enyong ketoro, Oh! Edara, isong keno enye ubong, mmenyene enye emi akande mkpa ye udi (The Heavens praise you Lord, the earth joins in praising you. We have the overcomer of death and hades). The congregation encored. And the hall exploded in joy.

The celestial atmosphere was charged. Dancing continued. And song gyrations burst the thanksgiving service. The congregation profusely poured praises to God for sparing the life of the celebrator- Aniekpeno.

However, the solemn service was crowned with sermon. Isaiah Issong was the servant worthy for the errands. Issong, an Apostle in Believers Assembly, Uyo sang “Idehe se etatang egwot agwo, idehe se ebubuk egwot agwo, Awasi omofon, Awasi omofon ne ufok ami (It is not to be told, it is not be mentioned that God is wonderful to me). It was another round of boogying to God.

Issong, a retired Nigerian soldier, harped on the essence of praise to God. He compared human existence to showing desire to partake in a dead elephant. “I recalled when an elephant was killed in Akamkpa. I left Oron then for the place. When I reached there, I cut parts, bagged it, left for Oron and consumed it. Whatever you want in life is what life will give to you. I want to live for 120 years. I am in the 70s. I do not know how long you want to live. Human existence gives you what you want. If you want to live long, it gives you; if you want to die young, it will give you,” he indicated. Reading from Isaiah 65:17-25, he did justice to the topic God’s special blessing.  The man outlined longevity, prosperity and posterity as the sinews of God’s blessings for His elects- chosen.

After the bread of life came the crowning moment. The testifier- Aniekpeno the son of Mkpanang walked to the lectern. As he clutched the microphone, he burst into tears. As he forced back tears and wiped it gently. Suspense everywhere! Tears welled in different eyes. Everybody was gripped with amazement

All eyes were glued on him. Unlike a film, he exemplified it thus “I am grateful to all of you that have come. This special group of people are people who have been helping me to grow by sacrificing their time to pray for me. They were praying for me not to die; they were praying for me to make progress, to succeed and to move on. If I have survived what happened, this should be the first set of people I should invite to tell them to join me to thank God who has answered their prayers and preserved me.’

By this time, the congregation was hooked to the absorbing testimony. An embodiment of charisma, oratory and sound intellect, Mkpanang reminisced “People who heard that I was dead are going to hear that I’m still alive through the same means they heard the false news. If I had died, I do not think I would have faired very well in the after life, but in 52 years, I should be able to find my depth with God; I should be able to completely change my life and get to a point I can flow in the spiritual realm and be sure that when I die, I will die well. If you hear that I am dead in 2071, you are free to believe then; until then, nothing will happen to me. I had asked that they make a white bed and put in one of the rooms that I built by God’s grace. I asked them to make the walls white too so that in 2071, I will be sleeping there every night knowing that anything can happen any day.”

The attention was more riveting. He recollected “I left Nigeria in good health on the 15th of November, 2018. The activity I went for was in Zurich, Switzerland. I went to defend my Ph.d dissertation in International Event Management at Robert Kennedy Business School, Zurich. I didn’t do the course to get a job because I should have retired in 2018 but the Governor graciously retained my services on contract basis. I was told to make the annual Christmas Carol Night better, so I had to go to learn more. I believe that that event will become an international event someday. So, I went to read International Event Management to be able to manage the event properly. It was an interesting course which I did online from home. Eventually I went for the dissertation. It was a very hectic programme; you woke up by 6 a.m and by 8 a.m. on the dot, the professors are there. You won’t go back from then until 8 or 9 p.m. because of a series of interactions and workshops and other related on-the-spur of the moment assessments. I thank that I didn’t fall sick throughout the one week I spent in Switzerland. I wonder what would have happened to me if I had fallen sick there. As God would have it, I survived the residency programme.”

