The Great White Missionary

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It was a rare day that I was at the Ngodingodi research station at all … usually I was off in the forest with the Efe Pygmies, up the road excavating an archaeological site. It was also rare that Grinker, my cultural anthropologist colleague, was at the research station. He was spending most of his time in the villages learning language and waiting around for the other shoe to drop (he studied conflict, so on the average day … not much conflict).

But then an even rarer thing happened.

As we sat, being rare and chatting about the weather, we heard a the sound of a distant truck approaching. Our visitors (there were always visitors) — Lese (farmers) and Efe (Pygmies) — heard it first. They also figured out first that this was not the car of the Masoeur, the “Sisters” of the catholic mission to the south. (The sisters had driven by a week or two earlier, and thus, might be on their way back from town by this time.) And it was not our truck. Our Land Rover was sitting there in it’s little house quietly growing grass out of it’s front grill. Nobody else drove up and down the “road” so this was a real mystery.

As the vehicle got closer, even I could hear that it was unfamiliar to us. Also, it was not hard to surmise that the driver was unfamiliar with the terrain. Several times the sound of the engine would die away as the driver idled, presumably looking with little relish at the “road” immediately ahead, considering how best to bypass the crevasses and holes without falling into a stream or getting hopelessly stuck.

One of us, Grinker or me, said “Maybe they’ll turn around.”1 This drew dirty looks from our neighbors. They wanted visitors. We wanted to relish being in the most remote spot on this continent. This was always a minor conflict.

From the time we first heard the vehicle to the time it pulled up to our research camp a half hour passed. This was enough time for a dozen additional friends and neighbors to arrive in anticipation of a visit, perhaps from someone interesting or important. They wanted to be there to see who it was. Our neighbors conjectured that most likely the visitors would be more researchers, coming to join Grinker and me. That could mean more employment for the people in the local villages as a new roof would surely be needed for the hut the new arrivals would stay in. Maybe two huts. If they were a couple that would be one hut. If they were a couple and a third person, that would be two huts. If they were three separate people that would be three huts, and there werent’ three huts! Perhaps a whole new hut would have to be built, and that would be work for more than the usual roofers! And perhaps the new arrivals would need an informant to help with research, or language tutors.

A virtual economic stimulus package could be driving down the road right now!!

I thought it unlikely that new researchers would be arriving because we had not received any word of potential visitors, but given that there was no direct contact with the outside world and no reliable system of mail, that did not mean much. Indeed, when my doctoral adviser had died the previous year during the summer, I did not learn of his death until mid October. So really, this could be anybody.

When the vehicle did make its way down the road close enough to our camp to either pull into our hidden driveway, or accidentally drive past without noticing us (very likely given that we were disguised as a traditional local village and set back from the road), a handful of our neighbors were well positioned on the road to direct what we now saw to be a very new fairly large American built four wheel drive vehicle into the Ngodingodi Research Camp.

Rich and I had already decided, conversing privately in English, to discourage whoever it was from staying unless they needed something serious. It was the policy of the research project to not become a tourist attraction. It was not hospitable, but it was normal, to send people away.

So, up drove the vehicle. The diver was a man in his 40s who was somewhat large, somewhat imposing, dressed in the usual safari suit, and American. He was accompanied, if memory serves, by a wife and teenage boy child who made such little impression on me that I only barely remember them. They were quiet and obsequious to the man. This was very clearly his show. They were also accompanied by one or two Africans, young men, acting as servants.

“Well, hallo everyone, with God’s grace, we made it! Are you the anthropologists?”

Oh crap, he’s here to actually visit us, not just passing through. Someone must have told him about us.

“Ah, yes, we are … this is our research camp,” Rich said, as the Great White Visitor sauntered around his car opening doors and his family and servants got out of the vehicle and started wandering around. “How did you know about us?”

“Oh, a man named Andre mentioned your research camp when I was in town up north. I came to see the Pygmies!”

“OK, hold on a second,” Rich jumped in.

“We don’t use that word … the ‘P’ word … some people find it offensive,” I said. “And you can’t ‘see’ them. They is not a … tourist… attraction.”

As I spoke he came to the back of the vehicle and opened it, without much listening to what I was saying. “Who’d like some lunch! We’ve got ham and cheese sandwiches, some tomato and bacon for BLT’s, cokes, and look, plenty of ice in the cooler!”

Bacon? … Ice?

We are in the most remote part of Africa and we have bacon? … and Ice?

“So, who’s hungry?”

