by Levi Keidel
Praise Goes to My Head
The broad stream of water, which was my tribal life, kept flowing past me slowly year after year, without changing. But outside our small tribe, life was changing rapidly. At the end of dry season, rains come. They always change the face of the jungle, and change the streams which flow through it. White men had come. They brought with them their wisdom; some of it was good; some of it bad. Their wisdom was changing the face of our country; and I knew that with the passing of time, it would change life in our tribes.
By the time I was born, white men had established themselves as chiefs in our country. They had driven out slave raiders and brought an end to fighting between the tribes. When peace between tribes was established, white traders came. They brought new kinds of salt and soap; soft bright-colored cloth; eating dishes made of iron instead of clay; bright lamps which chased darkness from even the corners of our house rooms; and bicycles which could eat up long journeys, the legs not wearying.
Other white people came, bringing us their healing medicines and book wisdom. Some of them wanted to teach us matters of their Great Elder Spirit. We did not understand why we needed to learn more about Him; and we had ways of dealing with many of our sicknesses. But the wisest among us had never made a paper page talk. About the reading of a book, we knew nothing.
Thus, people from the outside brought us new ideas and new customs. Little by little, they placed before our eyes a manner of living we had never known. To gather things one wants for his happiness, these people did not rely upon the kindness of their tribal fathers; each one worked for himself, earned money, and bought the things he wanted. Youth from among us who finished book-reading classes were given new kinds of work; they earned money, and gathered to themselves the white man's things in abundance.
I respected my tribal life. The love of my parents and tribesmen comforted me; their support strengthened me. But I saw what was happening around us. These things were changing the customs of our tribal life. I had a good mind. I had a body larger and stronger than most youths my age. Father had taught me how to work. Did not the name he had given me mean "the all-powerful one"? When others my age used both their minds and their bodies, earned money, and enjoyed new things in abundance, why should I be happy to remain forever in the field with a hoe? The ground squirrel, in hunting for food every day, gets accustomed to his own tiny trail. But what if one day he discovers that someone has been disturbing it? And what if, at that one time, he sees fresh berries waiting for him along a new trail?
I did not tell my father that I wanted to separate myself from our tribal way of life; I did not want him to feel I thought it was inadequate. I asked him if I could go to school. He accepted.
"I want you to progress," he said.
I entered class in a village near us. The teacher was a black man hired by the mission. I studied two years. When they saw how well I was learning, they called me to the mission station. There I studied three months, and followed their ritual known as "baptism." I did not truly give my heart to this matter; many boys my age were following the baptism custom, it was a symbol which would win favor with those who could help us progress. When I returned to begin studying at the village school the third year, the teacher told me that those over him said I was too old to study in class; they needed space for younger students; I was mature enough to start supporting myself by working in the cotton fields.
I worked in the cotton fields two years. During that time my mother became very ill. I called the mission teacher; he baptized her before she died. Then I worked one year with those who fix the iron path used by trains. I did not refuse to work with my body in the hot sun. But my studying in class had given me thirst to use my mind. There was no place any more for me to find this kind of work in the land of my ancestors. For me to realize this hope, it would be necessary for me to go to the city. When I told Father, he did not accept readily.
"I am afraid that such a path would separate you forever from our tribe."
"I could never finish my debt to my tribe," I replied. "It is only the journey that will separate me from you. All I know about life on this earth, I've learned from our people. What kind of affair could ever cut me off from them?"
"Let me show you my heart. You see how I have given you the work of feeding strangers and welcoming guests. When I am on journey, you carry the burden of the family. Someday you will take my place as chief of our clan. It is no secret that you are my favorite son. There is none whom I hope for more than for you. The elders say that even a swamp rat remembers its nest. Some people do not. They leave home forever, renounce their upbringing, and thus bring shame upon their forebears."
"Father, how could I ever be unfaithful to my upbringing? I will never forget you or my people. I beg of you; allow me to fulfill my hopes."
He looked at me hard, pondering. Then he said, "As your heart yearns, so let it be. You have always been a child who keeps his vows."
It was 1938 when I arrived at Kolwezi. I was about 18. It was the first time my eyes saw a big city with tall houses made by the white man. I found work in the copper mining company. I lived with other single men in a brick house in the work camp. We workmen were more than a thousand. We had come from all parts of our country. No one cared about my tribal origin or my home village affairs. I progressed equally with everyone.
