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.