So, Rich turned to me and in some language that was not English quietly said …. “well, he can stay for a while I suppose.”

“Until the ice melts” I said. “And we finish off the bacon.”

“I’m not into bacon much,” replied rich, struggling, as I had, to come up with an understandable word for bacon in a language spoken on in a region with no pigs,2 “but did you see that stash of candy bars? And he’s got hot chocolate.”

Our private conversation was interrupted by the Great White Visitor, who was not paying much attention to anyone else anyway. “I’m a missionary. From Oklahoma.”

So, OK, we could let the guy stay for a while. But we had to talk about this “seeing the pygmies” bit. He was obviously unaware that three or four of the local people standing around watching him and his party were Efe (Pygmies). He needed to be educated.

Rich and I were not merely justifying what we were doing for the sake of bacon and ice. We simply made the decision to spend a little time with this guy and his retinue and talk about the Efe, maybe introduce them to some Efe, and help him learn to have a better attitude than to treat the Efe like some kind of tourist destination. Also, he identified himself as a Missionary from Oklahoma, not as a missionary from some particular group. What this meant is the following. He was not an in-country missionary. He would be funded by some church in Oklahoma to come out to “Africa” or someplace and convert some people over to Christianity. He would take pictures of this and give slide shows in the churches in and near his community showing how he had done this converting and how their money was not wasted, then he would go after more funds to come back and do more converting.

This is how all the missions were funded, but over a longer term and with a larger organization handling the flow of money, the flow of personnel, the flow of supplies and equipment. Great White Missionary was a rogue … working on his own, paying for his vacations to various foreign lands by giving a dog and pony show between trips showing how he had converted x number of these people and y number of those people who otherwise were pagans living in direct community with Satan.

So we thought we would spend a little time with him so he’d get a certain impression of what was going on out here, mainly to avoid having him go back, raise the funds to missionize our project area, and return with reinforcements.

And it would take a while to eat all this bacon anyway. Hey, anyone would have done the same thing in our situation…

Oh, and there was a lot of bacon. There was bacon that was cooked already and only needed to be reheated in the toaster oven that magically operated in the back of his Great White Truck. And there were kilos and kilos of frozen bacon that he wanted us to take from him to be distributed among the Efe.

So, Great White Missionary and his retinue sat with us at our research camp and we served tea with his BLT’s, ham and cheese sandwiches, and candy bars. He had many questions and many things to tell us. His way of communicating was like this: Random crap would rattle around his head and every now and then some item would happen to be near that hole in the front we call a mouth and fall out.

“The Pygmies are pagans, they believe that spirits live in rocks.”

“Actually, most of the Efe, we don’t call them Pygmies, are monotheists.”

“These Pygmies have already been converted? I’d like to watch them hunt. Can you arrange for me to hunt with them? Is is true that many of the children are born with tails?”

“Actually, the Efe, we don’t call them Pygmies, are monotheists because that is their religion. They are not Christians…. And that tail thing is not true…”

“Everything is based on a kernel of truth. You better check for the tails. Offer them some of this bacon and I’ll bet they’ll go hunting with me. Can we see where they live? Do you have a rifle?”

… this sort of thing went on for a while, and as it did, Rich and I formulated a plan and slowly put it into effect. In the background, we kept up a conversation with one of our Efe informants who’s camp was actually only a few hundred meters away just off the road …

“So, do the Pygmies have a concept of hell and Satan? Satan’s greatest trick is not being known to those who worship him. I’m afraid they may worship Satan.”

“Ah, well, no, these Efe (We don’t call them Pygmies) are actually Christians!” (changing our story a little).

“Really? Hmm.. In Zimbabwe, I taught a thousand people in one village to accept the word of Jesus our savior. With a single sermon.”

“Yes. The Efe have been Christians for generations, thanks to the mission up north of here. You passed it on your way down. There used to be white missionaries there, and in those days, everyone became a Christian!”

“Really?” … a sense of disappointment creeping into his voice. “In Zambia, I started a food program. To receive the food, you had to be a young boy. By giving the food only to the young boys, the food would get distributed evenly across all the households.”

“Right. Everybody. For miles in every direction. The whole region. Already Christian.”

“Oh. Well, can we go and visit a Pygmy Village. In that village in Zambia, I had a rule. If you behaved, you got a specially made token … a coin I had minted in Oklahoma, like a subway token, at a trophy shop. They had crosses on them. Every time you were good you got one or two tokens. Then, twice a week the young boys would line up and turn their tokens over to me and they would get a bag of food.”

