by Andrew Lawler
The first time I’m called Jesus, it doesn’t catch me off guard. I laugh. It’s funny. His name’s Valentine, with a long i sound like canteen—he’s an older fellow, a local. We’re all filing out of the house where we’ll spend the night to go to the shebeen, and he catches me by the arm with a calloused hand and these deep dark weathered eyes that hold such a genuine smile.
“You look like somebody.”
He points at me with a friendly finger, loose, like he’s holding a small imaginary bird. This part’s familiar. I already know what’s coming because I am accustomed to it—he sees my long hair, down past my shoulders, my lanky body like I’ve been fasting in the desert. Still, I play along.
“Well, it’s either John Lennon or Jesus.”
We laugh. I walk away, rejoining the Americans towards the shebeen—an outdoor bar of sorts—and I think: Even here I’m called Jesus. In retrospect, it does strike me as a little odd. In America I’m used to friends occasionally commenting on my long hair. When it’s shorter, more compact, I’m usually likened to John Lennon. It’s the longest it’s ever been—going a year uncut—and I’ve been getting a few more Jesus comments, but in America secularism is abundant. Even the most loudly-proclaimed Christian who stubs their toe and shouts Jesus Christ is hardly worthy of a single batted eye, while places that take faith most seriously would file this neatly under Thou shall not misuse the name of the Lord. It’s one of the first of my preconceived notions that is crushed in South Africa. Later I will look back on this moment and shake my head. Of course being called Jesus wasn’t taboo, I’ll say to myself. You’re too used to tight-ass America.
Let’s get this out of the way before I go any farther here. I am not a religious person. At the age of five while I still swore I heard footsteps and jingling on the roof on Christmas Eve, I was telling other kindergarteners that I didn’t believe in God, and I debated them, and was outright mean, asking how they could believe in something they had no hard evidence for. By the age of thirteen I had joined an online community of anti-theists. and We would scoff and snort and rant at the hate mail that the head of the group received hourly and published daily, critiquing their grammar, and laughing at the irony of their death threats, citing the Ten Commandments. Something clicked when someone told me they would pray for me—some enlightened sector of my brain realized the irony of my own actions, and an era in my life came to an end. But I am not a religious person. Now I have grown up considerably from my days of preaching godlessness from the crib. I have realized that my questioning of others’ beliefs came from a deeply-rooted interest. I have come to understand that my interest is in greater questions—and like a heavily-watered-down Saint Augustine, I’ve gone so far as to declare a major in religious studies at my university, learning about the answers that various cultures across time have offered. So this is where I stood before traveling to South Africa.
The group visits the dual museums, of Zulu and of Voortrekker, cleaved apart by Blood River. Here, even history is splintered. The Battle of Blood River took place between nearly five-hundred Boers led by General Pretorius and a force of Zulu warriors forty times as large. Three Boers wounded, three thousand Zulu killed. We go to listen to the Voortrekker’s version of the story first. The curators speak very little to us. They only show us a short movie on a projector and let us explore the museum ourselves. In the first few minutes of the video I am genuinely impressed. It seems that the makers of the video—while, yes, being obviously biased towards the Voortrekkers—were honest about how horrifying and brutal the massacre was. And then there’s the cannon. Propping it up on bricks and sandbags they tilt the barrel as high as they can, nearing the best forty-five-degree angle for maximum distance they can manage. When it goes off, it flips backwards and the shot travels to a faraway hilltop where it strikes a dozen Zulu chiefs at once and kills them instantly. They go on to talk about building churches and frame the battle as a God-given victory. In their concluding image montage, they say the word “miracle” while showing an image of the historic cannon. I am momentarily transported back to my days as a foaming-at-the-mouth atheist. I am angry, but quickly remind myself of Sodom, Gomorrah, Jericho, the Plagues. This isn’t new. It’s in the Old Testament, this attribution of bloody acts of victory in war to God. I am angry, but I pull back. I can’t let myself be angry like I used to be.
We’re driving through Swaziland. It’s the fastest way to get to where we’re going, which is up to Kruger National Park—one of the largest game reserves in the entire continent.
