Down the Mississippi.
When CNN citizen journalist Neal Moore slid his canoe into the headwaters of the Mississippi River to begin a 2,300-mile odyssey across the midsection of the United States, he was acutely aware of another American who filled his tales with what he saw and heard along the river: Mark Twain. Neal was doing what every self-respecting Twain-enthusiast wishes to do. He was on The River. And in it. And alongside it. He was in bright sun and harm’s way. Neal was attracting characters as they attracted him, and their stories poured forth. Whether interviewing a Delta musician singing the economic blues, an Ojibwe dancer sharing a secret tradition, or an inmate doing 25 to life at “The Farm,” Moore’s stories are imbued with the most common of all American traits: optimism.
Lighting Out for the Territory
THE TRIP FROM TAIPEI back to America was a sober awakening. I had planned and plotted for the previous six months, hitting the local gym and swimming lengths in the open sea, and yet I didn’t feel ready. Taking myself out of my comfort zone – in this case completely out of my comfort zone – was a feeling my body wasn’t accustomed to. I didn’t listen to my body. Instead, I listened to my soul: to an insistent voice that started as a whisper and ended as a scream. There was no choice – I had to do it. I flew from Hong Kong up through China and Russia and over the Bering Sea toward the North Pole. The impending adventure, I thought, would actually be a bit like going to the North Pole. I’d be transporting myself from a teeming Asian city, where the concept of “personal space” does not exist, to a place where, during much of the four months and 22 days that I would be on Mark Twain’s river, I would not encounter a single living soul.
There’s a certain feeling of liberation in stepping foot for the first time into one of the world’s great cities. I’ve traveled to New York, to Cairo, to Cape Town, to the jungles of Southeast Asia. You spin the globe and put your best foot forward, often with little to no money in your pockets. You’re forced to meet the locals, take a job, get into the rhythm of the city and figure out how its characters operate. Every town has a heartbeat, an ebb and flow. The best approach is to take up residence in the city center, to watch the cycle of the workday, to meet the street characters, the club regulars, the fellow travelers in the hotel that caters to the itinerant Bohemians. There’s always an iconic eatery or historic coffee shop where old-timers swap stories, where the wise old men of the city come to drink tea and smoke hookah pipes and tell you about better days, about how the town operated in past times, about who its bosses were then. In every city there are children on the street, the future reflected in their faces. You lounge around in the great cafes of the world, with or without a cup or glass in your hand, and take it all in. And if you’re lucky, a lady of the night might come along and sing you a song, and maybe not charge too much for the tune.
When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before – met him on the river.
It was during one of these soul-searching sojourns on the other side of the globe – during a time when the pundits, bankers and politicians were sounding alarm and headlines predicted economic collapse – when the epiphany occurred.
It was at first light, a predawn morning in Cape Town, when I realized I could do it. I could return to my home country, launch a canoe at the source of the Mississippi River, paddle it downstream, and find firsthand the stories that would tell the true tale. The Mississippi is not just any river. It’s one of the world’s greatest and most majestic thoroughfares, a storied road through the heart of America.
I would be nowhere near the Sahara, or Old Delhi, or Pamplona. Yet I knew that this river, Twain’s river, would take me on the greatest adventure of my life. I would replicate my previous journeys in a single setting, on the river whose name I learned to spell in sing-song fashion as a child, but whose waters I had yet to explore. I pulled out a map and found that 10 states and hundreds of towns lie along its serpentine course to the Gulf of Mexico. I knew that each town would have its own rhyme and reason, its own personality, its singular past, present and future. Each river stop would present its share of bubbas and gossips, singers and artisans, scorekeepers and politicians, all sharing that human desire to flourish, rooted in the need to survive. I wanted to hear their versions of events, witness their responses and decipher their hopes. If I could listen carefully, edit sparingly, and speak softly, I just might put a human face on this growing economic calamity. I would ask them to tell their own stories.
If you wish to lower yourself in a person’s favor, one good way is to tell his story over again, the way you heard it.
