Congratulations on Mandela

by Patrick Madden

            Grandma Garcia hated the Negroes. For most bigots I know, racism is a matter of dissociation. They have black friends who, they say, aren’t like other black people, and they keep their attitudes under wraps whenever any real live blacks are present. But not Grandma Garcia; she declared her disdain outright and without provocation. The two years I had lived in Louisiana as a boy had taught me the routine: my neighbors hated the poor thieving blacks who lived in the Broadmoor Apartments in relative squalor, but with an impressive selection of stolen televisions and stereos. Every house within a two-block radius of ours had been robbed in the past couple of years and all my neighbors knew that it was the blacks. So it was understandable that they would harbor animosity, but Grandma Garcia seemed to have no reasons, or felt it unnecessary to explain her feelings.

“Grandma,” said her grandson Jovany loudly and slowly the first time we met her, “these are the missionaries, Madden and Kalu.”

            “I hate the Negroes!” she shouted back in reproach.
            “But Grandma, these are missionaries. They’re from the Church.”
            “What does that matter to me? Get that Negro away from me!”
            She sat rigid in her rocking chair in the half-shade of the laundry yard where her family had put her, probably hoping she’d stay entertained and out of the way. We were struck silent, waiting for Jovany to calm her or explain. She stared at the broken bricks of the back-door frame as if to avoid visual contamination, or to show her disdain. Her eyes were glossed over and clammy. Purple veins bulged from her skeletal hands as she gripped the chair’s armrests in anger. Her lips moved, muttering inaudible complaints, and she furrowed her wrinkles deeper in a demonstrative scowl. Whatever manners she may have learned as a girl were not meant for Negroes, and she was unabashed in her censure.
            From then we kept our visits with the Garcia family brief, usually during the time when their grandmother was sleeping. But every now and then she was sick, or cranky, and got up from her nap to make her demands and nag her grandchildren. She couldn’t smell my companion, but she acted like it. From inside her room she heard his deep, melodious voice and shouted, “Get that Negro out of here!” Eventually, nobody paid attention to her. But it grinded on me. Offense by proxy, that’s what I’d call it now. Kalu didn’t seem to notice.
            One Lazy afternoon Elder Kalu and I were walking near the narrow sycamore-lined road to Santa Bernadina and I was worrying about his ego.
            Continuing my thoughts out loud, I asked him, “How do you deal with it?” He looked up from the road for a second, then quickly sidestepped to shuffle-kick a small rock between my legs.
            “Deal wit’ wat?” Some missionaries couldn’t understand his Nigerian English, but by
then I had enough practice to catch every word.
            “‘With Grandma Garcia’s comments about hating the Negroes.”
            He laughed silently to himself and shook his head. When he looked at me he was smiling.
            “Man,” he drew out the word through his smile, “I don’ care wat she tink about me an I don’ tink about wheda she care fah me.”
            That was that in Elder Kalut mind. He turned his eyes back to the road, searching for a small stone, and when he quickly found one, shot it just under my heel as I stepped. He looked brightly, squinting in the sun as he turned to me and shouted with glee. “Go-o-o-o-ol!” With his laugh the word crescendoed and ebbed as it faded among the trees.
            Aside from Grandma Garcia, Uruguayans are generally very tolerant of blacks. There were never many slaves in the country, and there hasn’t been more than a handful of immigrants to Uruguay from Africa, so that blacks make up a very small percentage of the population. There are no black ghettos and, thus, no natural segregation, and the white Uruguayans excitedly anticipate the only regular congregation of blacks: the Llamadas, a frantic festival of drums and candombe music that kicks off Carnaval in late February.     Ruben Rada, a black jazz/candombe singer and national hero, is affectionately known as “El Negro,” and husbands and wives everywhere sweet talk each other as “mi negrito” or “mi negrita.” I’ve wondered if the reference hails back to the days of slavery when blacks were patronized and oppressed, but even if it does, Uruguayans today don’t know that and they harbor none of the prejudicial overtones of calling each other “little Negroes.”
            So racial tensions run low in Uruguay. Grandma Garcia never explained her reasons for hating blacks, but I suspect it might have stemmed from a bad experience. Or, who knows, she might have been influenced by Nazis who escaped to Uruguay after the war. But other people never showed any prejudice.
