Ācārya Siṁha

The Life of Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasiṅgha Mahārāja

Chapter 15 – Into Africa
(Kenya – May-June 1973)

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja was now sitting on a night flight bound for Kenya. The cabin lights were dim and all the passengers were fast asleep. Dr. Rasānanda, who was sitting next to him, had covered his head with a chaddar and was purring quietly as he slept. Mahārāja thought this would be a good time to chant his gāyatrī-mantra and he wound his brāhmaṇa thread around his thumb, closed his eyes, and quietly began to murmur the mantra to himself.
“Prabhu, this is the wrong time to chant gāyātri!”
Rasānanda has woken up. Just in case Mahārāja hadn’t heard him the first time, he tugged on Mahārāja’s shirt sleeve and repeated himself, “This is the wrong time to chant gāyatrī, prabhu!”
Mahārāja’s head spun around. “Bug off!” he said, and he closed his eyes and continued chanting.

Kenya had previously been a British colony, but in 1952, the Kenyans began to fight for their independence which was eventually granted to them in 1963. When Mahārāja touched down in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, it was still in the initial stages of post-independence development. The first Iskcon temples in Kenya had been established in 1969 in Nairobi and Mombasa, primarily through the efforts of one of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s first female Indian disciples, Śakti Mati Devī Dāsī who was born in Kenya. Kenya had been a British colony, and many Indians came there as labourers and were employed in various sectors such as railway construction and plantations. Later, many of them started businesses and contributed to the development of the country. Śakti Mati’s family were involved in commerce and spoke fluent Swahili. Later, in 1971, Prabhupāda sent Brahmānanda Swami to East Africa to take up the responsibility of heading up the preaching there. In 1973, the three main devotees in Kenya were Brahmānanda Swami, Cyavana Dāsa and Bhagavat Dāsa. There were also two African-American devotees who were the pūjārīs.

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: There were a few devotees who came to Kenya – a few ladies, a householder couple, a few brahmacārīs. But most of them didn’t stay for long because it was so difficult. There were these two African-American devotees who were the pūjārīs and they were the most fanatical pūjārīs that you had ever seen in terms of cleanliness, austerity and all that kind of stuff. There were very few of us who could keep to their standard. One of them was named Śarma Dāsa – he was an ex-marine and a very strong-bodied guy. About six or seven African-American devotees had been sent to the Nairobi project two years before, but only these two pūjārīs had survived. The others didn’t fare so well. A couple of them just took one look at their ancestral roots and bailed then and there! Others had a different reaction – I remember how one African-American kid blooped. He chucked his passport and went to live in a village in the middle of nowhere. He was never seen again.

When Mahārāja, Rasānanda and Daśārha arrived at the Nairobi temple, it was breakfast time. Brahmānanda Swami was there to greet them and they all freshened up and sat down to take prasādam.

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: The devotees sat us down and gave us a big cup of hot milk and a big bowl of chickpea subji. I just stared at it for a while, then I just burst out laughing. I was laughing uncontrollably like a hyena in front of everyone. All the devotees thought I’d gone mad! I was remembering what it had been like in Salt Lake City – Patraka giving us a dixie cup of milk, counting out nine chickpeas and everyone getting half an orange. Here, you could have a big cup of milk, a whole bowl of chickpea subji and there was a big basket of oranges and you could eat as many as you wanted. I was like some guy who’d just come out of a POW camp!

Rasānanda and Daśārha found a space in the brahmacārī āśrama, while Mahārāja looked around the property for another place where he could stay. The brahmacārī āśrama was small and already quite congested, and besides, Mahārāja didn’t want to be continuously bugged by Rasānanda about chanting his gāyatrī at the proper time.

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: Right across from the courtyard there was a place that was previously used for storing coal and fuel back in the day. They didn’t use that space anymore because everybody had LP gas. So, I cleared that out and moved into that space which was little more than three feet wide and about seven feet long. It was just tall enough to sit up inside. If you stretched your neck, you would bang your head. I put my books and my bed roll in there. It had a door which I repaired and I made some kind of a chain lock for it.

