God doesn't visit here no more
As with Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, relating the story of his youth in cold, damp Limerick, the heart of my childhood memoir is at once revoltingly and helplessly tied to religion.
And like Frankie's, it is a tale that demands its owner to jealously keep it under wraps—but because I just cannot, it spills out uncontrollably all over the place. It's also a conceit, in a way, for one to assume a childhood voice in the present in a an adult time-space. It's like Walt Disney trying to pen the adventures of Bugs Bunny for three-year-olds at the age of 75.
My oh-so-fuzzy fragments of truth are quite cute little dingabells, totally different from what journalism tells us constitutes the "truth". Do you think I care? In the memoir form, I don't do facts, hon. Facts might take away from my truth.
Besides, why would you believe facts from a person whose entire recollection of events depends on moods, and when the same moods depend on whether he has a healthy stock of his beloved peach jam in the refrigerator? Well, help me, Lord, to tell nothing but ... Amen!
Growing up in a church proved to be a life-altering experience. My grandfather twice removed, Nehemia "Oupa" Morudu, after whom I'm nicknamed "Oupa", was the founder and bishop of the African Province Church. We called him Oupa, at times Dear Bishop.
The church was a breakaway chapter from my family's traditional PB (Presbyterian), as the folks referred to it back then. Although none of the current generation knows or cares about this, my folks' relationship with the Presbyterians goes back to 1930s Eastwood, which was then a largely black freehold settlement smack-dab in the middle of Pretoria.
Their love affair with the church got affected by the forced removals of the 1950s, which affected more than their faith.
The lovely beauty with bulbs for eyes, Nomvula "Penny" Madondo, and her three children: my late brother, Dumisane, stout navy-dark me and my Huck Finn-like brother, Tshepo, not only lived in the shadow of Dear Bishop's faith, but in his republic.
'A place of light'
We lived in the same compound, in one cramped room on the ground floor of his double-storey mansion, somewhere in a freehold area known as Leboneng, Hammanskraal.
Leboneng means "a place of light" and back then the settlement was the first ever in Hammanskraal to have street lights. We would play till late or follow the Guy Fawkes man down the street singing some arias the older boys and girls had composed on the beat the year before.
Grandpa's church was on the same premises as his mansion, our family home. An extremely wise and strict man with 19th-century mannerisms (born in 1896), he was a complex composite of several improbabilities.
Dice-roller, intellectual, piano composer. A dandy with the stylistic impulse of Oscar Wilde. A community worker who built his own coffin and was featured in The World. Taught me to read the Rand Daily Mail before I even began formal schooling. Built a bridge all by himself and, without fail, led his obedient congregation to prayer for 25 years each and every Sunday.
He flipped the Bible's verses and sang from the hymn book with the same ferocity, style and honesty that he expressed in his street dealings with thugs and other waywards.
The Bible and the church were central to his existence and all he owned, sheltered or sponsored, including my mother and her three young boys, with no dad or shield but Dear Bishop's word.
You can understand, then, when I say I grew up basically shining the chairs, cleaning up the altar and, for good or worse, crammed possibly the entire Bible verse by verse.
Call it blood bonds' indoctrination, if you will, but back then it was one of the things you did, like preparing the fire, cleaning the house, never skipping your piano lessons and learning the hymns by heart.
When I tell folks that I identify with a good deal of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash or Van Morrison's work much more deeply than a black South African boy is supposed to—I mean beyond coconutting and many racial denialisms—their peepers pop out.
Some decades later, and free from grandpa's regime, mother felt free to dip in and out of other churches such as abaZalwane (born-agains) and African apostolic churches (in reality they are Ethiopianists).
Often, these apostolic churches were led by tall black men with big black beards, clad in long blue coats with big white crosses stitched on their big black backs.
The big black men with big black beards led mostly short, rotund, buxom women carrying children with runny noses or tummies. My uncle Sipho told us they were afflicted by something called Biafra—and we did not know who Biafra was or where he lived, but we swore by Prophet Jeremiah that if Biafra would dare to be so bold as to visit our home we would run for dear life. 'Cause what if Biafra makes our noses and tummies loose, too?
