The last time I wrote here, I suggested that America and its leadership is getting worn out — becoming the Hollow Men that TS Eliot speaks of in his poem. This time I’d like to talk about the other direction that people can go. I’d like to tell you about a man of true genius.
My wife Damaris and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in Liberia in the mid-80s. We were there before the long civil war broke out, but during some of the early rebellions that presaged the war. We lived in Zwedru, a provincial town in the back-end of the country. And there we met Africain Always.
You can get a sense of the man’s gravitas from the fact that everyone called him “Africain.” He lived in the middle of an African nation, and everyone around him (except a handful of American PCVs, two Canadian missionaries and a German priest) was African. But nevertheless, he was known by everyone as “Africain.” (He spelled it the French way, but everyone pronounced it the English way.)
A few other people have pulled off this trick. Charles deGaulle and Kemal Ataturk both had names that declared them the leader of their nation. Sapurmarat Niyazov did too, but Turkmenbashi was his own maniacal creation and not really his name. As I understand it, deGaulle was really the name of the French leader. And in the case of the “Father of the Turks,” nobody had last names until he transformed the Ottoman Empire into modern Turkey.
Anyway, Africain Always, whose real names was Musa something, had no pretensions of leadership. He just wanted to be a friend. As the picture shows, he was something of an artist and he would paint a mural on the side of your house if you wanted it. The rest of the time he spent philosophizing.
The reason I say Africain was a genius, and why I offer him as a hopeful antidote to a more widespread degeneracy, is his revelation about life and art.
Africain worked with wood as well as paint. He told me once that he had formerly made things from butterfly wings and turtle shells. He described to me the way he had formed these creations. And he admitted that people had liked them. But then his voice took on a more serious tone, and he said, “But then I realize the turtle should live. I realize the butterfly is God’s artwork — not mine.”
If you had an immediate impulse to disapprove of killing butterflies and turtles, then good for you. But you live in a time and place where animal rights is “a thing.” You may just be following the crowd. It may be that the virtues you value most, in yourself and others, might by nothing more than following the crowd and taking the easy road.
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Africain was definitely not taking the easy road or following the norm. He lived in a time and place where animal well-being was not considered. Dogs were tormented by children. Poison was thrown into ponds to kill fish (which the people would then eat). So the realization that the butterfly already existed, already was beautiful — was in fact more beautiful fluttering in the sunlight than pasted down on a canvas — was a moment of true genius.
By offering this example of an African man, I am not saying anything about the relative merits of any nation or race. I’m saying goodness may occur anywhere.
I also want to ask each person who reads this: When have you gained a new understanding that came straight from God? True, we aren’t all called to be prophets. Most right ideas are already out there, and all we need is to learn them and follow them. But as the culture around us become more and more effete, degenerate and “hollow,” it becomes more and more like a thing of genius to stand against the norm.