Chapter 1: An Unsung Hero

January 1 – 15, 2007

By Indradyumna Swami

As I handed my ticket and passport to the woman behind the check-in counter at Johannesburg Airport, she looked up and asked where I was going.

“Nairobi, Kenya,” I said with a smile.

“Business or pleasure?” she asked curiously.

“For the mission,” I said enthusiastically.

Glancing up, she said, “You like your work, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do, Ma’am, very much.”

“How many bags are you checking in, sir?” she continued.

“No bags,” I replied.

“No bags?” she said in surprise. “Then how much carry-on luggage do you have?”

“Just this Buddha bag,” I said, showing her the small red bag I had slung over my shoulder.

“That’s all?” she said.

“Yes,” I said proudly.

It was my New Year’s resolution to cut down on my possessions and travel with only the essentials. It hadn’t been easy. But I was determined. Once Tamal Krishna Goswami met Srila Prabhupada at New York’s Kennedy Airport for a flight to London. Maharaja was beginning his tenure as Prabhupada’s secretary. When Srila Prabhupada saw that Maharaja had only one small carry-on bag, he said, “Thank you very much,” indicating he was pleased with Maharaja’s renunciation.

During the flight I read from the Lonely Planet series about Kenya. A country of thirty million, it was once dubbed by the British “The Jewel of East Africa” because of its scenic beauty and abundant natural resources. But like most countries, it has had its days of despair, most notably during the time of the slave trade in the late nineteenth century and during a bitter struggle for independence from the British in the early 1950s. But no less ugly, I read, has been the reign of Kenya’s own politicians since independence. Corruption, arrests of dissidents, censorship, and economic woes have all stifled Kenya’s democratic growth.

Of course, for devotees of Lord Krishna the most significant part of Kenya’s history began when Brahmananda Swami introduced Krishna consciousness to the country in 1971. Like all missionaries before him, Brahmananda faced a daunting task in pioneering a spiritual movement on the dark continent. In appreciation of that service, Srila Prabhupada once shed tears reading of Brahmananda’s efforts to preach to the Africans. And in recognition of his disciple’s austerities, Srila Prabhupada himself visited Kenya twice.

I was visiting the country to see a group of young boys from the ISKCON temple in Kisumu. I was considering bringing them to our festival tour in Poland this year. Little Go Kool is a group of ten-year-olds who sing Krishna conscious rap songs with choreographed dance. They are part of an orphanage run by devotees in Kisumu. The group would be performing at a festival in Nairobi organized by Mahavisnu Swami and Giridhari Dasa from England.

When I arrived in Nairobi, Govinda Prema Dasa, a young man in his twenties, greeted me.

“Welcome to Kirata-suddhi,” he said warmly. “It’s the name Srila Prabhupada gave our temple. It means the place where the kiratas, the people of this land, are purified.”

“Judging from the friendliness of the immigration and customs officials,” I said, “it seems they like us here.”

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “We’ve been chanting, dancing, and distributing prasadam for more than thirty-five years in Nairobi.

“In general, Kenyans are quite accommodating people,” Govinda Prema continued as we drove into the city. “There are more than seventy tribes in the country, but there is rarely any violence between them. For the most part they have accepted us as well.

“Just over there are some Maasai warriors,” he said, pointing to a group of ten men in traditional tribal dress walking along the road.

“That’s one tribe that stayed aloof from the modernization in Kenya,” he said.

Looking close as we passed by, I saw that the men wore large bead necklaces and red blankets and carried ball-tipped clubs. Some of them had dyed their braided hair orange.

“They’re nomads,” Govinda Prema said. “They drink the blood of their cows by making a small incision in one of the animal’s veins.”

I cringed at the thought.

“But they never kill the cow,” he said quickly, “and these warriors have probably come into the city to sell their herbal medicines, which are quite effective.”

“I’ll keep that in mind if I get sick here,” I said in an attempt at humor.

“By the way,” Govinda Prema said, “did you get a yellow fever vaccination before coming?”

