Trip to West Africa
By Premvilas das
Hare krishna devotees
Recently, I visited Ghana( one of the 16 countries which form the West African Union)- also known as ECOWAS- Economic community of West African states.
First of all, Why did I even go? Well, it started off like this- One day after the Sunday feast, Govinda prabhu said he is going to Ghana for BT (Bhaktitirtha swami) memorial and West African Rath yatra and he wants me to come also. It is a fact that I am so amazed by Govinda pr, Sunita mataji, Arjuna sakha and Rasalila- their pure, humble, simple devotion that I wanted to learn their culture, meet many more devotees like them and see for myself what miracle BT swami did in West Africa. The offer was just too good to be true, so I accepted without hesitation.
Then, Mother Krishnanandini called and said she always wanted to go to Ghana and herself and Mother Bhumata(80 years old) are also coming. Furthermore, Mother Indrani ( 85 yo disciple of BT swami from Florida) and Mother Antaryami( BT swami disciple from Detroit) will also join us there. The more, the merrier.
3 weeks before we were supposed to leave, I requested Malati prabhu for her blessings to go to Africa. She asked-” Where are you going?”, I replied “Ghana, to attend BT swami memorial”- She gave me her blessing and said “I am also coming”.
So, after our yellow fever vaccines and malaria prophylaxis, it was on 31st June that myself, Malati pr., Mother Krishnanandini and Mother Bhumata got in the car and drove to NYC to catch a flight to Morocco on the way to Ghana. HH Giriraj Swami says that in the process of KC, its 80% good association and 20% your own effort. As I was driving with these wonderful devotees, I had this feeling that I was in very good company. I was hoping that none of them would get sick on the journey and that I don’t commit many offenses. We talked and talked and the drive was filled with Malati pr. humorous stories from the road( she spends more time on the road than anyone else). We made our sandwich stops(deliciously prepared by Lalita devi) on PENNA turn pike service stations and after getting stuck in the NY traffic for two hours, finally made it to our hotel at the JFK airport.
Since, we had a early morning flight next day, we packed off.
As we cleared customs and were getting ready to board our flight to Morocco, Mother Krishnanandini had a book in her hand entitled ” A Living Theology of Krishna Bhakti ” Tamal Krishna Goswami’s posthumously released PhD thesis, published by Oxford University Press in New York. Their is nothing in this world more sublime then a good absorbing book to read on a long flight. I was longing to read this book for quite some time. Next thing I know, we were in Morocco. I read the book half way on our flight, the other half to be completed on the flight back to USA. It is one of the most riveting piece of literature even written on SP contribution to Gaudiya vaishnavism. An incredible tapestry of words to glorify SPOG and SP. An oprah of words and sentences. Masterful and craftily written!!!!!
It was late evening in Morocco, and the airport was quiet. Our flight to Ghana was uneventful and soon we landed in Accra, capital of Ghana on the Atlantic coast. An elegant and wonderful vaishnavi called Vaikuntha devidasi(disciple of HH BT swami) came to pick us up in her savvy Ford Explorer. She said ” Welcome, prabhu premvilas” – In West Africa, devotees are humble and they say prabhu before your name, so it is “Prabhu Ramtirtha” and so it goes. They also answer your questions with ” yes please” or “no, sorry”. Very different from a “yup”.
It was half an hour drive to the temple from the airport. Devotees welcomed us with a rousing welcome kirtan and flower garlands at the temple. I was amazed to see a beautiful temple built for the pleasure of Sri Sri Radha Govinda.
Temple construction was completed in 1996. Devotees in Accra started building the temple with very little money. Midway in the construction, work completely stopped secondary to lack of money and resources. Devotees put up notices around town asking for help. One day, they got a call from a businessman who was visiting Ghana from UK. His Mother had passed away 2 months ago and in her will, she had desired that a temple for Lord krishna be built as her last wish. He saw the appeal for help. He came to the temple and paid for the remaining construction, interior work, diety installation, opening ceremony et al.
