Study Guide

Kaffir Boy Religion

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But other men were not so lucky. They had no money, having paid it all out in bribes over the course of many arrests. They would be carted in vans and trucks to Number Four, a notorious prison for black people in Johannesburg. Repeat offenders and those whose passbook crimes were considered more serious would be processed to a maximum-security penitentiary called Modderbee, on the outskirts of Kempton Park. I would often hear the womenfolk say that Moderbee was a "hell which changed black men into brutes, no matter how tough and stubborn they may be." Almost every night before we went to bed, whenever my mother happened to have one of her premonitions, she would pray in earnest to our ancestral spirits that the day never would come when my father would be sent to Modderbee.

"Will prayers stop the police from coming, Mama?" I asked one evening. Somehow I had the vague feeling that all my mother's prayers were useless, that no amount of prayer could stop the police from violating our lives at will.

"No," my mother replied.

"Then why do you pray?"

"I don't know." (4.13-17)

Mama prays because she's helpless and has no human to turn to that can help her. She feels that praying is the one thing she can do to try to protect her husband and children.

That evening I listened as my mother weaved a poly to get my father to take us to the tent: she played on his obsession to acquire wealth and status by telling him that the prosperity of some of his neighbours, nominal Christians, was probably due to their conversation to the Christian faith.

My father listened, and afterward reflected deeply, seemingly trying to find a way to rebuff my mother's claims. But there seemed no way he could disprove them, for our Christian neighbours were indeed faring better than we and other adherents to tribal religions: they had better furniture, better clothing, more food on the table, radios and stoves, better shacks, more beds, and some of them even had used cars.

"And this afternoon," I put in, "I heard them say that those who came to the tent will hear 'good news' so glorious…" I went on to restate the evangelists' invitation.

"Okay," my father said finally…(9.17-20)

Swayed by material concerns, Papa agrees to give Christianity a try. At least, he agrees to go to the revival.

At that a Zulu woman in tribal garb stood up and shouted: "We don't need Christianity. We have our religions of a thousand years. We don't need to worship a white man's god when we have our own."

The cross-eyed evangelist turned a full circle and faced the woman. He lifted his megaphone and directed it to the woman's head, took a deep breath and blared: "O, woman of little faith. The Bible is full of people like you, whose sins made them doubt that Christ is the only true living God. Unclean woman, did you know that our ancestors never knew Christ until the white missionaries came?"

"We had no need for Christ," the woman retorted.

"See how the devil speaks through you," the cross-eyed evangelist gloated. "Everybody needs Christ. Our forefathers, who for centuries had lived in utter darkness in the jungles of Africa, worshipping false gods involving human sacrifices, needed Christ bad. That's why God from his sacred seat in heaven one day looked at Africa and said to Himself, "I cannot in all fairness let those black children of mine continue to follow the evil path. They've already suffered enough for the transgressions of their cursed father, Ham. I've got to save them somehow." 'But how can I save them," the mighty God wondered, 'for there's none among them who knows how to read or write, therefore I cannot send them my Ten Commandments.' God worried over the problem for days and nights, until one day he stumbled across the solution: He would send to Africa his other children in Europe, who already knew the Word. Indeed the white missionaries – valiant men like Dr. Livingstone – heard the call and braved treacherous seas and jungles and disease to bring our ancestors Christianity.

After years of fervent preaching by the missionaries, many of our stubborn ancestors finally opened their dark hearts and grass huts to God's light. Some became full Christians, and discarded tribal ways of worship. Others, however, while they did take up Christianity, continued to worship tribal religions, under the delusion that they could have it both ways. Still others refused completely to see the light, and they passed that refusal to their descendants, down to this day." (9.29-33)

The conflict between Christianity and the ancient religions of African ethnicities is demonstrated in this scene. The Africans who have converted to Christianity look down on their brothers and sisters as inferior because they haven't accepted the good news. The Africans who have maintained allegiance to traditional beliefs react with predictable anger to the Christians' attitude.

"But I need a job," my mother insisted, "and haven't you noticed that all the Christians have jobs?" Besides, going to church won't mean that I will stop worshipping your religion." She put an emphasis on the word your.

"You can't have it both ways, dammit," my father said angrily.

A month or so later my mother defied my father and secretly took us to the local Full Gospel Church, where we were baptized. Though baptized, I still continued being skeptical about Christianity. As for my mother, despite openly and proudly calling herself a Christian, her tribal beliefs continued as strong as ever, latently when things seemed to be going right, and actively when things were going wrong. Hers was a Christianity of expediency. (11.27-28; 30).

