I have only one Michael Jackson story.
Michael Jackson was an international pop icon for a very long time, because he started his career so early. He was also African American. Bob Marley predated Jackson, and was Afro-Caribbean. For these and various other reasons, the face of Bob Marley and the face of Michael Jackson adorned the walls and backbars of clubs and taverns throughout Zaire in the 1980s. Moreover, these were the ONLY faces one saw in these contexts.
Now, you have to understand that Zaire is to Afro Pop music what New Orleans is to Jazz. Or more so. Actually, Afro Pop music simply emanated from Zaire and all other contributing regions were satellites, back in the 1980s. So, at these clubs and taverns, it was Afro Pop being played, and you never, ever heard Bob Marley or Michael Jackson’s music. But their faces were always there, and everyone who lived in the mainstream Urban Congolese culture knew their names and understood their significance.
But, as I said, the actual artistic products of these two musicians were not necessarily known to most people directly. Especially the children who generally were not allowed in the taverns and clubs.
So one day, Bwana Ndege decided to fix that.
Bwana Ndege is a friend of mine who hails from Europe but who has lived in Zaire/Congo since the 1950s. Originally, Bwana Ndege had the job of book keeper on a plantation, and owing to the standard technological time warp experienced by this region of Central Africa, he kept the books with a quill pen. He kept the quill pen behind his ear. So the kids started to call him “Mr. Bird.” Now, go look up Mr. Bird in your handy dandy English-KiSwahili dictionary and you’ll get: Bwana Ndege.
Over time, Bwana Ndege became the owner of several plantations, married a local girl, and eventually gave up the plantations and moved to the city to run a safari company. Since his safari company was heavily involved in logistics, and he had an interest in the area of our research project (his plantations were in that general area) and for various other reasons, people on our research project in Zaire had a lot of interaction with Bwana Ndege. I stayed in his very comfortable home many times, and spent many a dinner there, followed by an evening in the living room sipping something or another, and every now and then depending on availability, watching an old movie on the VHS tape machine with Bwana Ndege, his wife, a few friends including local ex patriots and the occasional missionary.
There were also kids on the compound. These were children, grand children, nieces and nephews of several people in the household, including Bwana Ndege’s wife, his company’s managers, the cooking staff, his sister in law, and so on. I never had a very good idea of who these kids were exactly. But when the movies were on, the kids were gone. They did not live (most of the time) in the compound, but rather, at a different location, so by the end of dinner time, they would be home somewhere. We only tended to see them during the after school, pre-dinner period of the day.
So one day, Bwana Ndege sauntered into the living room were several of us were trying to stay cool while waiting for our truck to get fixed, and said, “Look at this!” as he placed something in the VHS player.
Moments later, the music video “Thriller” came on the screen.
“Some of the kids were asking who Michael Jackson is” he said. “Most of these kids have never even seen the TV working before. This will be fun!”
Later that evening, the children were rounded up and brought to the compound and into the living room. The atmosphere was festive. They knew they were going to see something on the TV. All these kids lived in households with no TV (or for that matter, electricity) but since they had links to this middle class household, they had some idea what a TV was, and in truth, most of them must have seen a glimpse of it now and then. But I remind you, they were here during the post school pre dinner phase of the day. If you know anything about these remote jungle cities, you’ll know this: That is when the municipal electricity is generally turned off. It is, in fact, nap time. So generally speaking, this was probably the first time most of these kids were able to sit down in a room with a TV and actually watch it. And what they were going to watch was Jackson’s over the top ground breaking music video, Thriller.
It was dark. Bwana Ndege turned off most of the lights so it was darker. He put in the tape. The machine made funny noises for a while. Then the music video for Thriller came on.
Some of the little ones seemed ready to cry. There was a great deal of shouting and general utterances of amazement. No one’s eyes left the television screen again. All of the children, and some of the adults who had seen it, were totally freaked out.
Then it was over, then there was silence. Then the kids started to yell.
Mara ingine! Mara ingine! Tena tena tena tena!
… And what do you suppose that meant, dear reader?
Remember thriller? Allow me to refresh your memory.