Multiple times I’ll hear it compared to the geographic size of Israel, and it’ll pique my ears each time. I’ll wonder what the significance of such a comparison could be. Is this land as holy as Israel? Could the Bible have been written here?
Later I’ll hear a shitty (albeit catchy) song by Belgian singer-songwriter and white Africa enthusiast Helmut Lotti that calls Africa “God’s final creation” and “the second paradise.” It’s a problematic song because it praises the beauty of the land but ignores the people, the cultures, treats it like it’s a cake that the White Man is entitled to with no mind to the baker or the other guests that have already served themselves and are enjoying themselves. But I digress from this stupid analogy. It’s interesting that so many compare this place to heaven or the Garden of Eden. And yet, so many want to go to America as if it’s actually heaven.
But that’s Kruger. Before we get there, we have to go through Swaziland.
The drive from bottom to top is only about a hundred miles in a straight line, but the potholes make the drive long, bumpy, and sleepless. If South Africa is the Garden of Eden then Swaziland is Purgatory at best. We get a brief history lesson as we wobble through the valley on rubber tires that are waiting to be punctured. It is a hurt country. As we drive, as I listen, I come to understand the potholes as merely scars, cigarette burns on skin. There is much pain dwelling beneath the pavement. As it turns out, the Swazi government is horribly corrupt. For example, this year, 2014, the Swazi parliament allocated $61 million for King Mswati III’s (one of the many children of the previous king whose face adorns the country’s currency) “household budget” while 63% of citizens live on less than $1.25 a day. Obviously very little of the money is going into taking care of the country and its people.
And here we are, coming to the border to return to South Africa. We leave the bus with our passports, my legs finally returning to solid ground after a stint of motion sickeness. We enter the passport office and get in line to have our booklets stamped. I approach the table and I hear the woman at the desk say something in Zulu. My mind is elsewhere, and I imagine she is speaking to the other officer. The words she says only just strike me when she begins to sing in English. It’s a church hymn. Sawubona, Jesu, she had said, I realize, as I gather my bearings. I know enough Zulu to understand she is saying Hello, Jesus.
It’s surreal, having church hymns sung to you by a Swazi border officer. As I’m walking back to the bus, I’m in disbelief at the hilarity of the whole thing. All I can think is You look like somebody!
But her tone was decidedly different from Valentine’s. There was an air of judgment, of mockery. If I had been more alert, I would have been more uncomfortable in the moment of it happening. Perhaps I can at least say that she mocked me out of boredom, to entertain herself. God knows they need something to laugh about in this place.
This is Sigagula, Lucky’s village. Matt and I sit down in a small pavilion with a pool table in the middle. We meet a man with dreads; the pool table, plus the large acoustic speakers in a small shed at the back of the pavilion, are his pride and joy. He speaks to Matt, gesturing to me. “Is he cool?”
“Uh, yeah, he’s cool. He just don’t drink or anything.”
“Oh, I see. I have a Bible, you can preach to us if you aren’t going to drink.”
I let out a short laugh, nervous, awkward, to show I’m playing along, that I’m cool. I miss Valentine’s warm eyes in that one brief moment we shared in jest. I am not welcome here, or at least I don’t feel that way. Or perhaps it’s just my hair that’s not welcome here. But that’s not it either. It’s my sobriety that’s not welcome. Drinking is what the men do together, like in many of the places we have stayed. Because I do not drink, because I am so clearly an Other, I am not welcome. I am alone, trailing behind, with nowhere else to go but to follow them to the shebeen and drink nothing.
One day we go to a sangoma, a kind of traditional healer popular in South Africa. Her name is Mama Rosa. Cedric, who is a sangoma himself, makes a point to say that he is particularly impressed with her abilities. I go last. After Colin, Dallas, and Sarah.
Mama Rosa instructs me to sprinkle ash over the bones and gather them up. I say my name—my full name, just in case—to invoke the spirits of my ancestors, and I ask them: Why am I so unhappy? I blow on the bones before tossing them onto the mat in between Mama Rosa and I. She speaks in another language—I assume Shangana, but her translator speaks for her to me.
