Bandas and Bibles

Trip Start Apr 26, 2005
Trip End Nov 17, 2005

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Flag of Zambia  ,
Friday, May 6, 2005

In the tiny front room of a house the size of a trailer, 15 adults and 2 babies, members of the Reformed Church of Zambia, study the Bible in Chinyanja, the most common dialect in this part of Africa. I had some Chinyanja when I was a boy, and am now trying to pick it up, but this is all well over my head. I understand "Yehova" but not much else.

Across from me sits Edward (Banda) Phiri, my father's gardener and over-all Man Friday. He invited me to this Bible study in Freedom township after I'd asked him to take me to the small and rambling shantytown not far from my Dad's place. Around him on the floor sit the women, while I share space with the other men, four of us together on a small couch. In the stifling room I'm the only one sweating.

The study leader, Deacon William Banda, interprets the passages read by various members of the congregation. As much as I don't understand what he's saying, his cadence and emotion have a quality that transcends language. One can tell he's talking scripture rather than selling soap.

As the meeting draws to a close Bibles are exchanged for hymn books, and the group breaks into song; the stirring, waxing, waning melody of African singing, each voice with it's role of high, low or middle notes. It's the sound of Africa, a living memory, and I can forget the heat and the sweat running down my back.

Finally, church business and the next meeting time is discussed, followed by a repast of juice and slices of white bread. It takes me a moment to put the refreshments into a religious context, but this is not the place for objections from a stone-cold atheist like myself. If someone gives you bread you break it and eat.

But along with passion and prayer often comes pressure, and Deacon Banda entreats me to join the group and study an English Bible that he says Edward can get for me. People here talk God without hesitation or oblique language, and seem to hold on to their beliefs with much more directness and tenacity than Westerners. Edward, for his part, understands that there's more fun in bringing the Bwana's son than promise in recruiting him, and that my interests are more cultural than ecclesiastical.

As the study group breaks up, Edward and the others amble slowly through Freedom, shaking hands and sharing greeting with passers-by. With my camera out I'm attracting children like the Piper. White faces are a rare site in Freedom, a town of some 500 people, 20 kilometres south of the capital, Lusaka.

This is a place that tourists never see, let alone many better-off Zambians. It's a hard-scrabble, dusty village, alive with markets, chattering neighbours, children and cooking fires.

It's nearing sunset, and Freedom buzzes with pre-dinner activity. Workers from the Chilanga cement factory--it's belching smoke-stacks rise over the township--amble home, and the children, who are on holiday from school, lark about, chasing each other or scraggly chickens for entertainment.

Though unemployment is still high, another major employer in Freedom is a factory producing asbestos building materials. No one seems to raise an eyebrow at the use of this deadly toxin, though; DDT is also still used in this and many other parts of Africa to control mosquitoes.

More openly menacing are the men who ogle my camera as we walk through the narrow alleys and streets of the township. Most people are happy to have their pictures taken, but there are some, in this case a group of guys my age, who dislike the lens. It's more about privacy and dignity that having their souls compromised; an obscure and antiquated notion.

Despite pointing my camera in another direction, these guys think I've been taking their picture, and argue angrily with Edward. Again I don't understand the words but the meaning is clear, and I get the feeling that they would be overjoyed to separate me from my camera. I pray they don't know where I live, though it wouldn't be hard to find out. As we walk out of Freedom, Edward assures me that crime is much lower here in the townships than in the city, but I'm not so convinced.

Off the road and through the bush, a squat, white-washed building echoes with the singing of a church choir in practise. Further down, as if competing for air-time and the attention of the masses, a shebeen, or beer-hall, blasts Zambian pop music over the fields and gathering darkness. It's a tawdry contrast, God vs. Beer, and the choir wraps up while the shebeen blares well into the night.
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