            One afternoon Elder Kalu and I were wandering the streets just south of the Garcias’ house and talking with anyone who crossed our path, when we came across a hunched old woman with gray skin and a flowery, silky dress and a scarf which she wore on her head to protect her wiry hair from the sun. She was sweeping the dirt from her front walk into the street and into the atmosphere in great clouds of dust. She looked up curiously when we saluted, but didn’t answer back. “Hello, how are you today?” I repeated.
“Well,” she said slowly, her voice hanging in the air like a question. It wasn’t clear if she
meant “good” or if she meant to continue. We stalled silently for a second, then spoke again.
            “We’re missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” said Kalu. “My name is Elder Kalu. I’m from Nigeria. He’s Elder Madden, from the United States.” She stared back at him silently, pursing her lips, but she didn’t say anything. “We have a message about Jesus Christ that we share with the people—”
            “Where in the United States?” she interrupted. It took me a second to understand her question.
            “I’m from New Jersey,” I said.
            “I have relatives in New Jersey,” she said, and then smiled contentedly, as if she’d known I would be from New Jersey.
            “Where in New Jersey?” I asked.
            “New Jersey.”
            “But what city?”
            “New Jersey,” she said with an air of finality, like I was the one who didn’t know his
geography.
            “Oh,” I said, not wanting to argue. “It’s very nice there. Have you ever been to visit?”
            “No,” she said sadly. “My husband is black.” She stood unsteadily and looked at me
slowly, waiting for my nod of understanding. But I didn’t understand.
            “Why can’t you go if your husband is black?” I said.
            She sighed and smiled kindly at me, “A few years ago my relatives invited us to go visit them in New Jersey,” she began. “They have good jobs and a big house and a car. They come to Uruguay sometimes and they wear the nicest clothes and they can speak English. They were going to pay for our tickets and let us stay with them. They said we could see New York from their window. We wanted to go, but we couldn’t because my husband is black.” She looked at me again as if I should know why that was an obstacle.
            “Why not? What does it matter if your husband is black?” I wondered if Uruguayan
passports were restricted to whites, or if the U.S. embassy discriminated against blacks for visas.
            “Because in the United States they kill all the black people,” she said calmly, like it was common knowledge.
            “What?” I asked incredulously. “Why do you think they kill all the black people? Who told you that?”
            “Everybody knows it,” she said.
            “But they don’t kill all the black people,” I said. By now I was feeling defensive. “I grew up with black people. I know lots of black people, and they’re just as happy as everybody else. How can you think we kill them?”
            “I didn’t say you killed them,” she said. “But I saw on the television that they were
killing all the black people.”
            I first thought of South Africa, then of documentaries on the slave trade. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. She was obviously mistaken, I reasoned, but my deep-set need to be right and to correct her wrong notions kept me going. “When did you see that?” I asked.
            “Not long ago,” she said. “Right when my relatives invited us to visit.”
            “But what year?” She was getting impatient with my questions, and Elder Kalu looked at me sternly and notched his thumb between his long, bony fingers in the ‘k’ sign. He meant “kill it.” Shut up, man, she’s not listening.
            “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe five years ago.” She scratched her nose with the broom handle.
            “Was it something that happened then? Or was it a documentary?”
            “It was the news,” she said, annoyed. “They were showing it all over the world.”
            “But where was it from?”
            “The United States, I told you already,” she said. Then, “Los Angeles.”
            It clicked. She was talking about the Los Angeles Rodney King trial riots. One black man beaten by police and random riot coverage equals all black people being killed in the entire country. It obviously wasn’t a logical conclusion, but I tried logic on her anyway.
            “You mean the riots in Los Angeles? That was only one city, and they weren’t killing
black people—black people were robbing Korean people. And besides, Los Angeles is across the country from New Jersey.” She didn’t get it. I continued, “‘Would you be afraid here if the Venezuelans started killing black people?” She stared curiously, unable to connect my question to the conversation. “California is as far from New Jersey as Uruguay is from Venezuela. What happened in Los Angeles has nothing to do with New Jersey. Black people are safe in New Jersey.” I suppose I really wanted to convince her to visit her relatives.