The company was building camps of houses for its workers, and big houses here and there for its white overseers. At first I worked with a group of men under a white foreman building houses; then I learned to take care of the machines that made the fire that flows in wires they called "electricity." In the first days I learned what the white man desired; I learned what to say, and how to walk, and where not to go. I saw what happened to those who broke his laws, as I've already related to you. Each day with its little affairs followed another until four years had passed. I kept trying to guard myself well. Then came the day that my anger flashed out, and I discarded the white man.
After this happened, I kept asking myself, "Why did you do it?" At that time all I understood was that the white man was shaming me, and anger seized me. But the passing of years has helped me organize my thinking so that now I think I understand. In the copper mine company, I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to be recognized. I craved for some sign of change, that I was learning and growing, and coming to be a person of value.
I had seen it in my tribal life. There everyone was somebody. When a person's need became evident, his tribemates worked together to meet it. When his gift became evident, they arranged a way for him to make use of it. When he progressed well, they commended him. I saw this truth in the life of my father. He with his wives had worked hard and had obeyed the tribal laws for years. It was not for nothing: he had been given a name which showed his accomplishments; he was made the official guest greeter for all important occasions; he was elected chief of the clan. Because of his hard work and faithfulness, those over him had come to respect and honor him.
But now consider the new ideas and customs which kept wanting to invade our tribal life. It appeared that people who brought these ideas always wanted to humiliate us. They wanted to wipe out our value. Thus was the case with Ngongo Lutete. Thus was the case with my work of learning white man's wisdom in the village class, when I had to quit. But far surpassing these matters, it was the case in the mining company.
In this place we had worked hard and obeyed laws. To receive what? We always danced to the same song, as its players desired. We were like trained animals with hearts that did not feel, which received recompense for their obedience. We lived inside a box with the lid locked. While our faces smiled, our insides boiled with bitterness. A proverb says, "The chamaeleon is a coward; it always changes its color." How could we ever be people with our own value when we had to always wear a color that pleased those over us? Must we forever live like cowards without a word? When you are inside a closed box, if too much time passes, you suffocate. There must be some change, or you will die.
These forces were invading our country. I could not return into the womb of my tribal life and escape them; I had to face them. My upbringing would not allow them to take away my human worth and make me live as a hypocrite. If I could not be accepted in my world, the only other path left for me was to fight to change it. Thus my anger flashed out at the white man to make something change. I did not know what would happen. But even if it made him change my nickname from "baboon" today to "gorilla" tomorrow, that would be a sign of change.
It did far more than I had hoped. It brought an end to white men's offending me. It turned everything upside-down. I did something that no one else had ever done, and immediately I gained all the workers' respect. At once, I was somebody important. I had never been given such recognition even in my home village. All the workmen gathered behind me as one. They expected me to be their path cutter toward lifting their burden of shame. They also trusted me as their strength and protection if violence broke out. For the first time in their lives, they had the hope of change. They had a leader to follow. They would give me anything I wanted. So long as they supported me, I would not have to trouble my mind about anything for as long as I lived. When I tasted this kind of recognition, I wouldn't give it up no matter what happened.
I found more than what I had expected. And I must also tell you that because of it, pride began to blind me. It made me forget many lessons of my childhood. I thought this path would lead me out into the light; but instead, it led me into great darkness. With much sorrow, I now retrace this path for others to see. If you feel with me the burden I carried in my darkness, you will share with me my joy when I find the light.
Drinking makes a person feel strong and bold. For many oppressed people, it is the one thing they can do that makes them feel like they are important. One evening we were drinking at the bar. My friends were singing a song:
"Why not prepare a drink offering to our chief?" cried one.
"Yes! Table boy! Bring bottles of your best strong wine. Fill this table full of them. Help us prepare a gift befitting our champion, Maweja Mazungu!"
We drank. We laughed. We raised our voices, throwing words at one another.
"Meta," Kabeya called to a woman at the bar. "Come here. Maweja, there is no woman who exceeds Meta in beauty. Look at her. She knows how to make happy the heart of a man. I have known her for years. Meta, this is our chief. Sit down beside him. Give him the happiness he deserves."
My heart no longer felt the burdens of earth. My childhood years were dim and far away. The words of Meta were smooth as oil. Her hand pressed mine. My blood ran hot. When I finished what was in my drinking glass, she got up from her chair, and led me away.
This web site is a service of
Chapel Site: Home of David Wilkerson's
Times Square Church Pulpit Series