By Satyaraja Dasa
One of Srila Prabhupada’s first disciples sets the stage, and Prabhupada arrives to deliver Krsna consciousness in Kenya.
[Adapted from Swamiji: An Early Disciple, Brahmananda Dasa, Remembers His Guru (Torchlight Publishing, 2014). Copyright Steven J. Rosen. Reprinted with permission. We’ve added diacritics and made minor changes to match BTG’s style. The book is available from the Krishna.com Store and in India directly from the publisher
Srila Prabhupada quickly made plans to come to Nairobi, and soon after he disembarked from a 707 East African Airlines jet, a journalist, Mr. Kul Bhusana, approached him at the behest of Brahmananda. Bhusana asked him a few perfunctory questions, as reporters tend to do.
“What have you come to teach?”
Prabhupada answered, “Modern civilized man has forgotten his relationship with Krishna, or God, and is therefore suffering.”
“Have you come only to teach Hindus?” asked Mr. Bhusana.
“No,” Prabhupada replied, “I am here for everyone. Whether you are Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist, that doesn’t matter. Unless you reestablish your relationship with God, you cannot be happy.”
After the interview, Brahmananda ushered him into the home of a wealthy Indian patron, but he only stayed for one night. As a sannyasi, Prabhupada would not stay at one house for more than three days. This rule prevents renunciants from becoming overly attached to bodily comforts or inconveniencing their hosts.
Consequently, Brahmananda next arranged for Prabhupada to stay at Mr. R. B. Pandya’s house in Mombasa; it was a beautiful oceanfront property in a location that Brahmananda had earlier described to Prabhupada as one of the most wonderful places in the world, and Prabhupada was not disappointed.
Brahmananda remembers: “When Srila Prabhupada walked into his spacious, airy room overlooking the aquamarine-colored sea and saw the cloudless skies, the pleasant sunshine, and the white sandy beach fringed with palm trees, he said, ‘Yes, Brahmananda, this is one of the most wonderful places in the world.’ Srila Prabhupada quickly recovered his health with the help of the mild climate, the abundant varieties of fruits and vegetables, and various rich milk-products. He then decided to return to Nairobi, the capital of the country, and launch the African preaching campaign from there.”
Soon after, several local devotees started to take Krishna consciousness seriously, including Shakti Mati Devi Dasi, who would eventually work tirelessly on Prabhupada’s behalf. Shakti Mati was a pioneer in the ISKCON African Mission (IAM) as the first Indian Hindu to become initiated – and the only one, at that time, to live in the temple. Initially, Brahmananda only worked with the Gujarati community, who gave him financial support but strictly avoided further commitment and even frowned on anyone becoming a monk or getting initiated. Being a Punjabi, Shakti Mati was not constricted by such Gujarati communal policies.
In Nairobi, Srila Prabhupada would hold intimate talks with the gentlemen of the house and give darshana (audience) to the family members and their friends in the afternoons. In the evenings, he would conduct kirtanas and give lectures. In this way, he made friends and disciples among prominent Indian people in Nairobi, who willingly became “life members.” The Life Membership Program was started a year earlier for people who were disinclined to become monks but who had the means to support the movement in other ways, primarily in terms of finance. In exchange, patrons would get a full set of Prabhupada’s books and, if they traveled, a place to stay at any ISKCON center worldwide. This program helped the movement spread in both Africa and India, among other places.
“Later, I expanded the Life Member Program,” Brahmananda says. “I stayed for one and a half months in Lusaka, Zambia, moving to a different residence every three days just as Srila Prabhupada had done. In this way I was able to preach by example. People could see firsthand how devotees rose before dawn, took a cold bath, performed kirtanas and japa, and refrained from intoxication, illicit sex, meat-eating, and gambling. We wanted to show how one?s life can be centered on God, not on self-interest. A Vaishnava preaches not only by his words, but also by his actions.”
Thus, seeing Brahmananda’s dedication and example, people developed faith and became life members.
“Our Real Purpose in Africa”
After some time in Africa, Prabhupada again encouraged Brahmananda to address the African people directly, as opposed to just the Indian population. The Indians and Africans were completely segregated, and this spoke to the bodily concept of life. Prabhupada wanted to obliterate this misconception, and preaching to the people of Africa would accomplish this end.
“This is our real purpose in Africa,” he said.
Hearing this, and realizing its implications, Brahmananda proceeded to organize a program at the University of Nairobi, in which Prabhupada himself would speak. To get as many people as possible to come, Brahmananda placed an ad in the newspaper, printed and displayed several posters, and distributed handsomely designed leaflets. As a result, the program was so well attended ? with professors, dignitaries, and African students occupying all available seats – that people had to stand outside to look through the doors and windows. When Prabhupada?s short lecture was over, the audience rose to their feet, cheering and shouting praise. Afterwards, there was an enthusiastic kirtana, a film about the movement, and a sumptuous feast for all. The experience was transformative, and it garnered favorable publicity for the movement in Africa.
