Note: The below story is violent. In addition, I talk about an African version of Christianity that seeks to leverage the spirits of ancestors to help in the present world. It is a concept that (as presented) is very foreign to most forms of Judaism. But some do pray at the graves of great Rabbis – looking for heavenly intercession. And almost all invoke the Divine relationships of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov. While the presentation is very different, perhaps the underlying ideas are somehow related…
I squeeze my eyes shut, dancing and kicking and swaying and praying desperately to The Creator. I hope only that I will hear something, anything, that can guide me. I twirl, my soul reaching upwards. I grasp the Minkisi in my hand. My spirit pulls at the small doll, hoping for its guidance.
But I hear nothing. I feel nothing. I see nothing.
I am still entirely alone.
And then, after five minutes, or ten or thirty, I give up.
My exhausted body slowly comes to a stop. I stumble. And I kneel in the dirt, my simple loincloth coated in the dust of this nowhere place.
And then I open my eyes and I see them.
All around me are the villagers. Their eyes are full of expectation. They expect, hope, pray that I have been connecting with the spirits of the dead. They hope that I can bring them good fortune and the power to resist the evils of the world.
But I have nothing.
A tear escapes me as I look at them. My spirit is heavy with mourning.
Then I stand up and walk away from them. I walk back into the wilderness that surrounds us.
I see no hope in the world.
I am a Banganga, a shaman. A communicator with the dead and a savior of the living.
But the dead will not speak to me and I can do nothing for those who yet live.
When I was a child I was not a Banganga. I was not a shaman. I was told and taught that the men who dressed and swayed and pretended to talk with the dead were witch doctors. I was told they were evil.
I was told that I had been saved.
I understood so little then.
When I was born, Kinshasa was only a group of grass-roofed huts. But I never knew it in that way. I grew up in what they called a station. I had always known the white men. And I had never known the parents who gave me life.
I did not grow up in a hut. Instead, I grew up in a house with brick walls and high ceilings. I thought it was a castle. It had windows and a deck that ran all around its edges. The lady of the house, married to the man who ran the tiny station, had found me when they’d arrived. She had no children of her own. She never would. So, she’d taken me in and loved me.
I had thought it an act of kindness in a life of kindness. My mother told me they were bringing civilization to this place. I believed her, maybe she did as well. I reveled in a life of open possibilities.
I was barely aware of the dark shadows that passed among us.
I spoke French. But they did not. They had not yet been brought to civilization.
When I was eight, my parents were called to Europe. I was taken with them. We traveled to Brussels and I met a man there. He had a long beard and a uniform stuffed with embroidery and glitter. I bowed to him, as did the others. And I learned his name. He was Leopold and my parents were in awe of him. I joined in their awe.
In Europe, I could see the beauty and civilization of the white lands. I was overwhelmed by their blessings and I wanted them to be a part of my world. I wanted to bring Europe to Africa. The three of us traveled with Leopold, to Berlin. As we traveled on the incredibly fast steam train, we spoke about Africa and Europe and the powers of ‘civilization’. In Berlin, I was not on any official roster, but the King himself introduced me to many great men. And I spoke to all who would listen. I spoke to the English and the French and the Germans and the Russians.
I was not on any official roster but I was King Leopold’s most effective propagandist.
I was the one who enabled the destruction of my people.
After a year, we returned to Africa. We hiked through the jungle, past the massive falls. The dark shapes of my people silently helped us along our way. And then we boarded a tiny steamboat and made our way up river. Back to Kinshasa.
This time, though, my ‘father’ was not a manager of a tiny station. This time, he was an agent of a company. He had soldiers at his command. And with the help of the unseen darkies, the village was transformed into a port and a post. Barracks and warehouses were assembled. And our tiny one-story home was transformed into a three-story Governor’s Residence. My ‘parents’ had become the rulers of this place. They were agents of the King.
I reveled in my life. I reveled in its justice. I reveled in all I had done for these backward people. I was told of the wonders we were accomplishing. I was shown the warehouses filled with the produce of the natives. The rubber they had tapped and harvested. The industry they had shown.