            “All I know is what they told me,” she said, picking up her broom and turning to go back to her sweeping. “They kill all the black people in the United States.” She completed her pirouette, pushed open her front gate and slowly shuffled back into the security of her front yard. Behind her we stared for a while, then shrugged at each other and walked away. Kalu punctuated the conversation with his only contribution to the debate: “I tol’ you man.’ No matter how often I’m forced to learn it, I’ve never yet really understood why some people can’t tap into the Fountain of Reason. Nowadays, what with postmodern philosophers and the slippery nature of truth, it’s difficult to assert any such thing as reason, but I’m convinced that it exists. Still, Jesus warned that before we attempt to take the mote out of our brother’s eye, we ought to remove the beam from our own. But I guess deep down I’ve always thought he wasn’t talking to me. I try to be conscientious and civil to others, either in ignoring or in pointing out their mistakes, and I’m convinced that I can always get the right answer through reason. The most painful argument, for me, is the one that is built on the incorrect assumption that nobody can ever be right, or worse, that if I was wrong last time, then now it’s your turn. Here was a woman whose erroneous ideas were so embedded that she blinded herself to a logical counter-explanation. Yet I wonder where she got her ideas in the first place. She seemed so untrusting, and yet who was able to fill her head with the notion that all the blacks were being killed in the
United States? Did she trust her television? And by what thought process could she interpret the snippets she saw of the riots as a large-scale genocide? But she did, and there was no way I could dissuade her.
            It’s a flaw, I suppose, that I felt the need to show her the truth about my country. I grew frustrated with her denials and illogic, as she turned farther from me because of my over-excitement. All things considered, though, people’s misconceptions about the United States were small in comparison with their lack of knowledge about Africa. Their strange notions drove Elder Kalu crazy. And he decided that his mission in Durazro, besides that of winning converts to Mormonism, was to educate the people about Africa.
            It would be too much of an exaggeration to say always, but I can tell you that nearly
every person we ever talked to in Durazno after Elder Kalu had been there for a week had
already heard about him. “Ah, yes. You’re the Africano,” they’d say, and he’d smile. “I’m Elder Kalu, without an accent.” They were always calling him Kaloo and he hated that.
            “I’m from Nigeria, the ones who are going to win the World Cup,” he taunted. Uruguay hadn’t qualified, and the Uruguayan men were heartbroken. Their glory years had ended with Uruguay’s last win in the Mundial in 1950. Still, they were fiercely proud that such a small country had won two World Cups and were equally humbled that their team this year was sitting at home. Then he’d introduce me. “This is Elder Madden from the United States, where they’re playing the Mundial.”
            Anyone else would have caused a big stir with his boasting and ridicule of the most
sacred of Uruguayan traditions. But the people loved Elder Kalu the Nigeriano even before they ever met him. They seemed proud to have him, a real live African, in their little unknown town. Some Church members, who got to know him personally, claimed to have had dreams that he would come to their town. Once he was there, word about him spread quickly. He told me that in every area he’d been in he heard the same story.
            Even the people who didn’t know him noticed. One Sunday afternoon, Richard Cisneros, from across town, bicycled over to drop off a political cartoon from the Sunday paper. It showed Elder Kalu, helmet-on-head and backpack-on-back, watching a soccer game in a bar with an assortment of locals. One of them says, “Wow! Those Africans sure play well!” Another responds, “Look at the Nigerians run!” And above them all, Elder Kalu chides, in ungrammatical Spanish, “Ha ha ha. We’re in the Mundial, and you all are stuck at home!” We never found out who drew the picture.
            He was famous. Though his celebrity didn’t help much with opening doors to teach the gospel, we had many lively doorway conversations about politics and futbol. The common people were excited to have this novelty in their midst and eager to make a good impression. Most common of their show-off comments was, “Congratulations on Mandela!” Nelson Mandela had just been elected President of South Africa. It was a trying time for Elder Kalu’s nerves.
            Depending on his mood, Elder Kalu might ignore the compliment and get down to
business, or, more likely, give a geography lesson. “¿¡Qué Mandela!?” His tone meant “What are you talking about!?”