“Ah… right, OK. We could visit an Efe camp. We don’t call them Pygmies. They are the Efe. They don’t live in villages.”

“The Africans are all like children, even when they are adults. But if you set up a structure for them, they’ll follow it. You wouldn’t believe the size of the Boa Constrictor I saw in Malawi. It was twenty feet long. A certain amount of discipline is important, and that is what I taught the boys in Zambia. Great, let’s go to the Pygmy Village”

“They live in a camp. There’s an Efe Camp nearby. This gentleman here is from that camp, he’ll show us.”

… So, we spent the next hour in the bush, cutting our way through vines and undergrowth, traipsing through swamps and streams, climbing over steep and muddy banks, and cutting through more undergrowth. You see, the Efe place their camps, most of the time, on an easily accessible trail connecting the camp to the road or a nearby village. This particular camp was a five minute walk, across the street and through a meadow and then into secondary forest growth for about 50 meters. But we took the long way. The very long, rugged way. We felt it essential that Great White Boy Lover not know the route to anything in our project area….

Now, covered with mud and the ubiquitous rotted plant matter that rains continuously on passers by in the rain forest, soaked with dew and sweat, we arrived in the “Pygmy Village.”

“Have a seat” I said, handing Great White and each of his two companions (the servants were left behind in our research camp) three sticks. As they held the sticks, one of the Efe cut three pieces of vine off of a nearby tree, and in seconds, fashioned each into a sturdy ring about 8 inches in diameter. By that time I had picked my own vine-ring off the roof of a nearby hut, and had placed my own three sticks within the ring, and made a chair on which to sit.

The Forest Folding Chair is a hoot. Three sticks through a ring, at an angle. The first stick holds up the second, the second the third, the third the first. There is nothing soft to sit on (though you can add cloth or a pile of leaves) but they keep you up out of the mud and above the ants. However, getting the seat to not fall down, and sitting in it without causing it to crash, is an art that takes some time to learn.

After considerable fooling around and a great deal of help from the Efe men, who suppressed their laugh while the women and children ROTF at the clumsiness of the Great White Retinue, all were seated. Great White Missionary proceeded to ask me questions to ask the Efe, and mostly I simply relayed the questions and answers back and forth. They were about hunting, about snakes, about food, and about god. The god questions ….. I just made up the answers so that the missionary would be assured that everyone here was already a Christian.

As we spoke, one of the Efe men unwrapped a small bundle of marijuana and broke it to little pieces, putting aside the few seeds that were in the buds, and cut the leaves and flowers into tiny pieces using his arrow, allowing the bits to fall on a flat sheet of metal that had been sitting by the fire. Meanwhile, a different man took a leave of tobacco and placed it right near the fire where it would dry very thoroughly and quickly. Just as the tobacco was starting to emit a bit of smoke, he pulled it away from the fire, powdered it by crushing it in his fist, and added it to the marijuana to make a rather potent mix. The mix was held near the fire a bit longer to dry it further.

A third Efe man took a large plantain plant leaf from the roof of a nearby hut where it had been stored earlier. No one had noticed that this man actually had cut the plantain leaf, about eight feet long, from a plant right next to where we were sitting at the Ngodingodi research camp, and walked off with it at the same time the rest of us headed out for the Efe camp. This man walked directly to the camp rather than taking the long way, and was in the Efe camp, having a nap, at the time of our arrival.

Anyway, he stripped the fleshy leafy part of the leaf away, leaving only the stem that runs down the middle. He then took two strips of palm ‘wood’ that had been fastened together to make a 10 foot long stick, and skilfully ran this through the middle of the plantain leaf’s stem the long way, making it into a giant hollowed-out pipe stem. He then cut a platform into the thick end, and produced a small clay pipe bowl and set it onto the platform, pushing it into the stem, so that the hole of the clay pipe lined up with the hole he had made down the middle.

And thus, he produced an eight foot long pot pipe.

The men then loaded the pipe up with the pot/tobacco mixture. One man sat at one end of the pipe and another and at the other end, eight feet apart. The man at the clay-pie end dropped a small piece of burning wood from the fire onto the mixture while the other man took one huge toke, started gasping and coughing, pounded his open palm on the juncture of his upper arm and chest making a loud popping sound, and shouted “Hojeeee!!!! Mardo!!!!” and passed the pipe to a nearby woman, who did the same thing except the part about yelling “Hojee” (inside joke.)

