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  • Pastor Tom Cunningham


These letters were written between 1999 and 2003 to my beloved family as an informative and entertaining discourse of life in Zambia. I am going to reprint this series of letters over the next couple of weeks on my blog at the request of many who have read them in times past. I hope you enjoy them and capture the spirit in which they were written originally. Please feel free to leave a comment. I dedicate this reprint to my family… I love you all.

~ Pastor Tom Cunningham

Things are going very well here in Livingstone. The ministry is thriving. We are missing home, however, as we approach our 1-1/2 year mark. I have had a chance to write down one of my latest experiences and thought you might like to read about it…

Rafting the Zambezi

If it were possible to draw upon and catalog experiences from childhood into usable categories of adulthood practice before they are needed, we would all be better equipped to handle the sundry adventures that life often throws at us. Life and experience often throw a dialogue at you, nano-seconds before you need it, when a couple of hours of astute preparation would have been more appropriate and actually necessary. Here is an example of a conversation I had with my mind in the form of an outlying ‘memory’ literally a split-second before the impending experience was quite literally in my face…

LIFE: “Excuse me, remember that time when you were 4 years old and you drifted too far from the shore at your brother’s swim lesson in that water-hole?”

ME: “Uh-h-h, I think so.” (totally bewildered)

LIFE: “Come on now, stay with me here — we have about 4 seconds for recall and reaction and a lot to cover…”

ME: OK, I’m sure I remember that experience.”

LIFE: “Good, now remember how you were bobbing up and down in the water — light then dark, surface then water, then deep… remember that?”

ME: “Yes, I quite remember that feeling… I was only four and…”

LIFE: (interrupting) “yeah, yeah, no time for reminiscing, just recall. Now, one time in your fight for survival, you tried to take a breath and you hadn’t quite broken the surface, so you ended up taking in some water. Then your chest exploded in coughing and gasping. Remember?”

ME: “Yeah… I remember.” (getting very nervous)

LIFE: “Well, remember what you learned from that, you’re gonna need it… Soon!”

ME: “Wait — I…”

At that very moment, our 12-foot raft containing 7 people hit rapid #16 A, B and C in the Zambezi River, appositely called “The Terminator Series”. The Zambezi River is the 4th largest river in all of Africa and the #1 play-boating river in the world. Our raft, now seeming like an inappropriate vessel for water travel hit “Terminator A”, with a ton of water literally like a washing machine. It came upon us, blindsided us like a baseball bat so that our raft flew horizontally in the air, crashing down with vigor. Spiraling sideways, we slammed into “Terminator B” with a negative G-force and an upward thrust; we flipped pitifully in the air. I heard a pathetic scream, the kind that only occurs in car accidents and murder scenes, only to realize later that it had come from me. As the raft flipped, turning slowly at the crest as if gathering strength for the crash downward, I faintly remembered something about a safety rope on the side of the raft that I should hold onto to “avoid becoming a long-swimmer” and something even more distant about waiting before I breathe… My feet are hanging in the air now, no raft underneath, as I lamely felt for the safety rope… there…

“Now hold on, no long-swimmer,” I remember telling myself. “Long-swimmer” is a term the white-water rafting companies piously use for someone who is separated from the raft in the middle of #5 rated world-class rapid that causes them to be dragged violently down the river and thrown limply into the calmer water to the awaiting crocodiles that proceed to devour their piteous, life-less, should-have-hung-on-to-the-safety-rope-you-idiot, body. Holding on to the rope, remembering somehow to take an incredibly good, last breath of air — my body with the raft somewhere above me now came crashing through the surface of the water into the surreal environment of brutal rapids, threatening whirlpools, but no sound. Floating dreamily as ominous currents tug at my feet pulling me downward and thrashing me side to side. It seemed like an eternity of churning water, eddy tugs at my feet and legs, bouncing precariously along until my life-vest pulled me back to the surface. Seeing daylight and realizing that I could still survive this, I went to take another deep breath of air when I hazily saw myself as a four-year old child in a similar situation… a faint glow of sunlight somewhere above me, the surface begging just out of reach… trying to breathe. Air and water both shoot into my lungs demanding immediate expulsion…

Now back in the Zambezi and with that memory, I think, “Wait to clear the surface completely for clear air” and so I continued to hold my breath. Instantaneously, another swirling rapid ambushed me with force and dragged me under again. Had I attempted a breath, I would have taken in water and would have been coughing and sputtering under water. Drawing on a life-experience as a four-year old saved me once again. The second time I approached the surface, we were safely out of the “Terminator” series and well on our way to the “Three Ugly Sisters” — if that is any real consolation of any kind. I took a deep breath and started looking around for my raft mates.

