|Is God In Your Heart, Brother?|
By Robert Gardner
(Chapter 6 of his novel BIKO LIVES)
IS GOD IN YOUR HEART, BROTHER?
Like all Americans, I skimmed anything to do with Africa. Africa was just a big blob. Other than the occasional nature show, where no African appeared, it just didnt register. Occasionally, South Africa stood out, but that usually had to do with AIDS. Nigeria pops up but that always has to do with them swindling someone. Rwanda hung around for a while, because there were atrocities. Zimbabwes been on the horizon and that had to do with election fraud and grabbing the white farmers land. Niger made the big time and stayed on CNN and the Fox News Channel when they were mentioned in conjunction with Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. That has been disproved so theyve become a footnote. In fact, Africa is a footnote to the footnote of world history. Africa was never really covered unless there was a drought and flies were circling somebody, or those fools were killing each other. I knew or heard there was a possible strike in Nyasa. But I figured it would be over by the time I got there. I stopped off at a travel store that has been my life-saver, Distant Lands in Pasadena, got some maps, clothing and got a quick flight out.
Im always surprised by who is going to Africa and for what reasons. When standing in line its the CIA agents who stand out, whether theyre black or white, short hair, shorts, brand new boots and knapsacks. This one was wearing a huge wool cap like he was going to a grunge concert.
Hi. Howre you? Im Everett. But call me Ev. Okay?
Madison. But call me Mister, Whitehouse.
Im from Wisconsin. You?
The Republic of California. Must be nice.
I knew he wasnt from Wisconsin. That hint of a southern accent gave it away. He was from Virginia, probably grew up in a town neighboring Langley, home of the CIA.
You sound like youre from Virginia. Did you grow up in a town neighboring Langley.
Im from Wisconsin.
Not with that hint of a southern accent. Nothing wrong with working for the CIA. Did your father work for them?
Well...my father was from Virginia thats why you hear a bit of an accent. I live in Wisconsin...I teach History...
Yes...my father hated the CIA. He felt they were all unmasked by the Pentagon Papers...
This CIA man was the worse liar and a really bad dresser. I couldnt figure out which was worse. The more I thought about it being a bad dresser won.
Have you ever been to Wisconsin, Mr. Whitehouse?
Not that I know of.
I love that place, Everett said softly.
Thank God, I wasnt traveling coach.
When we boarded, he went one way and I went to First Class. I slept a while, got bored with one of those lame, predictable, American romantic comedies, and I walked into coach. I saw Everett on the aisle glancing around, surreptitiously, pretending to be involved in his guidebook, as he watched his travel companions closely. Looking at him sitting, I could see he had a huge head, hair combed back, right and left, trying to conceal balding. I observed him as I walked slowly up the aisle. Just as I was passing him, a young, blonde missionary squatted near him with a big smile, and blocked the aisle.
This, I would learn later, was Jennie. She had the largest smile of all the smiling missionaries. She looked like Nicole Kidman with Doberman teeth.
God bless you. Is God in your life, brother?
Everetts mouth hung open, nothing came out. She swung to me, before I could turn to go.
Hhheelllooooo. God bless you. Do you know how I got here? She turned back to Brewster, Would you like to know?
She turned to me and smiled, would you like to know?
I didnt want to know, but Everett nodded, or at least I think it was a nod. Maybe it was the collection of saliva bottled up by his bottom lip and about to spill out that caused his head to tilt forward.
I used to be far away from God. I was a dental technician in upstate New York. On one occasion I said, open-wide. An old man did, and there on his back molars was the image of Christ. Later that night over a cup of coffee in a small diner I struggled with the sighting.
The old man slid into the seat across from me. This was Billy Joe Jay Nightcaster, but he insisted everybody call him Reverend Skeeter. We talked about what Id seen and Reverend Skeeter told me of his church, The Church of the Redeemer. I was convinced and joined.