“Yes, I did,” I said, pulling out my vaccination certificate. “They won’t let me back into South Africa without one. It cost me $100 and hurt like hell.”

Govinda Prema laughed. “There’s no yellow fever in the big cities,” he said, “just in the countryside. In Nairobi you can get a fake card like that for $2 from any travel agent. You do have to worry about malaria, though. Use a mosquito net at night.”

“Did you ever get malaria?” I asked.

“Many times,” he replied, smiling. “Now the mosquitoes are looking for new people to bite.”

I laughed half-heartedly and then dozed off, exhausted from traveling.

An hour later I woke up as we entered the driveway of our temple compound. I was amazed to see a large temple structure, replete with Vedic motifs.

“I didn’t know the temple was so big,” I said.

“It was built in 1994 — and here comes the devotee who was responsible for the construction,” Govinda Prema said as a devotee hurriedly walked toward our car. “This is Umapati Dasa, our temple president.”

“I’m pleased to meet you,” I said to Umapati.

“He collected several million dollars to build this temple,” Govinda Prema said proudly. “He chants thirty-two rounds a day and hasn’t missed a mangala-arotik in sixteen years.”

Umapati looked down shyly. “Enough!” he said. “This temple was Srila Prabhupada’s desire and therefore it exists. He personally brought our Radha-Krishna Deities to Nairobi and installed Them.”

As Umapati showed me around the temple complex, we came to the prasadam hall. “This was our first temple room,” he said. “We used it until the main temple room was completed upstairs.

“One day thirty-five men, all armed with AK 47s, burst in while we were having Srimad-Bhagavatam class. They had come to steal. They ordered us to lie on the floor. When they saw the murti of Srila Prabhupada on his vyasasana, they screamed at him, ‘Get down on the floor like the others!’

“Of course, the murti didn’t move. Three or four times they yelled at Srila Prabhupada in an increasingly threatening tone. ‘Get down or we’ll shoot you!’ one of them shouted while pointing his rifle at the murti. Then the thieves became frightened by what they saw as Srila Prabhupada’s fearlessness and suddenly fled. Srila Prabhupada saved us!”

“That’s quite a story,” I said.

“We’re not always so fortunate,” Umapati continued. “Local people often steal from us. But it’s less of a problem since we’ve been distributing a thousand plates of prasadam a day around the city. We get big crowds of Indians and Africans at our Sunday Feast programs. Tomorrow you’ll get to meet the local people at the festival. The devotees are setting it up right now in a slum outside the city.”

In the temple the next morning before class I met Giridhari Dasa, a humble devotee in his early forties. He and Mahavisnu Swami are the main forces behind the festivals in East Africa. Tribhuvanath Dasa, my godbrother, started the festival programs in 1995 and continued them until his death in 2002.

“Tribhuvanath was a great pioneer in spreading Krishna consciousness throughout Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Congo, and Kenya,” Giridhari said with great emotion. “Not many people know how hard he worked and what risks he took while preaching in this part of the world. He faced many hardships in spreading Lord Caitanya’s movement. He’s an unsung hero.”

I nodded in agreement. I had known Tribhuvanath from the early 70s in London. Sometimes I would take my sankirtan party from France to England to associate with the British devotees. We’d often go out on harinam with Tribhuvanath, who would lead the chanting on the street for hours with a big smile on his face. People were naturally attracted to him.

“He steadily built up the festival program here in East Africa with a small team of devotees from England,” continued Giridhari. “He was very dedicated and worked without any desire for recognition. You can’t imagine how difficult it was in those days, having to deal with repressive governments, civil wars, poor transportation, meager facilities, little money, disease, and lack of manpower.

“Once we were arrested in the jungle in the Congo and thrown into a wooden jail for days, surrounded by guards with rifles. We thought we were going to die. One day, with no explanation, they released us.

“One time Tribhuvanath came down with cerebral malaria and almost died. But it didn’t slow him down. For seven years he did thirty festivals a year, from November through January. He had so much energy and a strong desire to give people the holy names. When he wasn’t doing the festivals he was raising funds to support them. Only death could stop him.”