To the left of the temple stands the samadhi of HH BT swami and to the right is ” Lords Krishna academy”- a primary school run by devotees in which approximately 100 students(20% devotees and 80% kids from the neighborhood) study until 9th grade. Their is also a clinic on the temple grounds, separate ashrams for men and women, a kitchen and sannyasi quarters. Temple was simple and clean. Deities are dressed twice daily and are well taken care of. The principal attraction is Kirtan done by devotees, their youthful exuberance, spontaneous joy for kirtan, and earth shattering dances are a feast to the soul. Imagine 30 devotees like Govinda prabhu dancing in the kirtan and the heart simply soars on the waves of the holy name.
After settling in, Mother Sunita served us nice prasadam- rice with pasta, fruits and oatmeal.. She served all of us and prepared special meals for all of us visiting from USA as the African FuFu might have been be a little too much for us. Later that day, HH Bhaktidhiradamodar Swami(BDD swami henceforth) arrived from Lagos,Nigeria. BDD swami is a disciple and sannyas disciple of BT swami and one of the luminaries BT swami created in West Africa. He joined as a brahmachari in Nigeria in 1981 and after serving the mission in Africa for 30+ years, GBC recently requested him to take up for the service of initiating disciples and travel all over Africa and other parts of the world. He travels all over Africa, Mauritius, Brazil, Surinaam and India guiding and training devotees. It was a pleasure to be in his association those 2 weeks and hear from him. He is very knowledgable in scriptures.
Next day, we went to downtown Accra for a 6 hour harinaam and food for life program. Devotees had cooked massive amounts of rice and stew and off we went. In the busiest marketplace of Accra, devotees had set up a tent, music system and everyone was completely drowned in the nectar of the holy name. I havent been in such a joyful kirtan for a long time and wished time could stop.
Next day, after the morning program, I asked the temple president if I could go out with some books to distribute. He told me that there have been no books in Ghana for about a year now????. When BT swami was present on the planet, he would collect laxmi and get the books shipped from India(English books) and France(french books) to different parts of West Africa. After he left, though devotees are trying their best, the funds for books dried up and its a hit or miss now. It takes a lot of time to raise funds, get the books shipped from India, clear it from the shipping company and get transported to the temples. Africa is a poor continent and although public in general appreciates these books, monetary remuneration from the public is sparse. As a result, book distribution is not a financially sustainable affair. Devotees print cheap pamphlets and notices and distribute it to the public. I was feeling a world of gratitude for the BBT North America, we simply call and the books arrive on the door, we dont know what goes in getting these books to our doorsteps. In Africa, BBT recently opened a branch in South Africa but the channels for getting books to West African nations are not well established yet.
After spending few days in Accra, we went to center of the country to a city called Kumasi. Kumasi is the business capital of Ghana. It has a university, medical school and a big hospital. It was also the capital of Ashanti kingdom which was the largest tribe in Ghana. Devotees had recently upgraded the temple structure for the upcoming Rath yatra. Many devotees from all over West Africa came to Kumasi. Devotees came from all parts of Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Ivory coast, Cameroon and from different parts of Ghana. Among the 17 countries which make up the West African Union, ISKCON has its presence in 6 countries( Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Ivory coast and Cameroon). ISKCON has 4 centers in Ghana, 9 centers in Nigeria and preaching centers in Togo, Benin, Ivory coast and Cameroon. No centers currently exist in the remaining West African countries( Senegal, Guinea, Gambia, Mauritania, Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic).