While Jennie went on and on, about the sinfulness of sticking your finger in somebodys mouth, I recalled everything I knew about this Reverend Skeeter. He opened several restaurants, and the newspaper wanted me to review them. I refused. Before he called himself Reverend Skeeter, he was Billy Joe, Country and Western wannabe. He never found any interest in his songs, and late one night he dumped the dubs of his songs in the bathtub and set them on fire. While watching the fire, he saw the face of Jesus Christ in the flames. He collapsed in tears. While on the bathroom floor, he heard a documentary on late night television about the oppression of Muslim women in Afghanistan. He crawled to the other room, and there were women wearing burkas - only their eyes, hands and feet were visible. Then a toothpaste commercial exploded on the screen showing beautiful blondes with gorgeous teeth, followed by a clip-on nail commercial. He yelled, Hallelujah.
Reverend Skeeter was born. He headed for Minnesota, making his way across America, converting blondes as he went. He insisted that his was going to be a redeemer church and the only way to do that was to grab men where their eyes roam.
Reverend Skeeter insisted his followers be blonde wear contact lenses, clip-on finger and toe nails, and tongue piercings, each with holograms of Jesus Christ on them. He managed to build an army of missionaries and send them out into the world.
At this very moment, Everett was in awe of Jennies metal tongue piercing wiggling around in her mouth with a picture of Jesus Christ on it.
God bless you. Has God blessed you today?
What? Everett finally stammered out.
Is God in your heart, brother?
Obviously, the CIA hadnt prepared him for a beautiful blonde with perfect teeth and a Bible. So, Everett got up and stumbled down the aisle. She was right behind him.
Brother, do you know Jesus Christ loves you?
Everett jogged into first class. Failing with Everett and unable to get into first class Jennie descended on a young African couple. I turned, and took the long way around to first class, being careful to avoid the religious men and women giving out small Bibles.
Inches from entering first class, Everett appeared again. Whyre you going to Africa?
Im going to Central Africa to write a book, I explained, Im a travel writer and a food critic.
Aaaahhhhh. But why Central Africa? Why now?
Well my agent got me a book deal. I needed the money and Africa is hot now.
What do you mean?
Its hot. Its the destination for the world.
We talked a bit. Well, actually it was me doing all the talking. He was doing as he had been taught, gathering information. Then the bathroom door opened, and out of the door came a beautiful, blonde missionary woman, who zeroed in on Everett. I stepped into the bathroom and hid out for a while.
On my walk back to my seat, I glanced back; the entire middle of the plane was a huge gaggle of white, pimply faced, missionaries, all wearing T-shirts that read: No God/No Peace...Know God/Know Peace." They were singing pop songs whose lyrics they changed to reference their God. Throughout the entire flight they testified at the top of their voices about what God had done for them. I complained to the stewardess, but she was Christian and couldnt see my problem.
I hate religion. Those activist religious quacks are holding the Republican Party hostage to their demands. The Republicans wont say a word in public because they want to win. The cultural wars in America are rooted in their us and them mentality. Before the struggle with the liberals, their struggle was with African-Americans. But thats not done anymore. If you let them tell it, now were all Americans, and now that America has allowed the former southern segregationist - now religious crowd to determine so much of who we are as a nation, the religious crowd has demanded to be heard. Frankly, they are the scourge of the Republican Party. They deserve to be in coach.
I noticed the Africans ignored them. So I closed my eyes and tried to do the same. It didnt work. I started looking around. First class was full of upper class Africans in shiny western clothing, drinking champagne and wine. They all reminded me of when I took a trip to an African country that shall remain unknown because I still have an outstanding warrant there. I got put out of this country because I criticized the restaurant in the best hotel in the capital. The President of the country owned it, and the accordion player was the Presidents son. I had no way of knowing that information when I sent the article back to my paper, saying, the hotel was unfinished, carpenters were sawing and hammering, sheet metal workers were everywhere, the food tasted like sawdust and the accordion music was lousy.
I was asleep in my hotel when there was a knock on the door and the maid was at my door. She explained the President had put a bounty on my head. I left in the dead of night. A few years later, there was a coup, but by then the President and his brother had converted to Islam and escaped to Saudi Arabia. There they spent their nights playing checkers; during the day, the two of them and Idi Amin got soaking wet playing with squirt guns.