Patrick, one of my visitors with a ministry team from the UK, had been so scared of flipping over that he had actually vomited over the side of the raft before we even hit any rapids simply in anticipation of this kind of thing happening. He was big and scared and not the kind to enjoy the water. Having taken time to assess the situation and depress the emergent panic in my chest, with plenty of air, I looked around and started shouting Patrick’s name. Our Zambian guide, Fast Eddy (now you get the picture), was already on top of the overturned raft and was shouting orders to the other mates who were now starting to emerge from the depths. Patrick was nowhere to be seen. I called to fast Eddy, “Check for Patrick, I don’t see him and he is the one that will need our help.” Eddy pointed to my right and smiled. I looked over and about 20 meters behind us was Patrick clinging unsteadily, white as a ghost, to the front of the safety Kayak that follows all the rafts through the rapids looking for “long-swimmers”. The kayaker, Nico Chassing, was ranked among the top 5 free-style kayakers in the world and was more than capable of taking care of Patrick.

Then unexpectedly, there was a tugging, grabbing and swatting at my legs that were obviously still dangling in the Zambezi river calm water now. I was still hanging onto the safety rope at the side of the raft — and for an instant I thought of the 5-meter crocodiles I had seen earlier in the Crocodile farm and began to sense an oncoming panic. I jerked my legs out of the way of the intruder, kicking hard at another one when I saw an orange blur just under the surface. I reached down and pulled at the safety vest of one of our raft mates, yanking him to the surface. Catapulting out of the water with my hand gripped to his vest came the red-faced, gasping and panicked raft-mate of ours who was trapped under the raft when it went over. In trying to get back under the raft and to the outside with the rest of us, he had run into a sea of legs that were all suspended there, so he began pushing our legs aside to get to the surface before he ran out of air. In pushing and grabbing at our legs he had been kicked in the head by several of his more suspicious raft-mates. By now we were in the calm water, the raft was turned right side up again, Bill Clinton was still in office and we were on our way to the “Three Ugly Sisters.”

After a few more successful rapids with less spectacular adventure, but incredible thrills, we came to an area of extreme calm. The Batoka Gorge on the Zambezi River, about 25 Kilometers after the Victoria Falls is one of the most spectacular sites in the world. It reminded me of the unbelievable majesty of the “Resurrection Bay” off the coast of Seward, Alaska. The Zambezi cuts its path out of solid rock and snakes its way at will to the Indian Ocean. Cliffs ranging from hundreds to a 1000 meters high run along its banks, leaving barely discernible white-sand beaches, 3-5 meters wide that sit before the cliffs like patches of paradise large enough to throw the raft onto and sit in the sand and sun forever. It was along one of these banks that we arrived at our mid-trip swimming hole. “Who wants to jump in?” Fast Eddy asks with a wry smile. Well jumping, swimming and diving are as much a part of my make-up as milking cows is to a dairy farmer — so I jumped at the chance. We followed the Kayaker up the side of the gorge, one rock at a time, farther and farther up the cliff. I got to a point and looked down, “Not bad,” I thought, “I used to do this all the time at Dover Pool about 100 years ago.” I looked back up and the Kayaker is still climbing, so I followed. We got to a ledge about 7-8 meters high (that’s 21-25 feet for you and me) and he pointed to a natural diving platform cut out of the rock. “Here you go, the camera’s running…” So, with unjust cause and palpable insanity running through my blood, this Zambian Missionary ‘still-thinking-he’s-18’, ran and jumped with all his fearlessness into the sunny afternoon sky… falling, falling, falling, ‘hey-somebody-let-the-water-out-on-me’, falling, splash — “Ugh… OK, that was fun. Although it seemed higher than it looked, nonetheless I’m still alive.

The rafting trip took all day, running through 15 major Zambezi rapids, 8 of which are classified as world-class 5 rapids. Our rafting team, having let Patrick off to the slower raft, dubbed ourselves the A-team and became quite confident in our endeavors to join the “extreme adventurers over thirty club”. On rapid number 20, we had gotten so confident that before we approached the rapid, we jumped over the edge of the raft, holding onto to the safety rope and let the raft drag us through the rapids while we were bounding along side. Another adventure in the life of a Missionary in Africa — a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.

God Bless you all, until next time.


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