Initially, Mark's mother becomes a Christian out of practical concerns. She doesn't want her children to go hungry any longer, and believes that converting to Christianity will bring financial gains.

"I agree makulu, madam," Granny said, wiping her sweaty brow wither forearm. "All children, black and white, are God's children, madam. The preacher at my church tells us the Bible says so. 'Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of heaven,' the Bible says. Is that not so, madam? Do you believe in the words of the Bible, madam?"

"I'm afraid you're right, Ellen," Mrs. Smith said, somewhat touched. "Yes, I do believe in the Bible. That's why I cannot accept the laws of this country. We white people are hypocrites. We call ourselves Christians, yet our deeds make the Devil look like a saint. I sometimes wish I hadn't left England." (30.96-97).

Mrs. Smith is the first white person that either Granny and Mark have met who recognizes that apartheid is evil. She also recognizes that justifying it with religion is wrong. Through his experience with Mrs. Smith, Mark learns that there are sympathetic whites even in South Africa.

I frowned upon organized religion for the simple reason that about me I saw it being misused: by the government in claiming that God had given whites the divine right to rule over blacks, that our subservience was the most natural and heavenly condition to be in; by some black churches to strip ignorant black peasants of their last possessions in the name of payment for salvation of their souls; and by the same churches to turn able-bodied men and women into flocks of sheep, making them relinquish responsibility for their lives in the hope that faith in Christ would miraculously make everything turn out right.

Worst of all, I found among members of some churches a readiness to accept their lot as God's will, a willingness to disparage their own blackness and heritage as inferior to the white man's Christianity, a readiness to give up fighting to make things just in this world, in the hope that God's justice would prevail in the hereafter, that the hungry and the oppressed and the enslaved in this world would feast on cornucopias while singing freedom songs and hosannas in a heaven without prejudice. In short, organized religion made blacks blind to, or avoid to seek escape from, reality. (36.4-5)

Mark believes in justice here on earth, and faults religion for its emphasis on rewards in the afterlife. He also recognizes that religion seems to be a legitimizing force for apartheid.

"Don't you think God has had some influence on the way your life is turning out?" she said one night after I had just finished reading her Scriptures….

"I have no way of telling, Ma," I said, "except that I do somehow believe there is something more powerful than man out there in the universe. Some call it a Force, some call it God, some call it luck."

"What do you call it?"

"I call it 'The Force,'" I said, laughing. (36.8-11).

Though he criticizes organized religion, Mark still believes in God.

"They keep returning, my boy," Limela said, shaking his head despairingly. "And each time they tell me, in different ways and each way more devious than the last, that this God of their forgives all sins, be they a black man's or white man's. Boy, would you, if you were God, forgive white people for what they're doing to us?"

"Never," I said.

"Don't lead the children astray, now, Limela," said the mfundisi. "Jesus said, 'Let the children – '".

I cut him short. "I'm not a bloody child, mister, and I'm going to no f***ing Jesus." Warming up, I continued, "I know people of your kind. You're dirty stinking liars! You make people forget reality and dream about some stupid heaven no one really knows exists!" (36.35-38)

Mark declares that there are some sins God can never forgive. He believes that enslaving people and forcing them into poverty is one of those sins. Another such sin is providing people with false hope.

The house became a pulpit. Everyone who passed through our house had to be told abut my mother's God. Her new God turned her into a believer that every problem was solvable, every obstacle surmountable; she never got angry or wished anyone ill or hated her enemies, for she believed that her all-loving God would not approve of such emotions. Even her criticism of my father lessened; she tolerated every abuse he hurled at her; she even gave him money. She loved to share the little she had and would often bring home complete strangers off the streets – tramps, prostitutes, lunatics and even tsotsis – and would share with them whatever little food was there, and occasionally she would let them sleep over for a night or two. (39.19)

Mark's mother has finally "got" religion, and it's transformed her into a new person that Mark barely recognizes.

I left the church as confused as I had entered it. But one thing was certain: my mother wasn't insane. She could in some mysterious way communicate with her God. But I knew I could never have her kind of faith; I could never believe as deeply in a God who seemed oblivious to the pain of blacks and seemed to favour whites, for suffering had made me, at too young an age, too dependent upon my own free will. (39.31).

Though Mark is able to recognize that his mother's faith is genuine, he is unable to submit himself to any power other than his own mind and will.

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