Thusly, the pipe was refilled and passed around, one filling getting two or three tokes (and one toke per person). Every now and then, someone would cut a bit off the mouth-end of the pipe and discard it. If the pipe needed to be brought to someone sitting farther away than nine or ten feet (the distance that the pipe could be simply passed hand to hand because it was so long) then a child was called over and told to bring the pipe to the next person. In this way, minors were implicated in the practice of smoking pot. Some but not all of the teenagers, who must have looked to Great White’s western eyes (despite his experience with… young boys …) to be a few years younger than they were (as young Efe often do given their size) also smoked.

The young son of Great White had his head bowed and was praying. Mom was wide eyed and … looked like she wanted to join in. Great White himself was turning red and his questions got increasingly incoherent as he obtained a reasonable contact high.

When the pipe eventually came to me, I took a medium size toke but left a lot (but not all) of the smoke in my mouth, and immediately blew it out. I ‘pretended’ to cough, and gave Great White a side long look, saying “I have to do this. Part of the research. But I never inhale…”

For his part, Grinker took a totally fake toke (he never smoked) but pretended to become totally stoned, rolled his eyes back into his head, and fell backwards off his chair onto a midden of dead leaves and cassava shavings.


Later on, back at the research camp, Great White and his fellow travelers silently packed up the truck. Only part of the promised bacon wad handed over, and this was given to the Efe who accommodated us. The pot smoking experience had totally blown their minds and they were not going to recover from this. The ‘fact’ that these Efe were Christians was not in accord with what this Oklahoman Evangelical could reconcile with their clearly Satanic behavior. I wondered what stories he would weave to turn this experience into something he could somehow take credit for. He never got to do his hunting (… in fact, I had told him that this was not hunting season. Which is a very, very funny concept …) so maybe he would make something up about hunting.

Great White was an ignoramus. He was a liar. He was a pedophile. He was a swindler. He was not a typical missionary, because most of the missionaries were not rogue like he was, but rather, part of a larger and highly organized effort. But he embodied much of the hypocrisy institutionalized in the larger organizations, personified it, made it real, palpable, and more overtly despicable.

A few months later, I ran into Andre, the merchant in town who suggested this visit to begin with. As usual, we retired to the back of Andre’s store for some Greek coffee. I told him the story of the Great White Visit. Andre was embarrassed.

“I won’t sent you any one like that again,” he promised.

“I know, my friend. I know that.”

1We usually spoke in a locally understood language even when speaking to each other, as part of our own language training. The idea was to use English only when absolutely necessary. Really, I should be telling you this whole story in Kinguana, but that would chagiza you.

2A derivation of “The pig of the forest that lives in our house among us, it’s flesh” if I recall correctly. It would have been easy to say in KiSwahili but for some reason he was saying it in KiLese.

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19 thoughts on “The Great White Missionary

  1. Re “not hunting season” — I’m curious now. Did the Efe or Lese have any food preservation methods? Salting perhaps?

    Soon as I get home, I’m looking for three big sticks and a sufficiently sized ring. I can visualize how this works, but I can’t imagine doing it with just two hands.

  2. They have no hunting season, of course. That is why it is funny.

    There are some animals that are hunted more during one season vs. another, more or less. The water chevrotain, for instance, is very difficult to hunt when it is not the dry season.

    There is a shortage of salt in this area, so no salting. They preserve meat by first boiling it (quickly) then smoking it. Then, it is stored, essentially, over a fire to the extent possible, constantly being smoked.

  3. They have no hunting season, of course. That is why it is funny.

    There are some animals that are hunted more during one season vs. another, more or less. The water chevrotain, for instance, is very difficult to hunt when it is not the dry season.

    There is a shortage of salt in this area, so no salting. They preserve meat by first boiling it (quickly) then smoking it. Then, it is stored, essentially, over a fire to the extent possible, constantly being smoked.

  4. One question, how can you be so sure he was a pedophile, too? I mean, yes, it seems to run in devoutly religious circles way, way more often than in secular circles, but you cannot just go around and accuse people of being a pedophile without backing it up.

    For the rest, yes, he sounds like a typical westerner in foreign lands: all ignorant and arrogant.

  5. Haha, yes, I got that joke, actually. Unless you’re a primarily agrarian society, having a hunting season makes as much sense as having a sleeping season. I have only a modicum of knowledge (having minored in Anthro, meaning basically one 6hr credit and a 3hr credit the next year), though. That’s one of the big reasons I stuck around here after Jodi turned me onto Congo Memoirs.