The story sounded like a thriller, but it was live and true. He diffused the heart-rending story thus “When I was done, I needed to get to London where I was hoping to meet with Sonnie Baddu to come and minister at the carol service. He is a great young man who has a gift of worship. We were looking at turning the Carol festival to something that will give God more glory. You know I wouldn’t be considered if spiritually minded people were to be nominated to run the service because I am not up to your spiritual level. However, it pleased God to choose me, which makes me believe that I am on a special assignment. So, we thought that people should not just come to the service and leave empty, but should leave with the touch of the Almighty God. Sonnie Baddu has that gift as one of the latter-day ministers when it comes to worship. I was particular and I needed to get him. I was told he needed to be at Huddersfield, England.

At this point, the chapel was frozen by the testimony. “From Zurich, I crossed to London and took a train to Huddersfield. I was very fine all the while. But while I was in the train to Huddersfield on a three-hour journey, I felt a serious sharp pain in my stomach. The pain was very excruciating that I couldn’t lift my hands, legs or any part of my body. A station before the one we were supposed to alight, I decided to stop because I realised that that was a shorter route of about 10 minutes to get to my destination. I stopped there at about past 11p.m. Little did I know that the railway staff of the station I stopped were on a one-day strike. All the announcements that were made while I was inside the train warning against stopping at that if one would not have any assistance, I did not hear because of my condition,” he sos

The one-time producer of the inspiring ‘Something to remember’ radio programme was in his elements.  According to him, “After alighting from the train, I stood there in the serious cold of the winter and I didn’t see anybody to assist me. I couldn’t lift my legs or any part of my body. I had two bags with me. I need to climb a staircase to get to the rail station proper from where I was dropped. There I stood with my luggage with no one to help. I had to drag one bag up and return for the other amidst the severe pains and cold. That activity took me almost an hour to complete. You can only imagine the pain I went through. Everywhere was dark and there was not a single soul I could ask for assistance. I stood there for over 30 minutes before I noticed a car approaching. I lifted my hand and the car pulled over. The driver said “I’m stopping because you are black. They don’t like blacks. They don’t like us. I’m a Lebanese; they don’t like us. If it was in the day and they saw you, they would have called the police and for one reason or the other, you would not go free.” He asked where I was headed and I told him Huddersfield and he asked me to get it. I got it but he didn’t move. He said “I still don’t know why I came out. I was in the house watching TV and I told my father I needed some fresh air and my father asked ‘fresh air in winter at 2 a.m?’ In the part if winter where I come from, we respect our elders but I had to ignore my father and drive out. I didn’t even know where I was going to until I arrived here. When I saw you, I wanted to stop before you stopped me.” He drove me from there to a hotel I could lodge at Huddersfield and left. That was the day I could have died.”

In a down-to-earth manner, the creative initiator of Akwa Ibom Chrsitmas Carol Night rolled out “Everything that could make something die happened to me- my hands and legs grew numb, I couldn’t sit or walk properly, but God sent someone to take me from there and I survived that night. When I checked in at the hotel, there was a lift by the reception that could have taken me to the third floor where my room was, but in the condition that I was, I couldn’t find it. I had to use the staircase. I would carry one bad up and return for the other. In all of these, I was still feeling a strong pain in my stomach. I started wondering what may have caused it because it couldn’t have been what I ate at Zurich. Our meals there were properly done. It took me about three hours to get to the third floor where my room was. That was the day I could have died. I could have died in that hotel but God saved me. Friday came and I couldn’t leave the room. I still couldn’t leave the room on Saturday that I was supposed to meet with Sonnie Badu. That is how we lost him at the last carol festival. I didn’t eat or communicate with anybody the whole time. I was just in pains. I saw Sonnie Badu’s Whatsapp messages months after where he said he waited for me and would love to be part of the programme.

At this point, the congregation could not contain their perplexity on how God so loved and supernaturally intervened for his life. “On Sunday, I managed to get myself to the train station but two particular trains that I was supposed to join passed while I was still standing there but I couldn’t join because of my condition. A shuttle train which headed to London came and I managed to drag myself to join and arrived at about 4 a.m. If I had joined the other two trains, I would have arrived minutes before midnight. I was supposed to stop at Terminal 2 but they passed there because I couldn’t speak or lift my body. The train returned and passed terminal 2 and I was still in there. They left the airport area completely before I could drag myself to carry my hand up and I was stopped. I was to join a bus back to where I should have stopped but I was told that no bus would carry me from where I stood. I had to move forward. I stood there for over an hour in that freezing cold and couldn’t find a bus because there the buses close by 3 a.m. and resume by 5 a.m. I could have died that day too because the cold was too much and I couldn’t even find a place to sit,” he narrated.