Brahmānanda Swami called the new devotees to his office and regaled them with stories about what preaching in Africa was really like. He told them that a couple of times they had caught thieves and locked them in a room, and the thieves had broken out by literally tearing the door off its hinges. Brahmānanda would even sleep with a baseball bat next to him every night. When Brahmānanda showed them a local tourist magazine with the Kenyatta International Conference Centre on the cover (one of the biggest buildings in Nairobi at the time) Mahārāja, thought, “Great! They have some major landmarks and offices here!” He recalled how, before he left the States, one devotee had asked him, “You’re going to Africa? Is there even any book distribution going on there?”
Mahārāja replied, “Yeah, I think so. I saw a letter from Brahmānanada asking for some Kṛṣṇa Books to be shipped to Kenya.”
Being a book distributor, it was only natural for him to ask Brahmānanda when they would be going out on book distribution. Brahmānanda laughed and shook his head, “Book distribution? Here? Forget it! There’s no book distribution here – at least not to the Africans!”
Mahārāja was confused, “But what about all the Kṛṣṇa Books that were shipped from New York?”
“Oh, that?” Brahmānanda replied, “That was just a way of smuggling money into the country. When the books reached here, we’d just ship them back. We never distributed them.” Brahmānanda explained that in Kenya, saṅkīrtana mostly meant hari-nāma and prasāda distribution.

(Cyavana Dāsa leading African devotees on Hari-nāma in downtown Nairobi)

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: We would do hari-nāma saṅkīrtana in and around Nairobi. We would make these big, big pots of sugar-coated peanuts. We would roast them in sand, strain them, pour a sugar solution over them and let them cool. We had a loud speaker and when we would do hari-nāma, a whole village would pour out and we would start distributing these peanuts from the top of our vehicle. But it could get risky. One time I remember that the villagers got so excited that they almost turned the vehicle over – and these were big vehicles like thirteen passenger jeeps. There were so many people crawling over it on both sides, that the jeep started to tilt over.
Getting them to chant the full mahā-mantra was also difficult. They couldn’t chant the whole mahā-mantra – they just couldn’t remember it. So we would have to chant it a Name at a time and get them to repeat it.

(Brahmānanda Swami and Cyavana Dāsa preaching in Kenyan villages)

Besides hari-nāma and prasādam distribution, Mahārāja would go out with Bhagavat Dāsa and meet Indian businessmen to try and make them life-members of Iskcon. The life-membership program was started by Śrīla Prabhupāda in India to induce Indians to take part in Iskcon’s activities and help by contributing financially to the temples. Each Life Member would receive all the books of Śrīla Prabhupāda, a lifetime subscription to Back to Godhead magazine, and was entitled to stay at any of the movement’s branches throughout the world for free. In Kenya, the Life Membership fee was 30,000 Kenya Shillings (the equivalent of 300 US$ at the present rate). At that time, Mahārāja had no experience with Indians, let alone preaching to them.

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: I remember it took me a while to register what was a Sikh, what was a Jain, how to tell if a guy is a Punjabi or not. At that time in the wider Hare Krsna movement, we knew nothing about Hindus. There were no Hindus supporting the temples in the west in those days.
We would carry a book-bag with some books, Back To Godhead magazines, and Life Membership forms. We would also carry umbrellas when we went door to door because of the dogs. Oh man! Those dogs!! You didn’t want to be without a weapon. There were a few times when I thought those dogs would eat us alive! At first, we would just swing our bookbags at them, so I told Bhagavat, “We ought to have some sticks. I saw some canes in the market.”
He said, “No, no. I think I heard that Prabhupāda said you have to be a paramahaṁsa to carry a cane.”
Anyhow, that’s why we used to carry an umbrella, although an umbrella is not very useful for fighting off mad street dogs.
Sometimes, we couldn’t make any members but we would sell a few books to the Hindus. What we would do is get money from the Hindus, which they called a ‘subsidy,’ and then go and pass out a few small books and stuff like that to the Africans. But mainly with the Africans, it was sugared peanuts and hari-nāma.