Preaching in West Africa began in 1980 through Brahmananda swami and Kirtanananda swami but things really changed in 1982 when HH BT swami entered West Africa. His entry in West Africa was a signature sentinel event in the history of Chaitanya Vaishnavism. He opened temples, initiated thousands of devotees( once he initiated 1500 devotees in one day in Lagos, Nigeria), and gave thousands of lectures in temples and in public forums. He personally cared for all the devotees, trained them in all aspects of Vaishnavism, and purchased land for farms, started small scale cottage industries, and provided for sustainable means of livelihood. He met with kings/presidents/dignitaries/civic leaders, appeared on Television, Radio shows, Newspapers and traveled extensively in all parts of West Africa- recruiting, guiding and inspiring devotees. His devotion, charisma and volcanic energy swept away all obstacles and unleashed an ever increasing tidal tsunami of Bhakti which inundated entire West Africa with the chanting of the holy names. He won the hearts of people and was received and revered as a king by African people. He sent his disciples and emissaries(Mother Ladini) in countries like Ivory coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone where because of his inspiration, devotees established centers, organised Harinaam sankirtan and organised food for life programs. Liberia at that time(late 80’s) was war torn and rebels eventually captured Mother Ladini and 7 other liberian devotees, shot them point blank and threw their bodies in a lake. On that fateful day, Liberian streets were stained with the blood of devotees. Centers in Liberia and Sierra Leone closed down. War in Liberia and Sierra Leone has now ended and if any devotee is looking for an engagement, these places are now again open to receive Lord Chaitanya’s mercy. HH BT swami visited West Africa every year between 1982 and 2003, sometimes for months at a time. Every single devotee I met was touched by HH BT swami in one way or another. In his absence, devotees are trying their best but oh captain, my captain, where did thou go?
One couple who served BT swami during those years in West Africa were Ekendra pr. and Mother Vrajlila.
In Kumasi, devotees organised a simply wonderful Rath yatra with a long procession through the busiest streets of Kumasi and then held a grand festival in honor of Lord Jagannath. Thousands chanted and danced and received prasadam. Hundreds of kids joined in the chanting and dancing. This is our system, chanting and dancing.
Next day, HH BDD swami gave first initiations to 9 African devotees from all parts of West Africa. He recollected how when he got initiated 30 years ago, he never thought he would do this service. One day, in his dream, all the acharyas, SP and BT swami were sitting in a room, and he was called for, he entered and there was one vyasasan empty and BT swami motioned him to sit on it. But he sat on the floor. The same dream happened three times and when he refused to sit on vyasasan for the third time, BT swami chastised him- why are you refusing service?, he reluctantly agreed and then SP told him ” thank you for accepting this service”. This is the process of descending mercy, grace of the parampara which is the qualification to be an acharya. It is not that one becomes an acharya by jockeying, rubber stamping, checklist, servile genuflection, or by any imaginable mental contrivance- it comes naturally by the grace of acharyas. Its harmonious, happens by the will of the lord, in its own sweet way, benefits all and is authorized. Acharya is simply a surrendered servant at the feet of his master.
Following the initiations, devotees celebrated the Vyasa Puja of HH BT swami. Devotees from all over Africa recounted how he had touched their lives, brought them to KC and nurtured them with his love and instructions. Ocean of tears. In KC, vyasa pujas, memorials and remembrances are the most happy occasions since it gives us a rare glimpse in the personal intimate lilas and lives of these devotees.
We visited some of the historical palaces and museums in Kumasi and then drove down the coast to visit a town called Capecoast. In 1482, Portuguese invaded Africa and built a castle on the coast. They would capture slaves from all over West Africa, make them walk in chains to this castle and lock them up for months before they would be shipped out to USA or Europe. It was a horror story of suffering and then some more suffering. It was 300 years of Auschwitz. I am glad that I went but I will never go again as the place still stinks with the 300 years of human suffering. I was sick to my stomach for next 2 days . First place Obama visited after he assumed the office of the president was capecoast, he was calm when he walked in and cried as he left. On the brighter side, devotees have rented a place in this town and are planning to distribute SP books in a nearby university.
In Africa, their is abundance of fruits, pineapple, mangoes, corn, coconuts, casava, plantain- God made country and man made hell.
Well, it was time to come back to Accra. Back in Accra, we appeared on a TV show called trailblazers Africa and all the women appeared in another TV show called Saturday morning Africa. They asked me what is the best way of achieving peace and i said “stop killing animals and read SP books”. TV show host( a christian) looked lost as to what could be the connection between slaughter houses and peace????. I explained to him and to the audience the best I could.
If only devotees could distribute millions and billions and trillions of SP books in Africa, and if only by the grace of Lord Chaitanya, devotees acquire millions of tongues to glorify Krishna and billions of brains to scheme how to distribute books in Africa, then there is some hope for an otherwise poor continent ravaged by the military and economic ambitions of Europe, China and God blessed America. Dog eat dog.