This great river slices the nation from north to south and separates its east and west. It is the lifeblood of America and it pulsates with her hopes and dreams. But folks who live along the Mississippi know the despair that the river can bring. Hundred-year floods have inundated their land twice in the span of a decade. Her characters have performed in classic American tragedies, black comedies and the occasional Broadway musical. If ever an avenue was worth exploring in search of un-whitewashed testimony on the soul of America, the Mississippi River is more than worthy as a candidate. Those who dwell along her banks possess the pluck and fortitude of our forefathers, akin to a brash pride. If any Americans could give a true account of their nation’s situation, it would be those along the Mississippi, whose grit and tenacity is the stuff of lore.
The man they called Ed said the muddy Mississippi water was wholesomer to drink than the clear water of the Ohio; he said if you let a pint of this yaller Mississippi water settle, you would have about a half to three- quarters of an inch of mud in the bottom, according to the stage of the river, and then it warn’t no better than Ohio water – what you wanted to do was to keep it stirred up – and when the river was low, keep mud on hand to put in and thicken the water up the way it ought to be.
The Child of Calamity said that was so; he said there was nutritiousness in the mud, and a man that drunk Mississippi water could grow corn in his stomach if he wanted to. He says:
“You look at the graveyards; that tells the tale. Trees won’t grow worth shucks in a Cincinnati graveyard, but in a Sent Louis graveyard they grow upwards of eight hundred foot high. It’s all on account of the water the people drunk before they laid up. A Cincinnati corpse don’t richen a soil any.”
As a traveler you spend a lot of time with fellow expatriates, often in exotic locales, imagining the perfect trip, one on which you “put yourself out there,” pushing your body and mind to their limits. But putting myself “out there” was a new concept in my life that, in the end, had to come from within. To put myself purposefully in a situation where there would be no promises – no certainty of survival, no assurance of shelter, no one to prop me up save for myself – drove home the knowledge that my trust would be placed in a river, a river with which I would have to become intimate in order to succeed.
Canoeing the Mississippi makes me think of the old cliché: There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. Some folks would tip their hats to you, seeing the journey as a reflection of the American spirit. Others would berate you as a vagabond. And still others would flat out tell you that you were going to die.
In the end, you have to listen to your own voice – will yourself to make it, to survive the hard times and to see yourself through. From the beginning, I saw myself as a traveling Candide, as a Huckleberry Finn of sorts – in the sense that I had no cares, no set itinerary, no place that I had to get myself to. The search for those “positive American stories” was the only order of the day. I wanted to viscerally touch America by traveling down her central corridor. I would document the lives I encountered all the way down. When asked how I planned to handle the dangers of this not-too-gentle river, my response to friends and myself was simple: put myself on the river and, come what may – hell or high water, peril or paradise – I’d have no choice but to confront it and experience it all. And if I were lucky, I’d live to tell the tale. Laden with the latest technology –cameras, laptop and MiFi wireless wizardry – I would report for CNN as a “citizen journalist” along the way, shooting and writing and uploading stories when and where I could, and, in the best of times, from my own canoe.
Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.
At long last, the day and hour of my planned launch arrived, and there I was, on the shores of Lake Itasca in Minnesota’s Wild North. I had pictured my departure, my great getaway into nature, as a rather momentous event. But it turned out not to be exactly so. The launch bordered on the comical because I had to shoot the video introducing my expedition all by myself, and, as things turned out, that sorry episode made me look like a bumbling fool. My niece, who is a soil scientist in the general area, and her son, my great-nephew, had dropped me off, taken my picture and shaken hands. Then they were off.
I had wanted to be on my own to shoot the video because I was nervous about the whole enterprise at this point and full of nervous energy. I had selected a portion of Lake Itasca that I thought was picturesque enough, yet not so busy as the official launching wharf.
