By HG Brahmananda Dasa
The story of how the Hare Krsna movement came to Africa starts in 1971 in the United States. I was in Tallahassee, Florida, teaching an experimental course in Krsna consciousness at the state university, when I received a letter from my spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, instructing me to go immediately to West Pakistan for preaching work. I had very little money, and I knew the trip to Pakistan would be long and arduous. However, a disciple takes his spiritual master’s order as his very life and soul, and I was determined that nothing would stop me.
The first leg of my journey took me to New York City, where a young brahmacari assistant joined me; then the two of us flew to London. From London we went to Paris via hydroplane and rail. In Paris I had a good opportunity to preach at Dauphine University, the Sorbonne, and to some yoga groups. After a few days in Paris, we boarded the Orient Express for a forty-eight-hour train ride to Istanbul, Turkey.
First we crossed the French, Swiss and Italian Alps and then descended onto the broad plains of Italy, with its many grape and olive farms. We saw Genoa, Venice and Trieste pass by our windows and then entered Yugoslavia, with its broad collective farms of peasants. From Belgrade our route took us to Sophia, Bulgaria, then through northern Greece and on into the European side of Turkey, where at last we entered Istanbul.
In my compartment on the train during the entire trip was a Turkish lady who had brought along an ample supply of French bread and cheese. I had prepared some very nice prasada consisting of upma (farina with butter, peppers and spices), various vegetables, fried puris (a type of flat bread), and some delicious sweets. When I offered some to the woman on the first day, she refused, preferring her bread and cheese. But on the second day she accepted some and liked it very much. In fact, she ate sumptuously, and I took the opportunity to talk with her about Krsna consciousness. She was very favorable and said she would pray to God for our success. From this incident I realized how important prasada distribution is in spreading Krsna consciousness. By eating prasada, a person gradually becomes spiritually purified and receptive to the message of Krsna consciousness.
In Istanbul we met two boys—an American and a Canadian—who were both intelligent and spiritually inclined. They were going to India and decided to accompany us to Pakistan. During the two-day train ride to the Turkish hill-town of Erzurum, the next stop on our journey, I talked constantly to the two boys about Krsna consciousness. The Canadian was going to India on a spiritual quest and was writing a journal of his daily thoughts and experiences. He had titled it “A journey to the East,” after the famous book by Hermann Hesse, and he was writing into it everything I said about Krsna consciousness. He was also avidly reading our books. By the time we reached Erzurum, he had learned all the prayers for offering prasada and was also chanting the Hare Krsna mantra on japa beads.
The train pulled into Erzurum in the morning, and we all went to a nearby hotel to wait for the bus to Tabriz, Iran, which was scheduled to leave the following morning. Since we had a whole day, we decided to go out on sankirtana (congregational chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra. So we took our drums, karatalas (hand cymbals) and some pamphlets, went out into the village square, sat down and started chanting Hare Krsna. A large crowd of several hundred curious villagers quickly formed. Suddenly my chanting was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. When I looked up I saw that we were surrounded by many policemen and plainclothes detectives. They took us to the police station and confiscated our passports. (Only later did I learn that they suspected us of being Christian missionaries. In Turkey, preaching Christianity is against the law.) They also took all our books and pamphlets and sent them off to the university for translation. They wouldn’t let us call the American embassy in Ankara, and worst of all, none of our captors spoke English.
After several days in jail, we were finally permitted to live outside in our hotel, although the police kept our passports so we could not leave town. We then placed a telephone call to the American embassy, but after several days of “investigating” our case, we had still heard nothing concerning our release. Finally, we made our way to the university and met a professor there who had studied in America. He was quite friendly toward us when we explained our situation. After he gave a favorable report about us to the police, they decided to let us leave and continue our journey. They still wanted to keep our books, though, and I had to become very forceful with them and demand that the books be returned. At last, seven days behind schedule, we boarded the bus for Tabriz, marveling at how Lord Krsna protects His devotees.
On the bus to Tabriz, the Canadian and American boys decided to go their own way. I explained to them that if they were going to India, they should make it a point to visit Vrndavana. Ninety miles south of Delhi, Vrndavana is the transcendental abode where Krsna appeared five thousand years ago to exhibit His extraordinary pastimes. I later found out that the Canadian boy did indeed go to Vrndavana and stayed with one of our devotees.