Prabhupada was concerned about reaching the general public. To this end, he not only took part in the university program already mentioned but in an event focusing on an economically deprived area as well. The devotees had rented a large hall one evening and just opened the doors and started chanting. In a short time, the hall filled up with curious people, who happened in right off the street. By the time Prabhupada walked in, effulgent in his bright silken robes, the hall was packed to capacity. He quickly passed the considerable crowd, got up on stage, and started chanting. Then he spoke about the meaning of human life. He said that the real aim of our existence is to understand that we are not this body but pure spirit soul, and that our duty is to serve the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna.
With great compassion, he conveyed the essence of Vedic thought. Although most people in the audience could not understand what he said, since they spoke only Swahili, they nodded their heads in appreciation. They could feel his determination and his purity. As the kirtana took over the large room, they danced, chanted, and clapped with great zeal.
Several days later, in December of 1971 – after nearly three months in Kenya – Prabhupada left for India. He succeeded in spreading Krishna consciousness in Africa and fully inspiring Brahmananda and the few devotees who assisted him to carry on the preaching work there.
Under a Tree in a Park
Motivated by Prabhupada’s example, Brahmananda wasted no time and immediately began organizing Nairobi?s first outdoor kirtana performance: It was to be held under the largest tree in Kamukunji Park, a historical landmark connected with Kenyan Independence.
Brahmananda says, “We simply stood under that tree and started chanting. Soon a large crowd gathered and immediately began chanting with us. Some were even dancing in a sort of African shuffle step. We had a battery-powered megaphone, and one young man stepped forward and offered to translate our lectures into Swahili. Everyone really enjoyed this. We then distributed a sweet food preparation called bundi that the crowd liked even more. Every weekend we held this program, and soon we became well known.”
Thus, the Nagara-Sankirtana Movement was officially born in Africa under this tree, as it had been in New York under that fortunate elm in Tompkins Square Park. There was no stopping Prabhupada?s mission now. Brahmananda was in ecstasy.
Srila Prabhupada had encouraged him to further expand his preaching endeavors, which he did, with extensive preaching safaris throughout northern and western Kenya, to neighboring Tanzania and Zambia, and even down into Salisbury, Rhodesia. In each of the towns and in the surrounding villages, he held a full program of kirtana, film shows, lectures, life-membership enrollments, and literature and prasada distribution. He even held sankirtana processions down the main street, so much so that “Hare Krishna” became a household phrase. Brahmananda felt empowered by Prabhupada. Whatever he lacked in Pakistan was now turning itself around in Africa – he saw it as a direct blessing from his guru. If one adamantly adheres to the principle of following Prabhupada-s instructions to the letter, he thought, there is no way one can fail.
He says, “Finally we called upon prominent citizens to subsidize the cost of complete sets of Srila Prabhupada’s books and five-year subscriptions to Back to Godhead magazine, which we then donated in their names to all the towns’ libraries, schools, and colleges. These institutions were extremely grateful to receive a gift of books from abroad. Large quantities of magazines were also subsidized, which we then distributed to people at token cost.
An Ecstatic Mass of Children
“In Lusaka, Zambia,” he continues, “a group of wealthy Indian life members became very enthusiastic about our preaching to the local people. Anxious to participate, they all agreed to come to a program we were holding that night at a social hall in a low-income area of town. In the evening they all arrived at the hall in a caravan of large Mercedes cars. As soon as they entered the hall, a large crowd of children gathered outside. They were excited from the afternoon, when we had driven through the area with our loudspeakers blaring a bouncy Hare Krishna kirtana. Hundreds of kids had run after our truck, and we had thrown leaflets to them announcing the evening program. Now they were singing Hare Krishna outside the hall at the top of their lungs. So we opened the doors and they flooded in – an ecstatic swirling mass of beautiful black kids. Once they were inside, we started a tumultuous kirtana. The life members had never expected anything like this. They had come wearing their finest clothes and gold jewelry. I invited them to come up and take refuge on the stage, and they did so, sitting down very stiffly and chanting in their usual sedate way while trying not to see what was happening all around them.
“The kirtana was so ecstatic that I jumped off the stage and danced with the kids until we were all exhausted. Then we showed the Rathayatra film and sent them home with prasada. The members later agreed that from then on we could do all the preaching ourselves, and they would just help out with contributions.
“When we returned to Nairobi, practically every Kenyan greeted us with ‘Hare Krishna’ or ‘Hare Rama.’ Even the shoeshine boys were chanting one of our tunes. I was reminded of Vrindavan, India, the transcendental village where Lord Krishna appeared on earth five thousand years ago. There all the residents chant Hare Krishna and greet each other by vibrating the holy name. Previously I had written a letter to Srila Prabhupada expressing how much I appreciated Vrindavan, and he had replied that this was very good and that I should try to spread the Vrindavan spirit to Africa. Now it appeared to me that, by his grace, Nairobi had indeed become a black Vrindavan.”