I was happy with my choice – that is, until a member of the local forestry service showed up with an ear-splitting, hand-held sand-sweeping machine, followed by an abundance of young families who had come up from Minneapolis-St. Paul to lie on the sand and splash around in the lake. Having set up the shot for my opening monologue, I had no choice but to stand amid the families’ chatter to deliver my salutational speech of conquest – of course before I had conquered anything. I hit “record” on my laptop’s iSight, stole an awkward glance at the forestry personnel now congregated at my side, glanced again at the moms and kids just in front of me, stepped in front of my canoe, cleared my throat and intoned in my best TV voice:
Hi, my name is Neal Moore, and I’m an international citizen journalist for CNN. I’m going to be launching from here at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, for the journey of a lifetime. The game plan: to canoe the entire length of the Mississippi River from here at the headwaters all the way down to New Orleans, Louisiana, stopping off to find and highlight positive American stories. The destination: Middle America – the very heart and soul of America, at her finest.
The speech was pretty straightforward and should have taken two or three takes for a wrap, but with this ready-made audience, combined with my own reluctance to actually get into the canoe, it took a few more. That turned out to be OK, however, because, after my 15th take, the people all around simply ignored me, shaking their heads in frustration, dismissing me as the nut that I obviously was.
With video clip complete, I attempted to pack up the canoe with all of my gear – an equally daunting prospect considering I clearly had far too much gear to fit comfortably into my 16-foot canoe. A young man named Bjorn and his girlfriend introduced themselves and wished me luck. They had overheard the monologue – several times, as they pointed out – and were keen to follow my trip online and to meet up in person if possible when I got to Minneapolis. We shook hands and exchanged contact information and then I went back to packing the canoe. Configuring the bags in different ways I was able to at long last to make it all fit, with barely room for myself. This was the moment when I put on my French Foreign Legion hat, grabbed my vintage 1960s Old Town paddle, and climbed in – taking care not to tip the boat. The gentle lapping of the lake’s small waves was keeping the canoe against the shore, so I brought the paddle down to push off. A lady with a camera came over to snap a picture. I smiled and paddled and then I was free, out in the lake with the headwaters in sight directly ahead.
It’s hard to explain in words what I felt, out on my own in the center of the lake. The moment when I placed the canoe into the water, with all of my worldly possessions, hopped in, and began to paddle out to the center of Lake Itasca was the moment everything changed. At once, all of the stress washed off me, all of my apprehension about surviving with nature, all of my pre-conceived notions that I might not make it. I smiled a great smile – a smile that I had not smiled ever in my life. It wasn’t a smile of achievement or of love or of triumph; it was a smile of self-confidence, of making it past a personal trial and beating it. At the moment when the stress left me, I knew that I not only could make it, but would, make it – that I would indeed make it all the way down to New Orleans. I think in retrospect it was a smile of complete freedom.
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Homelands: A Memoir.
At age 19, Neal Moore, a drug-addled sixth-generation Mormon, bids farewell to his cancer-stricken mother and grants her dying wish: to become a missionary. Accepting an assignment to the South Africa Cape Town Mission, Elder Moore goes from the comfortable, upper-class suburbs of his native Los Angeles into a nation emerging, sometimes violently, from the strictures of racial apartheid. It’s the early 1990s, a volatile period between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and ascension to power. And nowhere is the struggle more intense than in the black townships where Moore is assigned to take up residence. But this naive and troubled “soldier of God,” who toys with suicide because of the deaths of an idolized older brother and his mother, finds solace in the friendship and solidarity of the people he’s been sent to teach, the Xhosa. Evocative, disturbing and at times hilarious, Homelands is the true tale of one youth’s discovery that there is a world beyond one’s own culture and beliefs, set against the backdrop of a nation in motion, struggling to define itself on the road to freedom.
On August 4, 1992, a march was called on Bisho, “capital” of the Ciskei, one of South Africa’s puppet Bantustans, for a showdown with the puppet masters. It was called a puppet regime because the international community, along with most inhabitants of the Ciskei, never did recognize “Bantustans” as sovereign nations. They viewed these “homelands” for black South Africans as part and parcel of apartheid and the Ciskei honcho, Brigadier Joshua Gqozo, as a malevolent tool who must be toppled.