We spent one night in Tabriz and then went on to Tehran and Meshed. In Meshed we got our visas for Afghanistan and boarded a bus which took us across the border into the city of Herat. From Herat we rode across the desolate terrain of central Afghanistan until we came to Kandahar. The use of opium and marijuana was very common there, not only among the local population, but also among many American and European hippies. The next town we reached was Kabul, where we made the last connection before entering Pakistan. After riding through the famous Khyber Pass, an incredible masterpiece of nature, we finally descended onto the warm plains of Pakistan. Our bus let us down in Peshawar, and from there we took a train to Lahore.
I had planned to make Lahore my destination because it is the leading university city in Pakistan. First I visited the venerable Punjab University, where I spoke with the chairman of the philosophy and religion department. He thought Krsna consciousness was a sectarian religion. I explained to him that far from being a sectarian religion, Krsna consciousness is the essence of all religion because it is the inseparable quality of every living entity. just as sweetness is the essential quality of sugar (there is no such thing as sugar that is not sweet), similarly, service is the essential quality of every living entity. Everyone is a servant, from the street sweeper on up to the president. The husband serves the wife, the wife serves the children, the businessman serves his customers, and the worker serves his boss. But ultimately everyone is a servant of God, Krsna, the cause of all causes. How to fully realize this fact and always act as a servant of God is the science of Krsna consciousness.
On the Punjab University campus, some students became antagonistic when I spoke with them, telling me that the Koran was the only book. But I showed them that one of our books, The Nectar of Devotion, was written by a devotee who was a high official in the Muslim government. Then they listened intently, and invited me to speak at a philosophy class. However, as the days went by, the number of incidents grew. Students accused us of being spies and called us ill names. Some people once rubbed the tilaka off our foreheads and warned us not to walk on the streets or we’d be stabbed.
Meanwhile the political situation was becoming more and more critical. The Pakistani government was whipping up anti-Indian war fever. Newspapers and radio programs were filled with anti-Indian propaganda. Finally, the local Hindus told us that Pakistan was no place for us to be, so when the fighting broke out over in East Pakistan, we reluctantly took a Swissair flight from Karachi to Bombay, where Srila Prabhupada had just started his Indian preaching program.
Unknown to me, Srila Prabhupada had read a newspaper story reporting that four Hare Krsna missionaries from America had been shot and killed by Pakistani soldiers. (In East Pakistan my brother, Gargamuni Svami, was also preaching with an assistant.)
When I entered Srila Prabhupada’s room in Bombay to offer him my humble obeisances, he was relieved to see me well. He rose from his seat, came forward and embraced me. Although I had been traveling and was dirty and sweaty, Srila Prabhupada was so relieved to see me unharmed that he embraced me again and again. From his touch I felt great transcendental ecstasy. I also felt great shame because I was so unclean. I felt too sinful to be worthy of this wonderful benediction.
Soon after I arrived in Bombay, Srila Prabhupada decided that I should go to Africa and preach. None of our men had been there, and he was very pleased to contemplate that if I went to Africa, we would then be preaching on the five major continents of the world.
I did not know what to expect in Africa. A few hunting stories by Ernest Hemingway and some adventure films had led me to believe that Africa was a place of jungles, wild animals and primitive peoples. I naively thought there was no electricity in Africa, so I gave my tape recorder away, gathered together a few essentials-a drum, a pair of karatalas, and a metal box full of Srila Prabhupada’s books-and prepared myself for the journey.
Soon after my assistant and I boarded the ship for Africa, the seas became very rough, making the journey difficult. Another problem was that although there was Indian-style vegetarian food available, it was neither very palatable nor cooked under especially clean conditions. I became absorbed in thinking of Srila Prabhupada, who has vividly shown us the meaning of real devotion: to preach Krsna consciousness without concern for one’s own well-being. At the advanced age of seventy, he traveled alone aboard a ship from India to America in 1965. 1 wondered at the difficulty he must have endured traveling across the Atlantic Ocean during the September hurricane season. I thought of how he had also traveled with only a metal box full of books, a pair of karatalas and forty rupees (I had a bit more—$20) and of how he would cook his plain meals on a little tin stove the captain’s wife had given him. I remembered how he had wanted to get off the ship and return to India, but had remained aboard, and how he had even experienced a stroke during the trip. Who could fail to be inspired by such an example!
Everyone in the world is concerned primarily with his own well-being, but a self-realized soul—a pure devotee of the Lord—is only concerned with fulfilling Krsna’s desire. This selflessness is the essence of love. A pure devotee’s love for Krsna is just like that of a mother who does not hesitate to run in front of a moving car to save the life of her child. She doesn’t think, “if I run in front of this car, I may be killed.” No: because of her love for her child, she will risk her own life. Similarly, one who is Krsna conscious also has this mentality of total surrender.