When I was fifteen, I decided to see for myself. I decided to visit a village.
I wanted only to reinforce what I already knew.
Dressed in my fine western clothes, I ventured out of the house and away from the port. I traveled along the roads that had been cut out of the thick, wet jungle. And I came to a village. There, all the people were gathered in one place. Twenty were kneeling in the dirt. Only loincloths covered them. Hundreds were gathered around them. They all looked desiccated and starved and weak. Five white soldiers were there, standing at attention. But they had no fear. And neither did I. Only the villagers were fearful. Their eyes were wide with it. And soon, I understood why.
One nearly naked man had been brought from the crowd. He was kneeling alone. His arm was on a large wooden block. And another black, a huge man, was standing over him. And I watched the giant swung downwards. I see the glint of steel. And then a moment later, I saw the amputation.
A man had been whole, a moment before. And now, he was no longer. He cried out in pain and shock. The giant kicked him away from the block and he fell, screaming.
My eyes flashed desperately. I needed an explanation. What crime had the man committed? What perversion had demanded he lose his hand? I wanted to ask. But then I watched in horror as another of the twenty kneeling, near-naked, villagers was taken to the block. It was a child this time, He was maybe five years old. His eyes were full of terror. And the blade came crashing down. He too screamed.
As I watched, one after the other, more and more hands were taken. I did nothing.
Then, after the fifth, I finally cried out, “STOP.”
The white soldiers looked at me. The villagers looked at me. And the giant put down his blade.
It seemed they all knew who I was.
And then they left. The soldiers and the giant just left. And I stayed. I tried to talk to the villagers. But they would not talk to me. They were somehow frightened of me. And angry with me.
I could not understand what I had done.
“What did they do?” I asked, again and again. But nobody would tell me. And then finally one of the children spoke to me. In very broken French he said, “Not enough rubber.”
I ran home then. I was confused, not shattered. We were bringing civilization, right? But I had seen no amputations in Brussels. I had seen no public squares where hands were taken from children.
I asked my ‘parents’ about what I had seen. And they told me that Europe was already civilized. They told me that they were bringing civilization to a new place – a dark place. They told me that required painful things. They explained everything I had seen. And they forbade me from leaving the house.
But three nights later, I snuck out again. I traveled down that same road. And I came to that same village. I wanted to ask them more. I wanted to understand more.
But all I found were bodies.
Every man, woman and child had been slain. And the village had been burned.
I understood then.
My parents were not raising up these people.
They were harvesting them. They were turning them into rubber and into wealth and into power.
My people were a crop to be taken.
I didn’t go home then. It was no longer my home. I found the little boy whose hand had been taken. And I gathered up some of the blood-soaked clay that lay beneath him. And then I stood up and I just walked, straight into the darkness of the jungle.
Of course, I knew nothing of the jungle. But somehow, with the protection of the Creator, I survived. No animals pursued me. And when I ate, nothing poisoned me. I just kept walking. I traveled for days and then for weeks. And, bit by bit, I shed my clothes. I left my broad hat by the side of a tiny stream. My cotton shirt lay crumbled next to a winding vine. My linen pants were dropped on a moss-covered rock.
I walked naked then. Exposed but somehow protected. I walked through the emptiness of the jungle.
And all the while, I shaped that clay in my hands. I gathered leaves and branches and the bones of small animals. And I merged them together. And I walked. Unconsciously, I was guided through the jungle. And unconsciously, my hands gave shape to the clay they held.
After weeks, I emerged. I had come to a village. But there, I saw the same amputated hands. Weeks from my home, it was like I had gone nowhere at all. I saw the same fear. But the villagers were not frightened of me. They did not know who I was. They gave me a cloth for modesty. They gave me some tiny portion of their food. And, with gestures alone – because I did not speak their language – they asked me to dance.