The march was spearheaded by the African National Congress with the stated purpose of ousting Gqozo by occupying Bisho. The fall of the Ciskei, the march organizers reasoned, could create a domino effect, leading to the collapse of other “homelands” and, eventually, the demise of the white-minority regime in Pretoria.
Missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints, who were operating in the Ciskei at the time, were caught off guard. We didn’t comprehend the nuances of the politics, or the danger. Referred to as “elders”of our church, and so said the shiny black badges on our shirt pockets, most of us were still in our teens – over-zealous, all-knowing and extraordinarily naïve.
Our sources were telling us on the morning of the “mass action” that, after the march from the Victoria cricket ground in King William’s Town to Bisho, the crowd would march back to King William’s Town and burn it to the ground.
That was the chatter all about us in Mdantsane township, on the telephone, from our neighbors, from the leaders of our church in the township – all in one spectacular volley of urgent messages. While the idea sounds sensational in retrospect, at the time, we could only believe what we heard and what we saw. For take one look out the windows of our pink little house in Mdantsane and hundreds of protesters were on the move, filing into minivan taxis, marching on foot, stirring up dust as they strode along while chanting slogans of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), their placards held high.
As outsiders set down in an unfamiliar land, we would sometimes experience what we referred to as “get the hell out of Dodge days,” or “stay away days,” when we would decamp to East London, an Indian Ocean port city in the Eastern Cape region. Everything would be going just dandy in Mdantsane, but then something would happen, some incident that would turn the mood of the township sour, and dangerous.
At such times, I would think of a nun who had been killed in the area in 1952. Although she had died four decades previous, she was always at the back of my mind, my only gauge regarding the safety of a white person in a black township, the only other white besides my missionary companions who understood our position, our place in the world. Early on during my assignment in Mdantsane, I asked an older resident of the township about the nun.
“Her name was Sister Quinlan and she was Irish,” said Maureen Magwaca as she sat across the table from me during one of our weekly lessons in Xhosa, the language of the Xhosa people who inhabited the Ciskei. Maureen was a friend, a mother figure who I looked up to and loved with the entirety of my heart. She’d stood up to the struggle in her own way, along with her family, and knew a hell of a lot about politics, language, and the human condition. She was one of my personal sources, a confidant who could help me make a semblance of sense out of the topic of life, and death. She reached across the table to hold onto my hands, a sweet gesture to ease my apprehensions, as she told me what happened.
“She didn’t live in Mdantsane, but volunteered in Duncan Village, just outside,” Maureen said of Sister Elsie Quinlan, of the Dominican order. “A law had just been passed that said blacks weren’t allowed to gather outdoors, out in the open air, and there was a big protest. There was a mob and the mob was angry and she came in to help, and they attacked her.”
“Is it true,” I asked, “that the people had beaten her, had stoned her, had burned her, and had eaten her?”
“Yes, Neal, it is true. Some of the mob thought they could take her power by tearing into her flesh, but what you should know is there were others who tried to stop it, who tried to save her.”
“I believe it,” I said.
Sister Quinlan had been working with the Xhosa, as we were doing. And, like us, she had become too confident, too trusting.
I don’t know quite how to describe our feelings while living and working in the township. I imagined, perhaps naively, that I and my fellow missionaries were surrounded by a bubble of safety. I knew we were living in what, essentially, was a war zone as South Africa’s blacks fought for emancipation from white-minority rule. But because of the work we were doing, because of our intense emotional attachment to the people we served, and our belief that the feeling was mutual, I felt protected. I felt, most of the time, that I’d be just fine. I supposed that Sister Quinlan felt the same.
So when we were warned that it would be prudent to pack up and stay away for a few days, just to be on the safe side, we didn’t think twice. We understood, if only because of Sister Quinlan’s grisly fate, that when the tide shifted, we had to clear out.