Now Im on an airplane headed back to Africa. The thing I appreciate most about the African continent is that no country is like another and that Nyasa was quiet.
Or, so I thought.
My first stop on this tour of what King Leopold of Brussels
called the magnificent African cake, was the country of Nyasa. Its just a tiny dot, the often over- looked bellybutton in the fold of the continental map of Africa. There it is nestled between the southeast corner of Angola, the northwest corner of Zambia and south of The Congo. Nyasa held a special place for Africans and all their descendants: never conquered, never invaded, never collaborated with slavery, never became some western corporation's toilet. The great kings of Nyasa were statesmen who outsmarted the European robber barons, Arab slavers, and neighboring countries' armies.
For seventeen hundred years Nyasa was led by kings named Chuma. In the past, the country was surrounded by heavy marsh and swamp. Enormous trees climbed beyond the skies, and centuries of putrid papyrus, bananas, palms, lotus plants, and dates were on the ground. Huge branches jutted out of the marsh. This place was impenetrable.
From the beginning, African travelers were kept out by the great wall of mosquitoes, bees, typhoid and crocodiles. Over-sized crocodiles confronted the hard-headed more than once. Repeatedly, the Kings and the people insisted they had no interest in outsiders. But still they came - until crocodiles more than once jumped into boats and dragged them underwater.
All was quiet until 1629, when Portuguese explorers appeared. They never tried to cross the swamp because the crocodiles were so aggressive. They kept calling out, trying to make contact, but the people of Nyasa did not respond. The explorers gave up and built a stone pillar and inscribed on it: In the year 1629, after the creation of the world and our Lord Jesus Christ's birth, the King of Portugal ordered this land be discovered.
Soon after it was built the pillar sunk into the swamp and was used as resting place by crocodiles.
In 1770, French Protestant Missionaries led by Henri Juane arrived. Henri and his fellow missionaries built huts on the other side and talked across the swamp with Chuma and his countrymen. Everyone in Nyasa already spoke 25 African languages, but King Chuma allowed conversation because he didnt recognize the dialect. In conversation, over years, men, women and children learned the French language and King Chuma learned about the outside world. He asked lots of questions thus giving him time grasp European philosophies. The king became a master at statesmanship while white power politics raged in all the countries around him.
Curious about the promises of the European powers, King Chuma sent out a network of messengers to neighboring countries to see if promises were being kept. The King learned their religion promised Peace on Earth, but practiced war, land grabbing, and slavery. Soon after Henri and the missionaries arrived, slavery was extended into the interior of Africa. The impenetrable Nyasa became a protectorate for the few slaves that managed to avoid the great piles of white skulls that the birds use as nest, the bees, and the flying alligators.
The outside world had questions: It was believed the King of Nyasa was sitting on a great throne of gold and of course there were attacks by armies from the Congo, and armies of slavers. But it was useless. This was an inaccessible land. By now, the sons and grandsons of the network of messengers had gone to the ends of Africa to see if promises were kept. Unlike the kings of Nyasa, the other African rulers had lost their natural rights: treaties, kindred ties, and family bonds had been discarded and overlooked all over the continent.
In the 1860-70s Burton, Speke, Livingstone, Stanley and a bunch of other fools stomped back and forth across Africa renaming things as they went. They traveled across the continent like a bowel movement, building stations and outposts. The outside world especially King Leopold of Brussels' wanted ivory, for piano keys, false teeth, and combs. Since Nyasa was next door he assumed it must have it also. But, the swamp remained high, and the crocodiles were ever ready to leap to the countrys defense.
The British came from the south, the French came from the North, and the Portuguese came from the west. On any given day, they were all offering fill-in-the-blank treaties and a payment of one hundred dollars a year. Using statesmanship and more than a little help from the alligators, Nyasa held onto its distinctive character into the early twentieth century. Then it was penetrated.
