A LETTER FROM ZAMBIA: RACING THROUGH FIRE TO GREET A KING!
Updated: Apr 25
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
We loaded up the car with some of the guys from my church and my lovely wife of course and set off for Mwandi — a little village in the Western Province. Lozi country. The Lozi are a very traditional, very proud tribe that once dominated most of Zambia. Among the Lozi Chiefs were Missionary/Explorer Dr. David Livingstone’s very first Christian converts. The majority of my church members are either Lozi, of the Nyanja tribes or Tonga. The Tonga, however, have only survived at the Lozi’s discretion; the Lozi having conquered them many years ago. There is even a language that is a mixture of the two tribes called Tongaleaha. The Lozi are a very respectful and reverent people. When you greet a Lozi, you bend a bit at the waist, cup your hands in front of you and clap quickly twice, then, holding your right wrist with your left hand, you reach out and shake their right hand, then quickly cup your hands over you heart and say, “enshaw”. I do this when I greet some of the older Lozi’s in my church and they get such a kick out of it, I just love it. They even say I must be part Lozi because I do it so well.
So here we are, on our way to Mwandi scouting it out as a possible place to do a future crusade. The road is so bad that it takes us 4 hours at 10 km/hr to get there. This is our first indication that we are really heading into the bush. I badly dent 3 of the 4 aluminum alloy rims on our Suzuki Escudo Nomade and puncture 1 tire. But we get there safely. Our contact (a man that comes to my church whenever he is in Livingstone on business) is there on the side of the road to meet us and show us around. We are off to see the Wizard (no wait that is another story), but that is what it feels like. He is showing us the central location of Mwandi as we are off to see the surrounding villages that dot the Zambezi river throughout the region. As we are driving on no more than a sand-filled cattle path, weaving in and out of the villages, I notice a brush fire off to my left. This is not uncommon as many times they burn the brush to chase out the bush rats that they use as food. I thought nothing of it. We are driving farther and I see a brush fire off to my right. “Uh, guys, what do you make of this fire?” I asked.
“It is OK Pastor, just somebody burning the brush.” I explained that in the USA when it is 100° F, dry and windy, a fire in the brush is something to be concerned about. But I was just being a silly “muzungu” (white man) and we continued on our way. The fire got larger and uncomfortably closer. Soon it was racing to the path on both sides of my car and a large pillar of smoke is in front of me. “The village is just up ahead” our guide explained to me.
We went about 200 meters further, when he said, “Stop here Pastor, please.” Well I thought we must be at the village because he stopped me so matter-of-factly. He and one of my men got out of the car and walked ahead to survey the road (path!). I told Marjean, “I don’t want to be naïve here, but I don’t see any village. All I see is fire and smoke.” We definitely had a situation here. The alarms were sounding ‘red alert’ in my brain. The alarms that have kept me alive my whole life — the ones that say, “You are a real idiot if you drive any farther.” My brain is refusing responsibility if my body insists on moving ahead. These are the alarms that I’m getting. The men come back to the car and get in. “Pastor, it seems the road is blocked ahead by fire as far as we can see, we’ll have to turn back.” I’m not sure if they are being calm on purpose or if this is how a Zambain panics, I don’t know — but turn back? Now we’re talking. So I turn my little Suzuki around and to my complete surprise the fire is raging in front of us now and in fact, all I can see is fire. The only place that isn’t burnt is the round patch of pathway we are currently on. Now things are getting exciting. There is a skinny pathway in front of me where the fire hasn’t quite closed in yet, so its time to take charge here. I put it in 4-wheel drive and said, “Hold on boys, we’re getting out of here.” And we jammed through the smoke, fire on both sides of us, fire in front of us and fire behind us we are dodging little trees and brush and patches of flames, heading for the blue sky. My heart is pounding in my chest and feels like it will break through and go flailing to the floor boards. Incredulously, I cry out to no one in particular, but to all of my guys at once, “Why didn’t you warn me about this? We just drove through fire!”
Chris Lubasi, in his calm and matter-of-fact manner responded, “But Pastor, you are the man of God and if you weren’t worried, than we weren’t worried.” Well then that explains everything! I was waiting for them to sound the alarm if there was an issue and they were taking their queues from me, assuming everything was alright since the ‘man of God’ was not in a desperate state of shear panic (which just between you and me… I was). Not to underestimate the day, but that was a harrowing experience. As we got safely away from the fire, the guide said, “Should we eat first or go on to Mwandi?”
Mwandi In Mwandi, there are some huts, some houses and shanties, a few small shops and a grand palace in the center of town that houses the Lozi chief. The Lozi Chief has the respect of most of the populous of Zambia so the politicians cannot ignore him so he is well taken care of. They used to be called Kings and the tribal name for the Chief means, “Little God.” The town of Mwandi has about 10,000 people and they mostly live at the pleasure of the palace. Sitting on the bank of a wide curve in the Zambezi river, Mwandi has some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. We pulled up next to the riverbank to get a closer look at the scenery when a man comes running up to our car telling us we can’t park there; that it is Palace grounds and for security reasons, we absolutely cannot park there. In my own character and ability to turn any situation into a good chance to laugh, I said, “I am here to see the Chief. Tell him that Pastor Cunningham from Livingstone is here to see him.”
“Oh no, you can’t see the Chief without an appointment, he doesn’t see anyone unless they have cleared in advance.”
“Well then, we’ll just have to look at the river then,” I said with a smile, all the while keeping my car where it was.
“It’s OK then Pastor.” He said, returning to the Palace.
When we finished looking at the beautiful river, we return to the car and standing there is the very same security man. “The Chief will see you now,” He said matter of factly. “This must be your lucky day, but he said he would love to talk with you.” I was shocked and surprised at this turn of events as I was only half serious.
Not one to miss an opportunity, I agreed. My Lozi church members were worried because if they have an audience with the Chief they are expected to kneel and bow to “Little God” and as Christians they knew that wasn’t right. I assured them that I had no intention of kneeling and bowing and that I was going there to represent the “Big God.” Secretly I was a little worried about meeting a traditional Chief. What should I expect? I pictured a witchdoctor with a robe and feathers and a mask of sorts. Marjean and I were escorted into his veranda to wait for his arrival. The security briefed us on protocol. He would come out and we were to stand, then he would introduce himself, then we would be introduced to him, then we would sit back down as he does. But no need to kneel and bow. After about 20 minutes of waiting, out steps a balding 40 year old Zambian wearing a silk shirt, khakis and sandals…
“Hello,” he said in perfect English “My name is Chief Inyambo.” As we sat down, he added, wiping his brow, “How can you guys stand this heat! I’ve lived here all my life and I can never get used to it!” It turns out that Chief Inyambo is a Swaziland University Law graduate with aspirations of (and perhaps a good chance of) being a future President of Zambia. He is delightful and we spent the next hour talking about leadership, integrity, the direction and future of Zambia. He gave us the green light on a Crusade in Mwandi and told us that the Palace was at our disposal for anything we might need. I talked to Him about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I prayed with him and for him and left him some literature on our churches and what we were doing throughout this great nation of Zambia. What a day.