Although the sea journey was scheduled to take eight days, only after a rough voyage of twelve days did the ship finally arrive in the port of Mombasa on the coast of the east African state of Kenya. Unfortunately, no one had told us that a first-class return ticket was needed to enter Kenya, so we failed to meet the immigration requirements. The immigration officials would not let us disembark, and when the ship’s authorities began talking about sending us back to India, I became very discouraged. One day passed, and in the evening of the second day a man approached me and struck up a conversation. I explained my predicament to him, and he offered to place a telephone call to our center in Bombay and have them wire me a ticket. I gave him the $20. Another day passed. Finally, on the fourth day, the ticket arrived but our Bombay center had sent a third-class ticket instead of the first-class one we required.
By this time, all the members of the crew as well as the dock workers were talking about “the two Americans dressed as Indian sadhus [saintly persons] who could not get off the ship.” People would come to the dock and point to us sitting on the ship’s deck. They said we would probably have to go all the way back to India. Finally, the manager of the shipping company agreed to issue us a first-class ticket, for which we could repay him later. This satisfied the immigration officials, and on the afternoon of the fourth day we took our belongings and started walking down the gangplank. Just then the ship’s whistle tooted, signaling departure within half an hour.
As we came down the gangplank, many dock workers, officials, and other people crowded around us and started cheering. They were very glad to see that we were successful, and we were very glad to know that Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is situated in everyone’s heart, was taking care of us. I was now sure that Krsna wanted me to preach in Africa.
After disembarking, we just stood on the dock for a while, greatly relieved after sixteen days on board the ship. We had no money and didn’t know where to go. Soon an Indian man approached me, and we began conversing. He was very favorable toward us and toward Krsna consciousness, and he drove us in his car to a Hindu temple of Lord Siva. Within a few moments we were safely ensconced in a comfortable room with a fan, beds, a veranda overlooking a courtyard, and other conveniences.
Each day people would come to see “the American sadhus.” They would offer us fruit, flowers, money and other necessities. We were reminded of Mrgrari, the devotee of Narada Muni who had been a hunter by profession. He had led a very sinful life, but after he became a devotee of Krsna, his life was very peaceful and pleasant. He did not have to hunt animals; people would bring him fruits and flowers and many other things so that he could offer ample prasada to the Lord. Formerly, we had been like Mrgrari—hunters after the illusory pleasures of intoxication, illicit sex, uncontrolled tongue. But now, by the grace of Srila Prabhupada, we had become purified of these things.
During this time, we were preaching exclusively to the Indian nationals in Africa, and we began to appreciate their unique position among the world’s people. Because vestiges of the deeply spiritual Vedic culture are still present in India, the Indian people have respect for a sadhu, they are charitable and kind, and they are not as mad after sense gratification as people in the Western countries. They showed us their character by helping us out in many ways during those difficult early days and by being enthusiastic to introduce us to their compatriots. They would take us to various functions, and we would speak on Krsna consciousness. Srila Prabhupada had not given me any specific instructions on how to preach in Africa, and somehow or other I concluded that I should preach mainly to the Indians, just as Prabhupada was doing in India. Remembering the incident in Erzurum, I was reluctant to take Krsna consciousness to the local people—to go out into the streets and chant Hare Krsna—although that was my inclination. I didn’t know how the authorities would react.
After a month and a half in Mombasa, I received an invitation from an Indian family to go to Nairobi for Janmastami, Lord Krsna’s birthday celebration. Since Nairobi is three hundred miles inland, we had to take a taxi across the broad, flat African plains. We stopped frequently along the way to view the many rhinoceroses, elephants, giraffes and other wildlife. I came to know how really big Africa is. It contains one-fifth of the world’s land, being almost as large as Asia and twice as large as South America. The coastline of Africa is as long as the earth’s diameter at the equator. It is sealed off from the rest of the world by the foreboding Sahara Desert and the Atlas Mountains in the north, and its shores are protected by huge sandbars and impenetrable thickets along the coastlines. From the sea, many of its rivers, such as the Congo and the Zambezi, are impassable due to the rapids and other natural barriers. For many years, malaria prevented outsiders from penetrating inland. For these reasons, the distinct lifestyles, languages and cultures of the people of Africa had for the most part remained intact until fairly recently. Due to the vast differences between each tribal group, there are only nineteen people per square mile in Africa. Thus Africa contains few real cities. Whenever food was found wanting, people could easily move to a nearby tract of virgin land that would provide all their needs.