“Your name appears badly.”
Great. They go on to tell me that my ancestors are battling over me, that some want to help me and some want to hurt me. To boot, someone has sent a tokoloshe (an evil spirit) after me out of jealousy. That doesn’t faze me. If anything, knowing I am supposed to have a demon after me is exciting. They also tell me, though, that the reason I am unhappy is because I always tire easily. The say I get very tired but I don’t do much. So far this is (sadly) accurate, but they could look at me, my posture, and deduce that. I get hot a lot—also true, I overheat regularly. They tell me that my blood is sick. This one startles me, since I have a form of hemophilia. They couldn’t possibly know that. But still, these can all be coincidences.
This is when the eerie ones come. She asks if I want to ask anything else, so I ask the same thing for Kimmy, my girlfriend of nearly six years back in America. I go through the rhythm again, say her name, toss the bones. They say that she has a male ancestor that is causing her depression. They use the word “depression” without me saying it first. Something about this surprises me. They go on to say that her head hurts, her arm and shoulder hurts, and she worries a lot, which makes her heart hurt. I am crying. I am in disbelief. These things are all true—simplified, but all true. Her head hurts—she gets frequent migraines. Her arm and shoulder hurts—she is developing carpal tunnel, which affects her work as a graphic design student. She worries a lot, which hurts her heart—she has worsening anxiety and a heart condition, and her anxiety often makes her heart race, causing her pain. They say Kimmy has a recurring dream where she is chased by a tokoloshe, but a female ancestor leads her to water where the spirit cannot follow, and saves her. Later I will tell Kimmy this, and she will cry, and she will think of her grandmother. I don’t understand why I’m crying at this vague truth. I start to laugh a little through my tears. I notice a quick pang of jealousy. Why is mine so void of answers, and hers so rich? Am I not allowed to partake in this height of spirituality? Have I hated, been too angry and confused in my life to deserve to know some insight into this depression other than sit up straighter? They say to bring her back to Mama Rosa as soon as possible.
It isn’t fair. I’m not even entirely sure what “it” is. They point at me and call me Jesus and here I am in South Africa as a white American where I’m seen as a giver, a healer, one who can turn bad water into cash or booze. And yet I feel an immense distance between myself and whatever is Out There, be it God or enlightenment or something else. Is this what spiritual hopelessness feels like? I have always thought that people hold tight their beliefs to preserve hope, comfort that they are taken care of on some cosmic level. I have always pushed away from me those tendencies of holding onto the immaterial, what I used to call “silly beliefs”. But now, what if I’ve made a mistake? When will I feel like I am taken care of?
It’s difficult to say goodbye to South Africa. To Lebo, to Cedric and Nettie, to Lucky, to Collen, to the stars and the ocean. I tell myself and them that I’ll be back, soon. Maybe I’ll have a family. Maybe I’ll have found God, or become enlightened, or something. What I know is that when I return to America, I believe in spirits. At least, I think I do. The idea of ancestors watching over has always been attractive to me. For over a year after my uncle Gerry—who drove semis around the country—died to 2011, I imagined him watching over and protecting me whenever I drove in the back roads of rural New Jersey at night. In my mind he was, for a short time, the Trucker Spirit of Well-Being. I know I have this hunger to believe in the unknowable. But it seems so barred from me, as if I am already damned to a life of normalcy, and the spirits of my ancestors will only ever argue over me at some distant spectral dining room table and never come to me in my dreams and lead me to water to escape this thing, this depression, this tokoloshe of the mind.
There is some speculation that Jesus traveled the Silk Road to India to study with the Buddhists in his missing years between his childhood working in the temple and when he was baptized at the age of thirty, beginning his teachings. It is a sliver of history we may never know for sure, I suppose, but I have to wonder what he saw, what he learned. Maybe that’s what I need—to travel. To meet new people, to taste new tastes. To see newer stars, to swim in different waters.
Read an interview with Andrew here.