Cover Story

The other venue

"The other venue" Continued...

Issue: "Africa: The new frontier," July 16, 2005

Bonga continued to insist: "We have sex before marriage." Mr. Smith shot back, "But Bonga can get AIDS and die."

Unless he gets a new attitude based on a new worldview, Bonga is likely to be dead within five years. But others are listening.

In the Zambian bush country, we rode on the back of a Mitsubishi flatbed truck with 39 Africans jubilantly and melodically singing of their faith in Christ: "He is not number eight. He is not number six. He is number one." Standing behind the cab was like being at the prow of a ship with the wind blowing hard, and dirt roads tough on truck suspensions taking the place of waves.

We rode past mud huts with thatched roofs, ducking branches as the truck darted between short, moisture-starved trees, watching out for thorns like fishhooks that have an African name translated as, "Where do you think you were going?" People got off at thatch-covered mega-huts in four of the perhaps 500 villages of the Tonga tribe. Each time Africans and Americans greeted each other with formal words-"How are you doing, my brother?"-and lots of informal hugs.

The two-hour church service at one of the villages, Siamusambo, was one that would awaken even jaundiced members of suburban evangelical churches: Zack Brady, a 20-year-old spending his summer helping out in Zambia, exuded afterwards, "I love it. It's a thrill. . . . There's nothing like it." With 85 Africans sitting on bricks-men on one side clapping and women on the other side, some nursing babies, dressed in their wrap-around best-hymns and spiritual songs wafted over the still air.

Men's and women's quartets and quintets often led the singing and showed off dance steps like those of the Temptations, their elegance marred only by pressure to get an awkward American male to join in, with friendly laughter overcoming politeness when he did. Before and after the service, local leaders like Padmore Mudanga, Edward Kampwala, and Samson Mulubulaha, son of a village headman, spoke of their enthusiasm for Christianity and their friendliness toward America.

The enthusiasm is unsurprising, given the alternative in African tradition: what Mike Jones, who grew up on a North Carolina farm and now teaches Zambians better agricultural techniques, calls "a fear-based culture." Traditionally in tribal Zambia, bad omens are everywhere. For example, if an owl comes to a Zambian's house or a tree nearby, it means that someone in the family will die or be very sick. Zambians often believe that the spirits of ancestors inhabit the blossoms of the mighty baobab tree, and that a lion will eat anyone who plucks from it a flower.

With witch doctors still active in the Zambian bush, it's sometimes hard to leave such fears behind. Babies traditionally wear around their necks little charms that are supposed to protect them from demons. Jerry Beall, a Maryland pastor who is executive director of Sons of Thunder, a nonprofit group that has created an orphanage and schools for children and Zambian farmers, reports that "when we get ready to dedicate a baby to Christ, we ask for the charm. It's a real challenge: The mothers stand there with a life-and-death choice they have to make, and you can see on their faces the concern."

But when the choice is made, the joy is great. Adults and children in village after village greeted standees on the flatbed truck with friendly waves, and many dozens of smiling children ran after it. Zambians are friendly toward Americans, Mr. Beall says, because "they see we're here to give and not take."

The giving doesn't just happen. Sons of Thunder has its Zambian base because members of Damascus Wesleyan Church, located in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., made a hard choice in the mid-1990s.

The church at that point had a small sanctuary and a growing congregation. It had to divide into two services, and most people didn't like doing that, especially because the sanctuary wasn't even big enough for the second service, which had to meet in a local school.

But when church members and associates donated and pledged $287,000 in a special offering one Sunday, it didn't go toward a new building. That money went to purchase a 99-year-lease on 10,000 acres in Senkobo, Zambia, 15 miles north of Livingstone and the Zimbabwe border. The land came with a beautiful farm house, 2,700 fruit trees, trees, cattle and other animals, four deep wells, three dams, a tobacco curing barn that could be turned into apartments, and other farm buildings that could become orphanages and classrooms.

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