WWI ended, and the colonial powers stripped Germany of her colonies. Someone in the meeting claimed Germany owned Nyasa. When French and British surveyors appeared, they were stunned to see this small country operating with no influence from Europe. By this time, the 19th ruler of the country was prepared. He was determined to extract a high price from anyone wishing to do business in his country. He joined Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations. The flag of Nyasa was green and the people decided on it should be an alligator with wings as its insignia. It was discovered that Nyasa had rubber plants, tea plants and old trees that would later be used everywhere in the world to build dollhouses. Being a member of the League of Nations, King Chuma used the connection to get great contracts with each country that wanted his products. Controls were built into each contract which insured Nyasa owned all the land, and got at least sixty percent of all contracts. The King built an army, roads, telephone lines, brought electricity, built housing, and airports.
His son, Chuma the 20th ruler, was born in the 1930s. His father decided immediately after completing grade school that Chuma the 20th would be sent out of Nyasa to study. He felt that in order for his son to keep modernizing his country, he needed to see and experience the world for himself, not depend on a network of messengers.
So this Chuma the 20th studied to be a doctor at all black, Lincoln University, right outside Philadelphia. But Chuma saw a musical on stage, and immediately wanted to be an actor. He changed his name to Charles, joined the Actors Studio, and studied in a class with Marlon Brando. They both rode motorcycles and had a fondness for bongos and women. Then Brando was hired to do A Street Car Named Desire. They didnt see each other again. Chuma continued his classes and got a job as the understudy to Louis Gossett, Jr. in A Raisin in the Sun. But he soon found his interest was in musical theatre. He worked in the chorus in Golden Boy with Sammy Davis Jr., and the chorus of No Strings with Diahann Carroll. He loved Broadway musicals. This was going to be his life.
One day a telegram came from home. Chumas father was dead. Chuma the 20th was the new king of Nyasa. When he came back he brought modernity: unionism, radios, television and libraries. He reached out to the rural part of the tiny country and changed their lives, creating two universities and two gaming hotels near the old swamp where the descendants of the people who tried to exploit them now got fleeced.
That must be the hotels where people come to gamble, yelled Everett, like a 10 year old hopped up on sugar.
From the small jitney, I saw the gigantic hotel jutting upward. I was sharing the ride with Everett, not because I wanted him in there, it was just I couldnt get rid of him. The last thing I wanted to do was be in Africa with the CIA sitting beside me. As I left the airport he pushed in the taxi and collapsed beside me.
Please let me ride with you, he begged.
I heard him, but I couldnt respond.
Do you mind?
Of course I minded, but I was focused on something else. This colorful jitney had a state of the art CD player and Oh What A Beautiful Morning, was playing.
Dont make me have to ride with those...those... freaks. Please.
Look, I paid for the entire taxi, I said.
Everett reached in his pocket pulled out a wad of American dollars. With at gesture I was even more convinced he was CIA, who the hell rolls around Africa with huge ball of greenbacks?
Not necessary, I said, as I slid to the other side of the seat, and glanced out. Riding beside us in another jitney was a group of blonde missionaries singing a gospel song.
Theyre freaks. I dont want anything to do with them, said Everett.
We passed the shiny hotel with lots of fat tourist milling around. People standing on the shoulder of the road staring at the singing missionaries. Some waved. Predictably, some men ran behind the jitney and others managed to hop on.
Jesus, Everett said with disgust.
Billboards with a smiling King Chuma were all along the highway. On the billboards were drawings of highways, buildings, bridges and workers. At the bottom of each billboard were quotes from the lyrics of Broadway musicals.
In Nyasa, in every public space, including the Presidents home, songs from Broadway musicals were played. In the jitney, Oh What A Beautiful Morning ended and People Will Say Were In Love came on.
Why? Why would an African have American show tunes everywhere? clearly annoyed Everett spat out the words.
King Chuma feels they delight and entertain. I said. Do you know much about this country?
I know this country was never colonized. It's managed to retain its independence and its independent spirit. Unlike Nyasas neighbors, where the countries are frozen in their roles of employees and helpers, and are circling the drain, and wrapped in poverty, wars, famine and AIDS.