When Śrīla Prabhupāda had first come to Kenya in 1971, he had stressed to Brahmānanda Swami that he didn’t want him to focus only on the Hindus living in Africa – he wanted him to primarily spread Kṛṣṇa consciousness amongst the Africans.

Brahmānanda Swami: When I first came to Africa, I was afraid to preach to the Africans. I had been arrested in Turkey previously for having hari-nāma on the street. I had a bad experience in these other countries, these other cultures. So when Prabhupāda came, he saw I was preaching only to the Indians. He didn’t like it at all and he said, “If you do not preach to the Africans, then I will do it.” And then he arranged with some Indian leaders to get a hall in an African area, and he told the devotees to just throw open the doors and have kīrtana. They did that, and immediately the hall filled up with hundreds and hundreds of people. Prabhupāda was just insistent on preaching to the Africans. He didn’t want any discrimination. Preaching should be done to the indigenous people, not just the Indians. “Indians, Europeans and Africans dancing together,” that was his final instruction to me.

Mahārāja and some of the temple devotees began to learn basic Swahili from a local teacher. They would learn simple phrases such as, “Krishna ni jina la mungu” (‘Kṛṣṇa is the Name of God’) to preach to the locals. They even hired a Kenyan professor to translate a small book, Kṛṣṇa Consciousness – The Topmost Yoga System into Swahili. However, they quickly learned that the Swahili language lacked certain words for ‘consciousness,’ ‘humility’ and other finer sentiments mentioned in bhakti literature. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, the first Swahili book was eventually published and distributed amongst the Africans.

At the same time, Brahmānanda decided to start a Sunday outreach program for the locals. The devotees set up a pavilion outside with benches and Brahmānanda would get the African guests to ‘testify for Kṛṣṇa.’

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: There was this thing, mostly in the black churches, where they would ‘testify for Jesus.’ So Brahmānanda would get some of the Africans who came to the programs regularly to ‘testify for Kṛṣṇa.’ They would get up and say, “I wanna testify for Kṛṣṇa! I’ve been chanting…” and then they would chant the mahā-mantra. Out of a hundred people that stood up to testify, probably a dozen couldn’t get the mahā-mantra right, even though it was right in front of them on a banner in English with six-inch letters. They just couldn’t do it. I realised, “Wow! They don’t have the sukṛti to chant the Holy Name, even with the help of all these devotees.”

I used to say that the single proof of our guru being different to all those other ‘gurus’ who come to America was that they had all come only to get many followers to engage in collecting money so that they could enrich their standard of living. Our guru came to the west, made devotees and sent us all over the world. He sent us to Africa, where there was neither money, nor gain to be had by being there. There was nothing material to gain in Africa – nothing! It was simply to benedict the fallen souls.

During his first few months in Africa, Mahārāja became inspired to write an article for Back To Godhead Magazine. He had never written anything before – in school he hated writing because he found all the subjects to be tedious. Kṛṣna consciousness, on the other hand, was something that excited him. In fact, he was so excited that his article grew exponentially to become fifty-four pages. He sent it by a postal vessel to Los Angeles where Back To Godhead was printed, but unfortunately, the manuscript never made it there.

Meanwhile, things were not going so well in the temple. Mahārāja noticed that only a handful of the devotees actually did anything – the rest of them were ‘in māyā.’ Mahārāja decided to take a bold step.

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: I wrote to Śrīla Prabhupāda asking to take sannyāsa. At that time, the rules had changed. Nobody could approach Prabhupāda directly for sannyāsa – they had to be recommended by a GBC. Well, I hadn’t heard that, so I didn’t know. Anyhow, after a few weeks, a letter came to Brahmānanda from Satsvarūpa Gosvāmī who was Prabhupāda’s secretary at the time, asking, “Why has this man approached Prabhupāda for sannyāsa?”Prabhupāda had said, “What can I do? He has no recommendation.”