When we arrived in Nairobi, we held a very successful program at a Radha-Krsna temple. People were astonished that Americans had taken to Krsna consciousness, and they appreciated our kirtana and our lectures on Bhagavad-gita very much. Many wanted to help us in our mission.
Shortly thereafter, three American devotees arrived. They were sent by Srila Prabhupada, who by this time had reached London. He had fallen ill there, and having heard that the African climate is very healthful, he desired to come to Africa to recuperate. First Srila Prabhupada came to Nairobi and remained one night at the home of a life member with whom we were staying. (This life member later surrendered at the lotus feet of Srila Prabhupada and became his initiated disciple.) We then arranged for Prabhupada to stay in a nice house in Mombasa, in a location I had once described to him as one of the most wonderful places in the world. When Srila Prabhupada walked into his spacious, airy room overlooking the aquamarine-colored sea and saw the cloudless skies, the pleasant sunshine and the white sandy beach fringed with palm trees, he said, “Yes, Brahmananda, this is one of the most wonderful places in the world.” Srila Prabhupada quickly recovered his health with the help of the mild climate, the abundant varieties of fruits and vegetables, and various rich milk-products. Prabhupada then decided to return to Nairobi, the capital of the country, and launch the African preaching campaign from there.
In Nairobi, Srila Prabhupada personally demonstrated how a sannyasi should preach. We would stay at the homes of various Indians, and although they provided very comfortable accommodations for us—nice food and sleeping quarters—Srila Prabhupada would never stay in one home longer than three days. He would travel from home to home, strictly following the Vedic injunction that sannyasis should never stay in one place for more than three days. This rule prevents their becoming attached to bodily comforts as well as inconveniencing their hosts.
At each residence, Srila Prabhupada would hold intimate talks with the gentlemen of the house and give darsana (audience) to the family members and their friends in the afternoons. And in the evenings he would conduct kirtanas and give lectures. In this way, Srila Prabhupada made good friends with many prominent Indian people in Nairobi, and they willingly became life members. Today they continue to take an active interest in the Hare Krsna movement.
Later, I expanded the life member program. I stayed for one and a half months in Lusaka, Zambia, moving to a different residence every three days just as Srila Prabhupada had done. In this way I was able to preach by example. People could see firsthand how we rose before dawn, took a cold bath, performed kirtanas and japa, and refrained from intoxication, illicit sex, meat-eating and gambling. A Vaisnava preaches not only by his words, but also by his actions. This separates us from so many bogus yoga groups, whose members may be expert in speaking some speculative philosophy or presenting yoga in a pleasing way to an audience, but who are not able to practice in their private lives the austerity necessary for spiritual realization.
Srila Prabhupada began encouraging me to preach directly to the African people. “This is our real business in Africa,” he said. So we organized a program at the University of Nairobi, placed an ad in the newspaper, printed and displayed some posters, and distributed handbills. The night of Srila Prabhupada’s lecture, the auditorium was so crowded with African students that people had to stand outside to look through the doors and windows. At the end of Srila Prabhupada’s speech the students cheered. Then we had kirtana, showed a film, and distributed prasada. As a result of this engagement, we received a lot of favorable publicity.
The next program Prabhupada instituted was preaching to he general public. The first event was held in a hall situated in a rather shabby area of town. We went there one evening and just opened the doors and started chanting. Pretty soon the hall filled up with many curiosity seekers right off the street. There was a full house when Srila Prabhupada walked in, effulgent in his bright, silken robes. He quickly passed among the curious people, got up on stage and started chanting Hare Krsna. Then he spoke about the meaning of human life. He said that the real aim of human life is to understand that we are not this body but pure spirit soul, and that our duty is to serve the Supreme Lord, Sri Krsna. Most of the people could not understand what Srila Prabhupada said, since they. spoke only Swahili, but they all enjoyed themselves nevertheless. They were all smiles, as they danced, chanted and clapped. A few days later, Prabhupada departed for India, having fully inspired us to carry on the preaching work in Africa.
Soon afterward we organized our first outdoor kirtana performance at Nairobi’s Kamakunji Park. We simply stood under the largest tree there and started chanting. Soon a large crowd gathered and immediately began chanting with us. Some were even dancing in a sort of African shuffle step. We had a battery-powered megaphone, and one young man stepped forward and offered to translate our lectures into Swahili. Everyone really enjoyed this. We then distributed a sweet food preparation called bundi that the crowd liked even more. Every weekend we held this program, and soon we became well known.