Well, it would seem a perfect place for missionaries.
I stared at Everett, only now realizing he is trying to have a conversation.
Missionaries are useless, I said sharply. I hope their efforts to get another notch on their soul saving belts are wasted here. The average African, like the average American, simply accepts fate quietly, like theyve done throughout history. Who are they going to protest to? Whats the use in getting mad?
They could get mad at God, Everett mumbled.
I laughed a little too loud. The driver glared at me through the rear view mirror. It was just his eyes I saw. Just like a shot out of a Sergio Leone western. The driver, James, looked like Lee Van Cleef, who always played the heavy in those old Clint Eastwood westerns - same nose, laughing eyes, intensity, just darker. He had been singing along with the song. Perhaps he thought I was laughing at his singing. I gestured an apology. He smiled and continued singing, People Will Say Were In Love.
I turned back to Everett.
Whats the use in getting mad at God? Hes never coming back to help them out of their pain.
Everett looked a little confused and uncertain. Finally he pulled out an old chestnut,
I thought all African-Americans identified with Africa and with religion.
Obviously the CIA was falling down on the job. They had briefed him on the African-American question, but not on those fringe knucklehead black-American nationalists, with their selective identification with Egypt and nothing else.
Most black-Americans could never see a place like Nyasa. Their eyes are turned towards Egypt. There are so many kingdoms worth identifying with, but places like Dahomey, the kingdom of Ethiopia, and the kingdom of Lethoso are invisible.
The problem with black and any other kind of nationalism: it's closed. Cloaked in wrap-around sunshades, turbans, black leather that makes them look more like Ninjas than Arabs, they are usually found in Times Square with a bull-horn and some photos of a white Jesus nailed to a cross. These are the black nationalists whose beliefs allowed them to live in their own faded Africa. Theyre just sloganeers wrapping themselves in some distant enchanted African past, an African past, where they were things to be sold. They walk around with the Arab names of the very people who enslaved them. Now thats identity politics gone awry.
Oh I see, Everett said with a smile, its a selective Africa they want to identify with.
Listen to me, I said, in their world they reject America, their home, and its freedoms, to put some ancient civilization at the center of their world. For them, the third world, particularly Africa, is like a crossword puzzle, with everything they dont want to see blacked out.
I stopped talking when I noticed there were an awful lot of soldiers with guns along the road. I glanced at the driver. He noticed my staring.
It King Chumas birthday in a day or two.
We were slowing down. Now I could see the soldiers hardened faces. Did they know that white men with backpacks were CIA? Why in the hell, did I let him ride in the car with me?
We moved on through the city, passing soldiers in light green uniforms, dark glasses and rifles at the ready. They glared at the passing jitney. While other soldiers chased a one-armed man, caught him and beat him, until his screams and moans stopped. Whats going on here? No answer from James. It seems everyone on this continent has a gun pointed at each other. This shouldnt be called Africa. It should be called Pain,
The jitney slowed. Traffic was backing up. On the street, soldiers with guns, hover over a line of pedestrians, being interrogated while seated on the curb. Other soldiers have surrounded a man, guns pointed at his chest. On the buildings, countless posters reading: ELECTIONS NOW! Last night Chuma agree to elections. But, why all the soldiers? Military decide new election need protection.
Halt! The jitney stopped and soldiers pushed guns in the cab. You pay tax to go.
Stupidly, I was the only one to reach for a wallet. I pulled it out and a soldier snatched it...rifled through it and took the cash. Then using the business end of the AK-47 draped the wallet over it and extended it back in my direction. I took the wallet as the nozzle of the gun was pointed directly at me. I whispered, Please, can we go?
But the soldiers took their time stepping aside, when finally they did we moved on. As we approached Hotel Lumumba and got out, there was a picket line chanting for more pay. The armed soldiers were glaring at the protestors.
I chose to come to Nyasa first because this country made an effort to be democratic. I knew I had three more countries to visit where they don't make an effort. Those places are the bush. I never expected pickets in Africa, especially not in Nyasa. I decided the only thing to do was ignore it.
If only I could have.