by Levi Keidel
I Throw Out a White ManThis is the story of what God has done for me, a murderer sentenced to life in prison. The things I did before I came to know God are not examples for you to follow; I relate them to you because they show what I once was, when I was still acting foolishly. How can a person understand where I am going unless he knows where I have come from?
The year was 1943. I was a young man, about 23. I was working in a machine shop in a copper mine in the city of Kolwezi, in southeastern Zaire. The shop sat between two big sheds with furnaces to burn slag from the ore. It was a large house made of corrugated sheet iron; its high windows were dirty with slag dust. The air was heavy with the smell of burning minerals. Inside the shop, men stood or sat at their machines, doing their different kinds of work fixing things.
That morning I was seated at my table, working, as was my custom. I was washing burnt parts of an electric motor with gasoline. Then a white foreman arrived, and began doing what had become his daily custom.
"Has the baboon arrived?"
His words aggravated me exceedingly. On other mornings I had always answered him, as he desired. Today, I had sworn to myself that I would not. I sat quietly.
I refused to answer. I could feel his anger beginning to boil.
"What's the matter today? Are you trying to act like a white man? Look at your big lips and flat nose. Anybody can tell who you are. Answer me!"
I did not answer.
He slapped my face.
I stood and stared at him, my face stinging. My insides began to boil with anger. This was not the first time I had been thus offended. On another day when I was high on the ladder, fixing a wire, a white man threw words at me from below which blackened my insides. I ran down the ladder. I threw my tools onto the table. I stood up to him, and burned him with my eyes. But I did not touch him.
This was the era when a black man dared not touch white men in anger; he touched them only to shake their hands. He didn't wear shoes on his feet, lest they accuse him of arrogance. He entered their houses to wash their clothes or to serve their drinks. Most of his speaking to them were the words, "Yes Sir."
To break their laws was no light matter; black men were quickly imprisoned for upsetting the peace. Judgment was harsh. Its symbol was a whip made of a strip of hippopotamus hide, called a mfeemboo. From time to time offenders were flogged in public. In prison, some men wore iron collars padlocked around their necks. Dragging from them were chains nine feet long. Other men, when they entered prison, disappeared forever.
I knew all of these things. I was young; but my body was large and strong for its years. Must I accept forever for others to shame me because I was a black person? Does one judge a chicken by staring at its feet? Now my anger boiled up and overflowed my fears.
I seized this man's shoulders. I shook him like a leaf. What should I do with him? I wanted to fling him into the iron ceiling trusses above me. Instead, I laid him out on a table and held him down so he couldn't move. I glared at him until his eyes were like eggs, his beard trembled, and his face showed the fear of death. Then I picked him up, carried him to the door and, with all my strength, threw him out. He hit the ground, rolled over, stood himself onto his feet, and walked away.
After some minutes my director called me.
"What have you done?"
"I discarded a white man."
"When you threatened that other white man, I told you to restrain yourself. Do you want to lose your work?"
"I did not strike him."
"For what you have done, I am cutting one-half of today's wages."
Because my mind fought over what I had done, the hours of the day passed quickly. One voice within me said, "You did well. You purged your insides, and now you feel clean." Another voice said, "Restrain your wrath. The lion by its anger rules its kingdom with terror; a tribal chief who thus governs people is held in contempt. If every time anger catches you, the lion within you breaks its restraining ropes, what might you be driven to do? How will you ever subdue it again?"
The workhorn sounded, startling me. It was time to go home. As I turned to leave my table, two black workmen came. One reached out to shake my hand.
"We pass each other day after day, but we haven't come to know each other. My name is Kabeya. Others saw what you did today. All of us respect you for your courage. We want to strengthen your heart. Why not come with us to a cafe where we can talk about our work affairs?"
"I am Maweja (Ma-way-sha)," I said, then greeted his friend. We walked in the direction of the workmen's camp and stopped at a hotel. Its front had a long veranda. Beneath it were small iron tables with wire-rod chairs. The house was divided into two parts: on the left, a large room for eating and dancing, and on the right a small room with a bar, stools and small tables for drinking. Behind the cafe was a row of small houses for sleeping. We joined five other young workmen at two tables put together on the veranda near the drinking room. Kabeya ordered beer for us. He told them who I was, and we shook hands.
"We saw a surprising affair today," he told the others. "Have you heard about it?"
"About the workman who beat up on the white man? We heard. Everybody is talking about it."
Others nearby stopped talking to listen.
"Our friend Maweja here is the one who did it."
"Truly?" Those at the table looked at me wide-eyed. Others brought their chairs and joined us. They looked at Kabeya.
"Tell us about it."
"Let Maweja tell us," Kabeya said.
All eyes fastened themselves to me. The table man was pouring our beer. Pride warmed my heart.
"I work at a table fixing electric machines. Every morning a white man passes my table. He always stops to offend me."
"You mean the little bearded one who always talks so fast?"
"We know him. His custom is to offend people."
"He has named me baboon. He acts like he is taking roll call, and wants me to answer, 'Present.' The matter aggravated me exceedingly. This morning when I saw him coming, I told myself I would not answer. He stopped at my table and, as is his custom, said, 'Is the baboon here?'
"I kept doing my work quietly. I felt him glaring at me. Then he asked me again.
"I refused to answer.
"He put his hands on his hips to show his authority and cried out. 'Answer me!'
"I sat quietly.
"Then he started offending me. 'What's the matter today? Are you trying to imitate the white man? Look at your flat nose and big lips and see who you are. You stupid heathen.' Then he slapped me."
My listeners held their breath, waiting.
"Then I got up, seized his shoulders in my hands, and shook him. I could have killed him. But I decided to show him love. I laid him onto my table and held him there until his eyes showed me the fear of death. Then I carried him to the door, and threw him away like a dirty rag. He rolled over, got up, and left fast."
"Ayiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.... !" my listeners said. They leaped up, clapped their hands and cheered.
"Owner of courage!"
"You did excellently!"
"Maweja our hero!"
"What does his name mean? The all-powerful one!"
"Let's call him Mazungu . . . white man. Maweja Mazungu!"
"Raise your glasses! Let's drink to him as one man!"
I swallowed their praise with the licking of lips. Clearly, they longed as one with me, to throw off the yoke of humiliation put on us by the white man. They had chosen me as their pathcutter toward finding a way to do it. I accepted. My mind was so filled with their words of praise that it had no place for thinking where this path might lead me. All at once, without my planning it, I found I had chosen to follow this path, and others were already pushing me along it. The time arrived when it appeared I would pass through all the days of my life and still not finish paying for my choice.
Since this happened, many years have gone by. As I reflect upon it, perhaps my burden of shame did not begin with what was happening to us in the copper mine. Perhaps it began with matters of my tribal forefathers and of my childhood. Let me relate them to you, so that you will understand what made me choose this course, and how all the events before and after it fit together to make the picture of my life.---
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