Soon one young Kenyan joined our movement. This was considered a great event by the local Swahili newspaper. It published his photo with shaven head and tilaka and headlined the story, “When You See These People, Don’t Say ‘Jambo!’ Say ‘Hare Krsna!’ ” (Jambo is the Swahili equivalent of hello.)
By this time we were holding sankirtana processions in the heart of downtown Nairobi and distributing literature. We rented social halls in various housing estates for evening programs. We would show a film of the Ratha-yatra festival in San Francisco, and when the image of Lord Jagannatha appeared on the screen, all the people would clap and cheer. We purchased a vehicle with a distinctive roof carrier for storing our literature and prasada utensils, and we fitted it out as a gaily painted Hare Krsna Safari van, complete with a tape player and a loudspeaker system. As we drove down the city streets playing the tape of Srila Prabhupada chanting Hare Krsna, people would stop and stare at us. Many would start dancing in the streets. The first time we went into the local villages to distribute prasada, we prepared the favorite national food of Kenya—maize, meal and cabbage—but the people were very reluctant to take it. “Don’t give us what we already have on our tables,” one man called out. “Why don’t you give us some of that sweet stuff!” Then all the children would chant, “Sweets! Sweets! Sweets!”
Srila Prabhupada returned to Nairobi in January, 1972, to preside at the World Hare Krsna Festival held at the Nairobi city stadium. The British Broadcasting Company made a film of the festival and also interviewed Srila Prabhupada, who publicly initiated the first Kenyan devotee. This time Srila Prabhupada stayed in our new temple, a spacious house we had purchased in a residential area not far from the downtown commercial section of Nairobi.
Before returning to India, Srila Prabhupada encouraged us to further expand our preaching. Thus we made extensive preaching safaris throughout northern and western Kenya, to neighboring Tanzania and Zambia, and even down into Salisbury, Rhodesia.
In each of the towns and in the surrounding villages, we held a full program of kirtana, film shows, lectures, life-membership enrollments, and literature and prasada distribution. Then we held sankirtana processions down the main street. Finally we called upon prominent citizens to subsidize the cost of complete sets of Srila Prabhupada’s books and five-year subscriptions to BACK TO GODHEAD magazine, which we then donated in their names to all the towns’ libraries, schools and colleges. These institutions were extremely grateful to receive a gift of books from abroad. Large quantities of magazines were also subsidized, which we then distributed to the people at token cost.
In Lusaka, Zambia, a group of wealthy Indian life members became very enthusiastic about our preaching to the local people. Anxious to participate, they all agreed to come to a program we were holding that night at a social hall in a low-income area of town. In the evening they all arrived at the hall in a caravan of large Mercedes cars. As soon as they entered the hall, a large crowd of children gathered outside. They were excited from the afternoon, when we had driven through the area with our loudspeakers blaring a bouncy Hare Krsna kirtana. Hundreds of kids had run after our truck, and we had thrown leaflets to them announcing the evening program. Now they were singing Hare Krsna outside the hall at the top of their lungs. So we opened the doors and they flooded in—an ecstatic swirling mass of beautiful, black kids. Once they were inside, we started a tumultuous kirtana. The life members had never expected anything like this. They had come wearing their finest clothes and gold jewelry. I invited them to come up and take refuge on the stage, and they did so, sitting down very stiffly and chanting in their usual sedate way while trying not to see what was happening all around them. The kirtana was so ecstatic that I jumped off the stage and danced with the kids until we were all exhausted. Then we showed the Ratha-yatra film and sent them home with prasada. The members later agreed that from then on we could do all the preaching ourselves, and they would just help out with contributions.
When we returned to Nairobi, practically every Kenyan greeted us with “Hare Krsna” or “Hare Rama.” Even the shoeshine boys were chanting one of our Hare Krsna tunes. I was reminded of Vrndavana, India, the transcendental village where Lord Krsna appeared on earth, 5,000 years ago. There all the residents chant Hare Krsna and greet each other by vibrating the holy name. Previously I had written a letter to Srila Prabhupada expressing how much I appreciated Vrndavana, and he had replied that this was very good and that I should try to spread the Vrndavana spirit to Africa. Now it appeared to me that, by his grace, Nairobi had become a black Vrndavana.
In this way, Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s Hare Krsna movement came to Africa—not by our efforts, but by Srila Prabhupada’s. We are simply following what he has told us to do, and what he has done himself.
Excerpted from; Back to Godhead Magazine Vol. 10, No. 12