Giridhari then became a little overwhelmed. He said, “You’ll get an idea of what he did all those years when we visit the festival today.”

As I sat down to give class I thought, “Just as Srila Prabhupada felt so much appreciation for the service of Brahmananda, no doubt he has the same feelings for Tribhuvanath. Pioneering Krishna consciousness in places like this requires great faith in the spiritual master and Krishna.”

That afternoon the devotees drove me to the slum where our festival was to take place. I was nervous as we drove into the sprawling area of ramshackle huts packed together.

“They pay two dollars a month rent,” said one devotee. “Some of these people walk twenty-five kilometers to work each day, and another twenty-five back home.”

I was sitting in the front seat when a large group of street children noticed me. They jumped up and started running toward the van shouting what sounded like “Food! Food!”

“It seems they want prasadam,” I said to the devotee driving the car.

“No,” he said, laughing. “They’re saying ‘Muzungu! Muzungu!’ It means ‘White people!'”

As we drove along the dusty road I was shocked to see people selling used shoes, torn clothes, toilet paper, and decaying vegetables by the roadside.

As we got closer to the festival site, I became curious to see what it would look like. I imagined it would be much like my festival sites in Poland, with a large stage, a vegetarian restaurant, shops, and many tents housing displays depicting Vedic culture. I was in for a big surprise.

As we rounded a bend and crossed over an open sewer, I suddenly saw the festival site before me. It consisted of one small stage.

“That’s it?” I said to the driver.

“Were you expecting something more?” he said.

“Well, yes. I mean . . .”

He laughed as he said, “If there was more they’d steal it from right under our noses. It’s happened before. At one festival they took everything. These are desperately poor people. This is Tribhuvanath’s formula. Be patient. You’ll see that it works. Remember: you’re in the heart of Africa, not Europe or America.”

I got out of the van and made my way through the large crowd. “How many people do you think are here?” I asked the devotee accompanying me.

“It’s our usual crowd of several thousand,” he replied.

When we finally got to the stage, I sat down on a chair. Seeing me, a number of small African children standing in the first row waved and shouted, “Muzungu! Muzungu!”

“Are you sure they’re not coming just to see some white people?” I said to Giridhari.

Smiling, he replied, “That may be part of it. But most of these people come knowing it’s a spiritual program. They’re interested because material life has absolutely nothing to offer them.”

Looking out at the crowd, I saw that most of the guests had no shoes. I also saw people carrying an assortment of cups, bowls, plates, and even pots.

Noticing me, Giridhari said, “They’ve heard that Hare Krishna means food distribution, but they’ll have a lot of good questions. You’ll see.”

As I sat waiting for the stage show to begin, I looked around the field. It appeared that we were set up in a dirt parking lot. We were surrounded on all sides by dilapidated buildings, with laundry hanging from the railings. At the far end of the lot was a bar, New Joes, with no windows. The crowd waiting for the program seemed to be of all ages, and they were so packed together that no one could move.

Finally, the stage program began with a kirtan. At first, people stared at the devotees, many hearing Krishna’s holy names for the first time. Then a few began to move with the tempo of the kirtan. Some chanted.

Next the devotees did a short skit. The crowd like it. Then Little Go Kool came on. The group of eight boys looked at me nervously. They knew they were auditioning for the chance to come on the festival tour in Poland. If they qualified, it would be the trip of a lifetime for them.

When they began singing, the crowd came alive. It was good rap music, but more important, the boys sang with realization. They had all grown up on the streets, struggling to survive on their own. The devotees in Kisumu had literally picked them up off the streets and brought them to the temple orphanage.

As they performed, I could see that many kids in the audience related to them. The boys sang:

“Once upon time on the streets of Africa,
So many homeless children,
The boys high on drugs and crime,
The girls engaging in prostitution,
Smoking weed, sniffing glue,
The cops always chasing after us.
This is how we used to be.
But now we have a new life
Off the streets of Africa.
This is a tale of some lucky ones
And the story of their victory.”