On this particular morning, the shift occurred with such velocity that we almost didn’t make it. Living and working on foot in the depths of the township, by day and night for months at a time, I felt in an odd sort of way that my ethnicity didn’t matter, as though I had somehow transcended the race barrier that divided South Africa at that time, divided my home community in Los Angeles, and divided the history of my church. But when the shit hit the fan, and it happened many times during my time in Mdantsane, I’d take a long look at myself in the bathroom mirror at our home, light a joint to mellow out, take a few drags, and feel extraordinarily exposed, extraordinarily white.
The longer we waited on this particular morning, the more exposed we felt. The highway to the west between Mdantsane and King William’s Town was definitely a no-go as protesters were reportedly on the move along the road. Our dilemma: Do we stay and risk death in the township or take our chances on the highway between Mdantsane and East London? The decision was up to the branch president, the leader of our church in the township, a kindly Xhosa man who worked as a detective for the Ciskei police. He talked to his own sources and confirmed that, with a little luck, the road to East London should be passable.
We hastily grabbed our bags and loaded up our lightning blue Corolla as an unspoken fear invaded our minds. We just might not make it; that safety bubble had burst. I could smell that fear among the elders that day as we hightailed it along the main back road of the township, no one saying a word. It was one of those drives where you sit quite rigid in your seat, white knuckled with fists out in front, to steady you, to protect you, to will your journey well. We slowed down in spots where protesters were using the same stretch of road to get to the highway. At one point, marchers surrounded our car, rocked it back and forth and pounded on the windows. The oversized church magnets on either side of the car were not doing the trick. There were too many people now pushing up against us and all the crowd could see was the enemy, their eyes dancing about wildly, angrily focusing on a car full of whites. We accelerated through the crowd and eventually made it to the motorway between King William’s Town and East London. As the Corolla pointed toward East London, all four of us breathed a sigh of relief.
Moments after turning onto the highway, we witnessed a convoy of South African Defence Force Casspirs, gargantuan, landmine-protected vehicles of death, carrying armed soldiers toward King William’s Town, presumably to protect the city from the protesters after their march on Bisho. I brought my camera up to the window to snap a photo, an action that, I was told later, could have landed us in jail.
The motorway in the direction of King William’s Town was heavily congested with foot traffic and minivans. The ratio of protesters to Casspirs was overwhelmingly in favor of the protesters.
As a result, our fellow missionaries based in King William’s Town didn’t get out in time. King William’s Town, like many of South Africa’s dorps, or small towns, was then mainly white. It was just outside the borders of the Ciskei and was only a short distance from the black townships inside the Bantustan, sprawling tracts of spartan government-built housing that provided labor for white families. Arriving from all directions, protesters were marching on the stadium on Old Maitland Road between King William’s Town and Bisho. Two fellow missionaries trapped in King William’s Town holed up with the white leader of the Mormon Church in the town, along with his family, who happened to be nudists. Armed with little more than semiautomatic weapons, the family barricaded the doors of their colonial bungalow and pointed their guns out the windows toward the street.
I talked later to one of these missionaries, who told me in confidence, on the verge of tears and still trying to shake off the terror, that he never thought he’d end up cradling a shotgun on his mission and that he had shaken himself silly with fear. Fear, of course, for his personal safety, but also fear that, if the situation would have gone south, he might have been forced to pull the trigger.
As things turned out, the demonstration in nearby Bisho ended with soldiers of the Ciskei Defence Force firing their weapons into the sand between themselves and the protesters, serving as a precursor for a much larger and deadlier demonstration a month later. That “mass action” on September 7 would attract about eighty thousand demonstrators and result in the deaths of twenty-eight marchers and one soldier of the Ciskei Defence Force. It would become known as the Bisho Massacre.
The four of us who had fled the August demonstration made it to East London, where we spent three or four days until it was deemed safe enough to head back to Mdantsane, to take up residence again in our little house in NU 17, or, Native Unit 17.