I did dance then. I danced with a crazy fury of pain and loss. I danced because I could not understand the horror around me. And when I danced I felt something. I felt the spirits come into the clay I had shaped. I felt the spirits of the dead enter it and give it life. And then I stopped dancing and I looked, for the first time, at what I had made. And I understood. Resting in my hand was the figure of the boy. And resting within that figure were the spirits of tens of thousands who had died. As I looked at that figure, I felt more and more lives entering it. They were coming at a furious pace and the pace was only quickening.
I held within my hands the harvest of a people.
I looked up and saw the eyes of the villagers. They were filled with hope. They wanted something from me. But all I could feel were the spirits of the dead in the form of the little boy. And those spirits offered me nothing.
I had no hope to give.
I kept travelling then. The weeks turned into months which turned into years. I had no idea where I was or where I’d been. But every place was the same. Hands, and fear and hunger and death.
I learned many languages. But all the villagers spoke of the same thing. In every place I came to, they spoke of the village of the living and the forest of the dead. They spoke of me, the man who emerged from that forest. They spoke, hoping that perhaps I could help them do the same.
But I could do nothing.
As I travelled, the trees became more scarce. The land became arid. Water became hard to find. Villages were spread further and further from one another. And the fear began to change. Instead of white men, these people feared others. They feared brown-skinned slavers from another land. They spoke of horsemen coming and taking men and women and children. They spoke of another kind of harvest. And my figurine, my Minkisi, began to fill with other spirits.
These people, like the people of the jungle, saw me as I was. I was a great Nganga. I was connected with the dead. But I did not wear the hides of animals as other Nganga did. I wore only the loincloth given to me by those in that first village. And I did not commune with one spirit. Instead, I communed with the spirits of many peoples.
But I saw no hope. I knew the spirits were there. But I saw nothing. I felt nothing.
I knew of nothing that could rescue these people.
All I knew was the harvest of men.
I left yet another village. The world seemed full of sand now. The villagers watched me leave. But I did not go towards the lands of water and of life. Instead I traveled north. I traveled into the sands.
Then, for the first time, I knew fear. I walked into the heat and the emptiness. I had no water with me. Always, the Creator had provided what I needed. Here, He did not. My head began to pound, my tongue began to swell, my skin began to dry. I grew dizzy and I grew tired. I knew my time had come. But I found satisfaction in knowing that I would not be harvested.
I fell to the sands. The hot sun bore down on me.
When I looked up, I saw two men.
The one in front was a white man. He was carrying a gun like none I had ever seen before. He wore some strange kind of armor and glasses with small lights on them.
Behind him was another man. A black man. As I looked him over, I saw something I had never seen before. His hand, his right hand, was different than the rest of him. His coloring was dark, but his hand was midnight black. His skin was rough. But his hand was smooth. I stared at it. Mesmerized.
The man’s hand had been harvested. But its life had been returned.
I looked up then, expecting some anger from the white man with the strange gun.
But he simply stepped aside. And the black man strode forward.
I looked at him. Full of questions, but not knowing any I could ask. Was the man simply a vision?
He looked at me. Then he knelt before me and he gave me water.
Then he smiled upon me, His face glowing.
And in that moment, I was filled with peace.
In that moment, I knew that the harvest would finally end.
After slavery is imposed on the Jewish people, the population of the Bnei Yisrael (Children of Israel) explodes. They spread and the Egyptians yaktzu them. Yaktzu is often translated as ‘disgust’. But the root kootz is used for seemingly disparate things. It refers to harvesting, to waking up from spiritual dreams, to making life more difficult for farming after the expulsion from the Garden and to what seems to be disgust.
Rivkah (Rebecca) says “I am kaitz (from the same root) in my life because of the daughter of Chait; if Jacob takes a wife of the daughters of Chait, such as these who are the daughters of the land, what good shall my life be to me.” The Chait are those who sold the burial cave of Machpela to Avraham (Abraham). They sacrificed the long-term merit of gifting Avraham with the cave for an immediate payout; big cash payment. Their name is literally translated as ‘losing courage.’
Perhaps, given this context, kootz means “convert future potential to the present reality.”