The mothers of our friends in the apostolic churches sang as though their lives depended on it, which they, in fact, did. Rumour had it then that the big, bellowing Bab uMfundisi squired half of the womenfolk in one of those congregations.
The majority of those children, my friends, were his seed. Older people spoke like that. "Seed," they'd say. And we wouldn't know what they were talking about.
By then granddad was long gone, the double-storey long crumbled, the bridge long rickety and my arbitrary posh, middle-class reading of those huge leather-bound Britannicas gone with my childhood pants' suspenders under my blazer, faith, mom's romance with Jesus and, heck, my entire youthful innocence.
As with other poverty refugees, I found a way of escaping my childhood with its repertoire of crumbling beliefs and symbols.
Arriving in Sin City—the city that never sleeps as much as throw you a knowing wink dead-on midnight, where streets are brimful of miniskirts, thugs armed with sawn-off Uzzis and the music a sinful skokiaan of rhumba, house, kwaito and vat jou ma—I felt free at last.
Free to interrogate my childhood faith indoctrination. Free to fuck up as well. Free to sin and free to realise that I was not entirely free after all: some things just don't change.
Then I did my own version of dip in, dip out. It was as though one was chasing something one could never catch, however fast you flew towards it. Something clearly inside one's self.
Influenced by radical hip-hop, Islam became my first new faith of choice, especially Sufism. Unfortunately, as township adults will tell you, it was just "a stage". You will soon outgrow it, my child.
Soon I chased after Krishna, African spirituality, George Albert Smith's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons, and can you not be totally attracted by Rastafarianism? You must have a cold heart indeed.
In my mid-20s I was such a religious ho' and experimentalist—and had ODed on both religious and nonreligious spirituality—that it wasn't fun.
Look at it this way: I was more than ready for a religion-and-belief rehab, which, if such a beast existed, its 12-step masters and attendees would volunteer their gallant stories on how it helped to deal with their religious bulimia and so on.
But like I said, in whatever faith, religion, sect or building I found myself in, or running away from, deep down I felt there was a God. And that God was black like me. That He was African.
That He had a funny nose like mine. Big, fat lips like mine. And an awkward, funny shuffle-strut like mine. At least that's what Dear Bishop taught me 20 years before I arrived in Sin City.
So if God, whom I have been chasing or running away from, or trying to interrogate all my life - in and out of organised religion—is black like me, surely He looks like and cares for all African people, right?
I wish to still believe that, but adulthood and this temptation of a job called journalism has cleansed me of the romance Dear Bishop instilled in me. Travelling around the continent, it humbled me to realise how my family was not the only one with a complex "relationship" with God.
Just about the whole of West Africa, especially Ghana and Nigeria, feels as though it is a boulevard cut from that suburb called heaven. In Lagos alone, I counted more than 300 churches—and that does not include the African faith congregations as equally invested in God as they are in their Yoruba deities and intermediaries.
Elsewhere, in countries such as Senegal and Sudan and so on, Allah is not only a distant deity but, listening to their music, possibly one of the dudes playing music in the market squares, which brings me to the questions that spooked me endlessly when I was a young buck on the come.
Because Africans are the staunchest believers I've ever come across, (including some's beliefs in black magic), and because most tick the "dispossessed" box in developmental studies stats, and yo, because we've been sold the rap that the meek shall inherit the earth, have you ever wondered where is this God when all around me confirms all the Dark Continent stereotypes?
Where is God when his children occupy the news-at-10 slots for genocide, child kidnappings, mutilation, or suffer under the yoke of Big Man syndrome on almost a semi-permanent basis?
Where is God when white men in police uniforms or their farmer brethren shoot young brothers in cold blood, mistaking them for apes? Why should black folks inherit the earth? Why not heaven?
Too many white folks with huge-ass feathers floating in blessed bliss over there?
Look, I know these are stupid questions, ungodly even. Yet I can't help but imagine some young black buck, same age as lil' Frankie McCourt was in Limerick, who will grow to ask himself about the presence of God in his life.
I won't be there to hear those questions. Just as Dear Bishop and Nomvula "Penny" Madondo are not around while I bleed on this page.
Bongani Madondo, the author of Hot Type: Artists, Icons & God-figurines (Picador Africa) is a contributing editor for the South African edition of Rolling Stone magazine.