But now things were different. No longer did we have that jovial, carefree feeling that we’d experienced before the August 4 march. Tensions had been ratcheted up, and it was palpable. Folks didn’t smile so readily as before. They walked briskly about their business, not looking up and no longer shaking hands.
For the first time I realized why so few houses in the township bore painted addresses, especially in our neighborhood, where some residents were soldiers, town councilmen, or otherwise considered collaborators with Brigadier Gqozo’s military government in Bisho. Those who were employed by the state, who had stood on the wrong side of that sand at Bisho, were persona non grata. Entire families of government employees abandoned their houses in the township to take up residence in a tent city rumored to have sprung up within the walls of the brigadier’s military base, and even at his personal farm, Blacklands. Those connected to Gqozo’s regime who remained in the township, who hadn’t marched on Bisho, were quite simply fucked, subject to the threat of reprisal killings, often carried out in the name of the ANC.
Just after our return, a trio of children took our hands and led us to a burned-out house, not far from our own. They told us that the community wanted the policeman who lived there to explain why he supported Gqozo. No one responded to knocks on the door. So, amid taunting and chanting, the children told us, the house was surrounded and set alight. As the man of the house emerged, along with his family, amid the fire and smoke, the mob had a tire waiting for him. And, thus, the “necklacing” began.
The children showed us the aftermath of what had transpired, pointing to a trail of scorched earth where the tire had passed. The policeman had been doused with petrol and the tire thrust over his head and about his torso. He was then rolled through the street in a whirling ball of flame and thick black smoke. The children told us that boys, just like them, had propelled the tire along on its deadly mission, jabbing the policeman and the tire with sticks to keep the tire rolling as the man burned. All the while, a taunting mob followed the tire’s erratic course as the public execution turned into a feeding frenzy. Awash with power, at least for that moment, township residents found an outlet for their frustration and grasped the concept of freedom. Freedom from the stooge in Bisho and from his minions, and, by extension, freedom from South Africa’s governing National Party, whose system of apartheid kept the country’s blacks in a state of subjugation. The death of this policeman, at the swift, collective hands of a people’s court, was a proxy blow against the white-minority government.
It was in this context of time and place and uneasiness of the mind that, not too long afterwards, as we were still coming to grips with the changed atmosphere in Mdantsane, we heard a knock on our back door, the one we generally used to come and go. Upon opening the door, we were greeted by four black men in dark suits, who introduced themselves as the “NU 17 Housing Committee.” They asked if we’d be kind enough to join them for a meeting at their house, two doors down our street, later that night.
The men didn’t smile as they spoke. And, besides their words, their suits told us they meant business. It was hard to refuse the meeting, but it was also hard not to sense trouble.
We called ahead to the local leader of our church, a black police detective by the name of Ndzaba, who had acted as our eyes and ears regarding “stay away” days, letting us know when followers of the African National Congress, or the more hard line Pan African Congress were going to hold demonstrations, of when it was or wasn’t safe for us to stay. He said that this group was not a “housing committee” but rather local members of the ANC and that we’d be walking into an interrogation. We asked if we were in danger, and he answered by telling us he’d come with us, to help translate, if necessary, but really to make sure we’d be OK. Under his breath, he told us not to worry, that he’d be armed.
To prepare for that meeting, we shined our shoes and brushed our teeth and practiced our big-on-innocence smiles. At the appointed time, our church leader joined us and together we walked down the street to the meeting with the “housing committee.”
The house was like any other except no family was present. Just a front room with sofas and chairs and five or six suit-clad men and one woman. They directed us inside and commanded us to sit. They took their places all around us, some standing and some sitting. The woman, with a notepad and pen, sat in a corner, scribbling down everything that was said.
Once we were seated, a thin man introduced the group as the “NU 17 Housing Committee” and said that they had some questions for us, that they wanted to get to know us better, to become better acquainted.