One day before, while they were out on saṅkīrtana, Mahārāja was complaining to Bhagavat Dāsa about the lacklustre situation in the temple, “Man, if Prabhupāda himself hadn’t personally requested me to go to Africa, I’d be ready to do something drastic.”
Bhagavat suddenly stopped walking and gave Mahārāja a ‘Oh, you don’t know?’ look.
“What?” asked Mahārāja, picking up on Bhagavat’s demeanor.
“Well, actually…Prabhupāda never asked for you specifically. He just told Bali-mardana to find two men. He never asked for anyone in particular. So Bali-mardana and Brahmānanda kinda tricked you.”

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: The next morning, Brahmānanda received Satsvarūpa’s letter and called me into his office to read me the riot act for directly contacting Prabhupāda requesting sannyāsa. Well, after he had said his piece, I lashed out and read the riot act back to him – telling him how I knew that he and Bali-mardana had tricked me, and that the temple was a total mess and he was doing nothing about it. That was the first time I crossed Brahmānanda. Anyhow, after that Brahmānanda calmed down.

Some Sundays, Mahārāja would go out early into the countryside to buy pineapples wholesale to use for the fruit salad at the Sunday feast. But one Sunday, he and Daśārha ran into serious trouble.

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: One early Sunday morning, Daśārha and I drove to this nice-looking village which was about a kilometre off the road. We entered the village with a loudspeaker – I played the mṛdaṅga and he had the karatālas and we just cranked up a kīrtana. We went straight into the mahā-mantra and immediately a crowd came around us and we were both dancing.
All of a sudden, this big guy pushed through the crowd. He was wearing a corduroy sports jacket, a pair of pants, and a shirt with a loose tie around his neck. He was as drunk as a skunk and just reeked of booze! I figured that since this was Sunday morning, he was still drunk from the night before. He got right into my face and put his stubby finger on his chest (although he was so drunk, he could hardly even find his chest) and started shouting “I am the boss! I am the boss!” I just turned my back to him and kept playing the mrdaṅga, so then he came around in front of me and again shouted, “I am the boss! I am the boss!”

I told him, “You’re the boss? No, I am the boss – I’m the saṅkīrtana boss!” and I just kept on singing. Then he began shouting louder, “I am the boss! I am the boss!” and I could tell he was getting angry.
Suddenly, a transport truck full of police came cruising by and slowed down just behind us. Seeing that, this man started yelling to them and they all jumped out with their guns and batons. It turns out that he actually WAS the boss – he was the chief of police for that area. We were lucky that they didn’t split our heads open on the spot! They stopped our kīrtana, grabbed out instruments, roughed us up, took the keys to our vehicle, ransacked it, then frog-marched us down a dirt road for about a quarter kilometre to a police outpost.
They pushed us inside a small cell and we waited there for about five minutes, then they dragged us into a big room where this drunk chief of police was sitting behind a big wooden table. He was staring right at us and breathing heavily, like he was gonna kill us on the spot! In his right hand, he had a long piece of rubber hose with a thick chain inside it, and with the finger of his left hand, he motioned us to come forward. We both stopped dead in our tracks, knowing that he was gonna hit us in the face with that hose, but we could feel the police behind us poking us in the back with their gun barrels. We were both arching our backs, grimacing, as we slowly got closer to the table, when suddenly he stood up and WHAM! He whacked the hose on the desk with all his might and yelled, “I AM THE BOSS!!”
I folded my hands, “Yes, yes – you are the boss, of course! You are the big boss!” Then I pointed to a photo on the wall of Jomo Kenyatta, the Kenyan president, and said, “And he is super boss!”
Again, he flexed the hose in both hands and motioned with his head to the police behind us to push us closer. There was no doubt in my mind that this guy was so drunk and so angry that he was definitely going to hit us. Then all of a sudden, a side door opened and in walked this officer. The drunk chief immediately dropped the hose and saluted, and all the other police snapped to attention. The officer placed some files on the chief’s desk, spoke to him in Swahili, and as he turned to leave, he looked at us, smiled, and said in a perfect British accent, “Good morning. How are you gentlemen today?”
I immediately ran forward, “Er, well as a matter-of-fact, sir, there seems to be a major misunderstanding. If you could just spare us a moment of your time?” I twisted the whole story and told him, “This gentleman has misunderstood what I was saying because when we are doing our prayers, the person who is leading the prayers is called the boss. I thought he was asking me, ‘Who is the boss?’ and I told him, ‘I am the boss.’ Obviously, he’s misunderstood me.”