            “Mandela’s not from my country. South Africa is as far from Nigeria as Venezuela is
from Uruguay. You don’t hear me congratulating you on Venezuela’s president, do you?” They cowered. We were fond of Venezuela as a distant reference point.
            “Africa isn’t all one country. Not all black people are the same. There are more countries in Africa than any other continent. . . .” They were losing interest but smiling sheepishly. Usually by the time he was done they were casting sideways glances at me, shrugging as if to say “I’m sorry.” I usually smiled at them, basking in his didactic tirade and thinking, in a sing-song, “They’re not listening.” Surprisingly, nobody was ever openly offended by his rebukes.
            People were good natured about being taught African geography and seemed to brush off his reproaches as easily as they forgot what he told them. So, after all, I don’t know what effect Elder Kalu had on most of the people we met. They were too high in the clouds, excited to be graced by the presence of an exotic foreigner, to hear our real message—the one about eternal salvation—and they were too ingrained in their simplistic notions about the outside world to broaden their horizons even when a real live African came to teach them. Elder Kalu took it all in stride, his bright smile—the stereotypical see-it-in-the-dark whites against his dark face-was a constant reminder that he was happy being who he was and doing what he was doing. I was happy he was doing it with me.
            When he realized with certain people that he could never change them, he started telling them, “In Africa, we have lions roaming the streets and eating the garbage just like the dogs do here.” They’d become wide eyed. “And we ride on elephants to go to work.” C’mon, they’d say, You’re joking. “No! And for us malaria is just like an ataque de higado
for you all.” The liver attack was painful, but nothing like malaria, they’d say. “It’s true!” and he’d laugh and they’d know he was pulling their leg, or, in Spanish, pulling their hair. Then he’d whisper to me, “You tell dem enough lies and maybeh you wake dem from deir slumber.”
            We spent our days talking, laughing, singing old Catholic hymns as we rode down the street. We told the skeptical people we met that we had both been altar boys at one time and that the Mormons and the Catholics believed almost the same things. When people just wouldn’t listen, Elder Kalu would tell me, “You can’t fight wit’ a bull.” Then we’d leave. When we saw the sad results of drunkenness, abuse, and irresponsible and fighting parents, Kalu said, “When the elephants fight, the grass suffers.” He talked about the members of his tribe, the Igbos, who had mysterious powers to control the weather, and he kept me rapt with accounts of the tribal wars and governmental uprisings in Nigeria during his lifetime.
            One day like any other, as we left the house right on time, according to our prescribed schedule, I mused, like it was a revelation, “There’s nobody here to tell us what to do. We could be doing whatever we want.”
            “Yeah,” he completed my thought, “but we doin’ da right ting anyweh!”
            Though I don’t think it had anything to do with being black, twice in the time I knew him Elder Kalu was called to be a district leader and then a week later “demoted” because another missionary complained and was given the position. Both times it was because Elder Kalu was younger missionwise than another missionary in the district. Usually callings weren’t given on the basis of mission age, but in the two instances involving Elder Kalu, they eventually were. The second time it happened was in Durazno. Once again, I felt offended on his behalf.
            We were sitting on our beds one night in our long underwear and socks with our electric heater boxes blowing in our faces and we were talking. Finally I got up the courage to ask him, “What do you think about Gull and Newton complaining and getting called as district leader over you? That’s twice.”
            He always smiled when I asked him questions he had figured out long ago. He looked up beaming and said simply, “Hey man, we’ all missionaries here.” I understood, and my love of Elder Kalu found a new hold. “Hey man, we’ all missionaries here,” and nothing more. I determined that I would emulate his humility and disinterested service—be a missionary like he was. Shortly after that conversation, we were separated. I went off to remote Carmelo, on the southwestern coast of Uruguay, across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires, and Kalu stayed on for another month in Durazno to train a new missionary. I always remembered what he had taught me.
            Because I kept up on the news from Durazno, I was the one who told Elder Kalu when Grandma Garcia finally died. It was the closest to vindictive I ever saw him. “Good,” he said, nodding. I was surprised. He continued, “I hope when she get dere dey put her wit’ all the Negroes dat evah live.” Then he laughed, a great big hearty laugh, and I hoped God would listen to him.