At this point, Mkpanang sobbed and wiped his face. It was a touching a moment that elicited empathy from the moody congregation. “I dragged myself into terminal 2 and got to the airport but the Turkish airlines did not open their counter until 7 a.m and my flight was by 9 a.m. I was supposed to fly first to Istanbul. Through my stay in the airport, I forced myself to smile because I didn’t want people to be suspicious of me if I wore a long face. Earlier, the woman who checked me in had pronounced my name as “Mkpaganga” and I had jokingly said it was the right way of pronouncing my name. That was what saved me. I was lying down at the executive lounge when they called for boarding but I didn’t hear. That woman that checked me in heard “Mkpaganga” over the speakers repeatedly and she remembered I went to the lounge. She came there, quite unusual and tapped me where I was lying down. She helped me with my luggage to the plane. I entered and we took off.”

The testimony unendingly built the faith of the congregation in God and obsessive love for the celebrator. “When we got to Istanbul, I met a Nigerian who noticed my poor health and offered to assist. Twenty minutes into the flight, I started shaking until I passed out. When I woke up from my coma, I realised that I was taken from my 4B seat to 1B seat. I heard them announce to other passengers on board that one of the passengers was terminally ill; that they were going to make a stop at Malta to check me in for treatment. When I heard that, I protested that I should be taken to Nigeria straight because I needed to return to plan the carol service. They insisted and stopped at Malta. When we got there, three ambulances were already waiting for me. If we had proceeded to Lagos, I wouldn’t have made it because of what I was later told about my health. I cannot count how many people I have given money to go and treat appendix. I could not imagine I would have such a sickness. Fortunately, I was taken to the hospital. They did an x-ray and then a scan and started running around and screaming “ruptured appendix, terminal point, red alert. He has 15 minutes to live.” I just heard them say that while I was lying there. I remember them bringing a document for me to sign so that they would operate on me. That is all I could remember before I passed out again”.

Mkpanang sobbing burst into spiritual song “Enam idara eno, andikan mkpa nkan udi o, itenge owo enyin enye ekpe ikpe esie kunen (Celebrate the overcomer of death, He does not respect anybody but He judges uprightly). The congregation caught the bug of celebration. Jubilation engulfed the arena.

“When I arrived Nigeria, some doctors were already waiting for me and they took me to the hospital. For some reason, the doctor who took care of me developed a cold feet because he thought that I was going to be okay. Eventually, I joined the rehearsals for the carol service. I was pushed around in a wheel chair. I heard that people said that I had died; so on the day of the carol service, I managed to come out to read the welcome address to prove to them that I was not dead. A day after the event, I was in for another operation. The operation started by 11 p.m. in the night and lasted till about 6 a.m. the following morning- the longest operation the doctors have ever experienced. Yet, they bore the pains and stood to do it. I don’t want to talk about the many complications in between. Eventually as God would have it, I survived the operation and I left the hospital.”

From the Efik Hymn Song, he chorused ‘Kadanga emi, ami nyenede odudu nditoro Obong, odudu nditoro Obong (…Let praise God when I have strength to do so…)

Dr. Sunday Mbang, the prelate emeritius of Methodist Church, Nigeria prayed God to sustain his life while Apostle Gabriel Nkenang and Bishop Ahaziah Umanah, among others poured blessings on Mkpanang for his magnamous gestures to churches and various praying groups.

The earth-shaking testimony of Aniekpeno Mkpanang doused fear and rumour of his death. It turned to be an epitome of return of a generous, humble, kind-hearted and talent-endowed man from the land of death to that of the living. It, no doubt, climaxed in proving to sons and daughter of men that God Almighty is still working signs and wonders in the life of people irrespective of their relationship with Him.