The officer looked at the chief, sniffed him and frowned. “You’re drunk!”
And I added, “Yes, and he’s also very, very angry! We really need your help, sir.”

The officer started shouting at him in Swahili and the chief remained quiet in front of his superior, but he was shooting me these looks and I could tell that he was burning inside.
Eventually the officer said, “Come with me.” So we followed him out of there, and all the time I was wondering if this was going to be a case of ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire.’ We got into the back of his jeep and he and his driver took us to another station not so far away. We sat down in his office and he started chatting to us about how he had gone to Oxford University in his youth. Finally, he told his men to fetch our vehicle and giving us the keys, he said, “Okay, you can go now.”
We were supposed to return to the temple with the pineapples by 9:00am, but by the time we arrived it was 11:30. Of course, Brahmānanda was furious when we came through the door, and shouted, “Where the hell have you been?”
“Where have we been??” I said, “We’re lucky to be alive!”
These were the sort of typical situations we found ourselves in while preaching in Africa.

Considering that preaching in Africa was fraught with so much danger, it was of little wonder that the turn-over rate was so high amongst the devotees. Narasiṅgha Mahārāja remembers a particular incident illustrating this point.

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: One day, we went to a village which was about an hour’s drive out of town and we had a great reception. There was one devotee with us from Laguna Beach who was about eighteen years old – he was a white guy, blonde hair, your typical surfer dude. He was one of those guys who knew everything – he was so sure of himself and nobody could tell him what to do. He was very rebellious. When we got back to the temple, he decided that he was gonna go out there and live amongst the Africans and preach, and didn’t give a damn what Brahmānanda or anyone else thought about it. In his mind, he was gonna convert the whole village! Since he was on the verge of blooping and going back to the west anyhow, nobody tried to stop him.

It was a Friday, so he packed a bunch of stuff and went out there. They give him his own hut, brought him some bread and some roasted corn, and he had a bhajana with the villagers around the fire. Well, that night some of the village men got drunk, and around midnight, they attacked his hut with machetes and assegais (spears). He had the door locked on the inside, so they started chopping it down and sliced through the walls of the hut which were only made of reeds and bamboo. Seeing the blades ripping through the walls, he started screaming and tore a hole through the back wall with his bare hands. He managed to squirm out and bolted into the night, wearing nothing but his gamśa. Seeing that he had broken through the wall and gone into the fields, they chased after him. It was like something straight out of a movie – at one point, he was lying motionless in the grass, all curled up, and their feet were right next to his head. They didn’t have torches; they didn’t have lights. They only had big machetes and assegais. They stomped around looking for him for about two hours, and then they returned to their village. The road was about 300 metres away from the village and he had to wade through tall, sharp grass and thorns till daybreak wearing no shoes. Finally, he got out onto the highway, flagged a bus down, jumped on it and refused to get off until it arrived in Nairobi. Early Saturday morning, he walked into the temple and he was a total wreck – blubbering like a baby, scratched up to hell, and bitten all over by mosquitos. After a few days, he flew back to the US.

Then, at the beginning of June, Brahmānanda Swami decided to send Mahārāja with Cyavana to make life-members amongst the Hindus in Tanzania and Zambia.

Mahārāja’s adventures in Africa were just beginning.

(The devotees in Kenya)