    I don’t suppose you’ll ever explain the inside joke regarding “hojee”, will you? I kind of read that as a localization of something like “holy mackerel!”

  6. Hoji (hojee?) was a fictional (I think) girl of rather lose morals, as it were, and the men would often call her name when smoking pot. The woman would not appreciate that, and slap the men upside the head figuratively or literally. And of course, the woman would not call out her name.

    As far as I could tell. This was, remarkably, a cultural practice that took about two years to figure out.

  7. Dax: I can’t be sure, but he went on and on and on about these young boys at various mission stations, and how he controled them, had them meet with him, they would be paid in useless tokens that they could redeem for food, and on and on. Keep in mind that the entire description above, which you can read in a few minutes, briefly summarizes about five or six hours of continuous interaction.

    I have not given his name, and he was not really from Oklahoma (as stated elsewhere, identifying details are altered). And I don’t know he was a pedophile.

    (But trust me, he was boinking the boys, I’d put money on it.)

    I’m not suggesting that he was likely to be a pedophile because of his religious/missionary links.

  8. Dax, did you catch the part where he wouldn’t deal with the adults or young girls in his distribution of food, where he made the young boys solely responsible for the supply of food to their families with their “good behavior”? Did you think about the reasoning he gave?

    This guy set up a highly coercive situation aimed at a single demographic based on some fatally flawed reasoning. Is that proof that he was a pedophile? No. But given his additional, very stubborn tendency to treat Africans as sources of his amusement, that’s enough to make it quite reasonable to treat his potential pedophilia as truth. After all, this was a situation of prevention, not punishment.

  9. Greg: I was at a loss trying to make sense of the asshole missionary. In order to wrap my brain around this, I have come to the conclusion that you are really, really old and this encounter took place in the middle of the 19th century.

  10. I love the way you present the Great White Missionary’s side of the dialog. It reminds me of the UFO guy in Waiting for Guffman:

    “I’ve been coming to this circle for about five years, and measuring it. The diameter and the circumference are constantly changing, but the radius stays the same. Which brings me to the number 5. There are five letters in the word Blaine. Now, if you mix up the letters in the word Blaine, mix ’em around, eventually, you’ll come up with Nebali. Nebali. The name of a planet in a galaxy way, way, way… way far away. And another thing. Once you go into that circle, the weather never changes. It is always 67 degrees with a 40% chance of rain.”

  11. I don’t believe you. I can’t believe you. People who are that ignorant and stupid can’t exist. And if they do, I’m surprised they’d make such an effort to go somewhere and not learn anything about where they’re traveling.

    I think this is interesting to read after this post on Blood and Milk on 6/18: You wrote “He was not a typical missionary, because most of the missionaries were not rogue like he was, but rather, part of a larger and highly organized effort,” and I think both of your articles are important in regards to the critique of missionaries. I would say, however, that your post is a bit more entertaining.

    I have a question: why did you tell him they were Christian? Was it because you didn’t think you could convince him to leave the Efe alone? Or because you thought it would be entertaining? And did you explain to the Efe what you were doing and what Great White wanted to do?

  12. Sterling, the idea of say they were christian was to convince him taht there was no need to come back here. I’m pretty sure, as I recall, that the Efe were pretty much aware of what was going on.

  13. I would agree that Big White wasn’t a typical missionary – real missionaries wouldn’t be discouraged from converting ‘pagans’ even if those pagans were already christian. For example, the pentecostals seem to enjoy sending missionaries to the Philippines; the Philippines had been successfully colonized by Spain over 450 years ago and the vast majority of its inhabitants have been catholic for over 400 years. During the Spanish-American War around the end of the 19th century, there was some deliberation in congress as to whether to colonize the Philippines. Ultimately the answer was “yes, we should colonize” and one of the top reasons given: to convert the pagans to christianity! That would have been 1898 or so. I think baptist and mormon missionaries infested the place about 70 or 80 years later. Missionaries seem welcome – which means the country must really be in the toilet.

  14. I greatly enjoyed this. I’m just back to read it again. Given the level of stubborn clinging to ignorance that some people display, I can easily believe that the fellow was that thick–especially if clinging to his beliefs gave him his sex tours.

  15. This tale just got funnier as it progressed. Which is great, because I could easily have seen it going all depressing, what with the creepy missionary. Very enlightening, too.

    I really need to dig back farther in blogs that have been around much longer than I have read them. I generally do, but then I get distracted by something else.

    Thanks for the post listing the Efe-related writings.

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