This meaning can apply to waking from a spiritual dream and beginning to act on it. It can apply to the harvest. It can apply to giving up the future spiritual potential of Yaacov for the present reality of marriage to short-term people. And after the expulsion from the Garden, the world forces this on us. We continually must give up the long-term world of potential for the needs of the here and now.
And, of course, it applies in Egypt. The Egyptians are converting the potential of the Bnei Yisrael. They are harvesting the crop. They do it by using the people to carry out difficult labor. And they do it by aiming to take the girls as breeding stock for Egyptians men.
They are harvesting their overflowing slave population.
In a way, the Jews are facing self-annihilation. Historically, with very few exceptions, slaves stop having children. They give up on the future. It is in this context that they cry out to G-d. And it is in this context that he zocher – or remembers them. Zocher is divine rescue – not because a person deserves it, but because G-d has promised it. If G-d had not rescued the people, they would have ceased to exist.
This is the world Moshe (Moses) encounters when he leaves his Egyptian home. He sees a zero-sum world of destruction and harvest. Even among his people, he sees no creation. There is only anger and conflict.
When he flees to Midian, he sees more of the same. Men denying the daughters of Yitro (Jethro) access to water for their flocks. He fights against it. But the world he knows is one of harvest and loss and the crushing of the powerless.
It is no wonder Moshe becomes a shepherd. It is a trade that is disgusting to the Egyptians – like Shamanism to Europeans. But it is also a trade that struggles to protect rather than harvest and destroy. The shaman in the story seeks to preserve his world. But like Moshe, his actions are almost meaningless. They save nothing. They are only running from their reality.
When Moshe encounters the sneh (burning bush), everything begins to change. Moshe is drawn to the bush. There is an angel within it – like the white man with modern weapons. But that is not what Moshe sees. He does not see great power. He sees something more basic. He sees the creation of heat and light – without the consumption of the bush itself. He sees creation without harvest. He sees a hand regrown. He sees the opposite of the reality he has always known.
I have this image of Moshe as being one of many exposed to the bush. He was chosen for his mission because of what he noticed. Not power. Not revenge. But creation without destruction. He sees and is drawn to the Divine.
After the Berlin Conference of 1885, King Leopold convinced the other delegates that he was involved with humanitarian and philanthropic work. He convinced them he would civilize Africa. The delegates granted him personal rule of the Congo Free State. Like Pharaoh himself, he became owner of a land and its people. But he did not civilize the land. Under the rule of King Leopold, between one and fifteen million Congolese were killed.
The hands of men, women and often children were routinely removed as punishment for failing to meet rubber production quotas. Villages were burned. And King Leopold was made fabulously wealthy.
As noted in King Leopold’s Ghost, when the colony was finally taken from him, the furnaces near his palace burned for eight days. He “turn[ed] most of the Congo state records to ash and smoke.”
He is reported to have said, “I will give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I did there.”
In the end, there was no rescue for the Congo. The Congo remains wrapped in war and destruction. Between 1998 and 2008 up to 5 million were killed in the Second Congo War.
It is a land blessed with tremendous natural wealth.
And it is a land that is constantly being harvested.
For the Congo, there has been no man in the desert.
The Menorah, which burns but is never consumed, represents another possibility. The Jewish people, who burn but are never consumed, represent another possibility. Ours is the path of creation and of life. Ours is the path of Hashem, who creates for six days and then rests – bringing timeless holiness to our world.
Ours is the path of harvesting, not to take from the future – but to give life and meaning to it.
Perhaps it is up to us – whomever we are – to be the bush burning in the desert.
Perhaps it is up to us to give hope to our world.
Perhaps we can be that man in the desert, making whole that which has been destroyed.
A note on religion. The Congo was largely Christianized by this time. The use of minkasa was actually a merging of native traditions with Christian connection to The Creator, called Nzambi. Modern Christian priests are often called Nganga a Nzambi or ‘priests of God.’
Cover Photo by Daniel Olah on Unsplash