He feigned friendliness, but the expressions of the others in the room told us otherwise. Once he had made his introductory speech and sat down himself, he turned the floor over to a big, powerfully built man, who in his dark suit looked like a bouncer in a township shebeen. He had no time for pleasantries. He was after facts.
“What are your names and titles?” he asked brusquely.
“Which country do you come from?”
“America,” chimed three of us.
“South Africa,” said Basjan.
“How long have you lived here – in Mdantsane?”
“We’ve all been here for different amounts of time,” I explained. “But I’ve been here the longest, for six months.”
“How many in your group, how many of you white umfundisi from America?” he asked, using a Xhosa term of respect for a learned person.
“Four, at any given time.”
“No, what I mean to say is, how many in your group? How many followers do you have? How many in your church?”
“Thirty-seven, inside Mdantsane.”
“And what is your purpose, may I ask? What is it that you do?”
“We knock on doors and greet people. We volunteer at the hospital, Cecilia Makiwane. We dig in people’s back yards and help them with their gardens, with their vegetables. We pick up trash, the plastic bags that blow all about and stick to the thorn bushes and trees.”
“You do realize you are the only whites who live here?”
“Yes, we have noticed that.”
Then followed a volley of additional questions that must have lasted thirty or so minutes, many of the questions trivial, as if on purpose, setting us up for what really mattered. For in time we came to the meat and potatoes of the questions, the crux of the discussion, if you will, the question the group here assembled had been itching to ask from the start, being the question they had clearly saved for last – the only question that really mattered.
The bruiser took a seat as he handed the floor over to a different man, to the most senior member of the group, sitting off to the side, who had been silently observing while scratching his chin. Clad in a suit a shade darker than the others, he now wiped his brow as he took a deep breath, delivering his question as more of a statement, his face angry and at the same time apprehensive. There was a pause as the lady in the corner looked up in an effort to write down the question and our statement correctly. And then the man in the dark suit spoke.
“What we want to know is,” said the man, “are you now or have you ever been associated with the American CIA?”
Rule No. 53: Do not handle firearms.
Rule No. 100: Do not get involved in politics.
Rule No. 102: Do not give any information about the area.
The four of us missionaries looked at each other as the gravity of the situation sank in. The local leadership of the ANC thought we were American spies. Why else would a trio of young white Americans take up residence in a place like Mdantsane?
We wanted to answer the questions honestly and to help our neighbors understand. But we also wanted to walk out of the meeting. I glanced at our friend, the detective, and the man in the dark suit followed my glance, as if he knew that Detective Ndzaba was armed with a police service revolver.
I began to sweat, not unlike the man asking us questions, our questioner, as the random fact flew across my mind that Mormons are disproportionately represented in the U.S. State Department, FBI and CIA, thanks in great part to their overseas experience in situations just like ours. And I felt guilty and I felt scared as I realized it didn’t matter how we responded, that the group would make their own judgment, a look of guilt written all over my bright and shiny face. Mormon missionaries, I considered, looking over to my compatriots, who sat nervously clasping onto their scriptures, busily studying their respective shoes on the floor. Gallivanting ourselves into the far flung reaches of the world’s hot spots, white shirts and dark ties and The Book of Mormon in hand.
We said that, No, we were not connected to the CIA, that we were too young to be CIA – that there was no way the agency could employ teenagers. And the man in the dark suit grunted. And looked to his comrades, as they shook their heads, and stood to confer. In the end, after what felt like a bloody eternity of whispers, the lot turned back to us and nodded their heads, as if to signify they were finally satisfied.
As we stood and made our way to the door, I couldn’t help but think to myself, of course. Had we been real spies, like my namesake, Uncle Neal, this would be the perfect cover – a cover that would have made my uncle proud. His cover having been a “telephone repairman” for General Electric while operating incognito for the CIA in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the height of the Vietnam War.
Outside, we took deep, appreciative breaths, happy for our freedom. We shook Detective Ndzaba’s hand and thanked him for having our backs. We then turned and walked along the dusty path to our house, only a few paces away from an epicenter of danger, far too close for my liking.
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