When the boys sang about the evils of AIDS, many parents pushed their children forward to hear clearly. When the group sang Hare Krishna, the same kids chanted along and danced.

As the boys came down off the stage I gave them a thumbs-up, indicating I liked their show. They grinned from ear to ear, but remained composed until they got into the bus, and then they started jumping for joy and singing at the top of their lungs.

Then suddenly the master of ceremonies turned to me and said, “You’re on.”

“Already?” I said, surprised.

“It’s only a three-hour show,” he said, “and mostly kirtan.”

I began my lecture by explaining the purpose of human life and then went on to discuss the miseries of material existence. But as I was talking I became increasingly aware that my audience had much more realization of the subject than I did. After a few minutes I became uncomfortable. “Who am I to tell them material life is miserable?” I thought. “Better just spell out the positive alternative.” I then began to explain the benefits of chanting Hare Krishna — how it purifies the heart and awakens love of God.

Then I started a kirtan. Some people responded to the chanting, but many held back. Then I had an idea. I picked up the pace of the kirtan and then stopped singing, while indicating to the devotee playing a mrdanga to let loose. As he started a solo, the entire crowd suddenly started dancing in their African fashion. I let it go on for some time. At one point several devotees looked at me as if to say, “What’s going on?” At that moment I began singing again, but just two words of the mantra at a time. This time everyone responded. We went on like that for forty-five minutes — I would sing two words of the mantra, and the entire crowd would respond. When I finally left the stage, some of the men from the crowd came up and shook my hand enthusiastically.

But as soon as I sat down, the master of ceremonies came over and said, “Maharaja, you have to go back onstage again. It’s time for questions and answers.”

“But I thought they were going to take prasadam now,” I said.

“They will,” he replied. “But you can answer questions at the same time.”

I surrendered, though I wondered how a question-and-answer session would go during the mayhem I imagined would take place as prasadam was distributed.

My apprehensions disappeared as I came onstage and saw a long line of people — not waiting for prasadam, but waiting to ask questions. There were more than a hundred people lined up in front of a devotee holding a microphone. As soon as I stood in the center of the stage, the devotee handed the microphone to the first person.

“Sir,” the man said respectfully, “you were explaining the principle of reincarnation. What is the proof that we change our bodies at the moment of death?”

And so it went for well over an hour, as the people calmly took prasadam and listened as I answered their questions. At the end of the program we had another rousing kirtan, and then I left the stage.

As I walked back toward the van, I was amazed to see a huge crowd of people around the book table, buying Srila Prabhupada’s books. Then suddenly over the sound system came a taped Tribhuvanath kirtan. I stopped and looked around as the crowd was leaving, many of the people still singing Hare Krishna. Like Giridhari that morning, I became overwhelmed with emotion.

“Hundreds of thousands of African people must have attended such programs during Tribhuvanath’s time,” I thought. “Most ISKCON devotees probably aren’t aware of the great contribution he made here in Africa.”

Just at that moment a devotee passing by asked if I would be writing a diary chapter about my visit to Kenya.

“Yes, of course,” I said.

“About our temple?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “But mostly about Tribhuvanath Dasa. Because of his efforts these people, and many more Africans like them, have been given the chance to taste the nectar of chanting Krishna’s holy names. Such a Vaisnava hero should be given the recognition he deserves.”

Srila Prabhupada writes:

“My dear Visakha,

Please accept my blessings. I am in due receipt of your letter from Bombay dated May 24, 1972, along with the very nice article, Prabhupada: India’s National Hero. I am very grateful to you for your kind words about me, but I do not think that I have done anything, but I am only delivering the best message as it is. Actually, anyone who is a sincere devotee of Krishna and who is rendering service by preaching His message is to be considered as hero. So you are all heroes of your country and your humanity. Hero means someone who others want to follow as example of the best type of person. So you all become like that, perfect examples of Krishna consciousness heroes and heroines, and preach the message exactly as I have taught it to you very seriously and being fully convinced, and others will automatically come forward and join us. We shall all be like one great army of heroes for Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu.”

[Letter to Visakha Dasi, June 6, 1972]