As soon as my friend said I was a Mormon, the two ladies wanted to know more. In unison they asked:
– What’s a Mormon?
– It’s a member of the Mormon Church. A religion from America.
– Are you from America?
– No, I’m Belgian.
– How come then you are a Mormon?
– The Mormon Church sends out missionaries. I met two of them in Belgium.
– Are there also missionaries here?
– No, not yet.
Indeed, this was Kinshasa, Congo, the centre of Black Africa. In 1971.
They continued to ask questions. Do Mormons have schools? Do missionaries live in a monastery? Can they marry? What’s different from Catholics? Are there many Mormons?
I answered briefly, trying to shorten the conversation. Their interest did not subside. Do Mormons have a pope? What do Mormons do when they meet? How do Mormons pray?
Squeezed between the two ladies in the back of the VW-bug, I answered, while watching the road ahead. The drive from Kinshasa’s center to my room on a side alley in Limete would take about half an hour. My two European friends, international aid workers and bachelors like me, sat in the front. We were driving amidst the flow of cars, scooters, decrepit busses, trucks packed to the top and rolling like ships, all speeding over the crumbling asphalt. On the wide sandy sides of the road crowds were walking. Workmen, jobseekers, loiterers, children. Women wrapped in colorful pagnes, toddlers tied on backs, loaded basins on heads. For miles and miles they walked along the acacias and emaciated palm trees, past corrugated car wrecks, past vendors and hair dressers at tiny tables, shoe shiners next to their boxes. They walked between roaming dogs and begging boys, through the red dust tossed up from their feet, through the smoke of small fires kept burning by old men huddled in fetal positions.
How do Mormons pray?
– We pray to our Heavenly Father, we thank him, ask for blessings.
– Does God listen to Mormons?
– Yes, we believe he does.
– Does God listen to us?
My two friends, on the front seats, were silent now. They had lost the merriment with which they had entered the car.
I was twenty-five. My job was teaching in a small school at the border of a shantytown. In Africa, aid workers, bachelors, find each other. My two friends and I did things together after work, playing sports, boating on the river, traveling inland. On Saturday at noon, we sometimes drove to Kinshasa’s center to have lunch at the Memling, the only hotel of the capital still displaying the colonial arrogance of quality. One of us would pick up the others and then drive them back afterwards.
This particular Saturday, we had finished dessert and paid the waiter. The Memling was quiet. My friends were looking towards the bar, a few yards from our table. The ladies had caught their attention. Tight vinyl miniskirts, one bright green, one orange. Tops hardly covering their push-up bras. Their black skin bleached to beige, their frizzy hair straightened into Western smoothness. They were leaning on their bar stool, in a sassy posture, each clutching a small plastic purse, ready to go. My two friends nodded. Agreements of this kind take only a few glances.
– We’ll first take you home, Wilfried.
With five of us to take place in the VW, I ended in the back between the ladies. Their naked arms, gleaming with fragrant oil, pressed against my sleeves. The hoop earring of the lady on my left dangled against my shoulder.
As we left the parking, one of my friends looked backwards, gently mocking at the sight:
– You won’t get anything from him. He’s a Mormon.
– What’s a Mormon? they asked.
Driving to Limete, all windows open in the humid heat. We were talking Mormonism, through traffic noise, honkings, tattered blarings of music bars. The ladies queried, queried, from a perplexing desire to know, unaware of my uneasiness, oblivious of their clients in the front.
– Does God listen to us? the other lady repeated.
I looked at her. Intensity spoke from her eyes, not so much a cry for acceptance, but a yearning for reassurance. I nodded.
The sideroads we passed kept plunging into the infinite slums, labyrinths of muddy alleys lined with shags. The smell of scorched earth. Kinshasa, already then a city of millions.
I was dropped off where I lived. As the VW drove away, both ladies waved at me. They seemed around twenty, maybe less. Make-up belies age.
Tomorrow their earnings will feed parents, relatives, a baby born from rape, and siblings with haggard faces and swollen bellies.
Where would those ladies be now? The situation is worse than ever.
But also, there are now Mormon wards and branches in Kinshasa. Who knows, perhaps …