The mission had not changed all that much in the decades since I was last here.
The long narrow buildings still angle away at right angles to the flow of the river. Their corrugated tin roofs have a lot more rust, at least this was so with the upper sheets which run down both sides of the roof’s ridge roof. It was evident that on some buildings the lower sheets had been replaced. The blend of the old and the new gave an almost artistic flavor to the roofline. The russet leaching of the rust of the higher sheets had begun to stain the shininess of the corrugated gullies of the lower one’s.
As is often found on officious buildings in Central Africa the first few feet of the outside walls are painted blue and the rest of the wall up to the eaves, a creamy white. During the wet season the splashes of mud which are flicked onto the walls from the roof’s run-off, are not as noticeable.
The exterior of the new church building was painted in this fashion.
“What is the urgency that brings you here?”
The old priest had his left forearm tucked behind his back, where it hooked the elbow of the other and held it wedged behind him, from whence it dangled down to sway slowly to the cadence of each of his deliberate steps.
Finishing our tea, he had suggested that we walk the grounds of the mission, and for him to show me the changes.
We had walked from his office room to the barn-like building of the church which faced looking out over the breadth of the Zambezi River as it curls down out of Angola, loosely cradled in the flatness of the Lozi plain. In the distance, on the far bank, I could see the scrawny straggle of civilization, strewn about like scaled-up versions of the chaff and husks from a village threshing floor.
Then, reaching it, we were standing before the altar, in the quasi gloom afforded by the restriction of the bright outside light as it squeezed in through the narrowness of the four sets of windows set high in each wall.
The ivory paint of its interior absorbed some of the harshness of the pools of sunlight as they shimmered on the floor. Behind the altar a big panel of chevron wicker work adorned the back wall. At each corner of the cavernous space banners had been hung. These dangled down from the corrugated ripples of the tin metal roof, with colors of yellow, black and green and patterns matching those of the wicker work.
The words, “AS THE HOLY SPIRIT FILLS THE WORLD”, ran perpendicularly down one, and ““USE YOUR LIFE FOR GRACE AND GLORIFY HIS KINGDOM” ran down another.
I could not help feeling that to a cursory glance they could be mistaken for propaganda banners at a political rally. This sense was magnified by the colors being the prime hues of some of the revolutionary flags of a few of the nations in this part of Africa.
But, I thought to myself, at the end of the day I guess experience has shown both the Priest and the Politician what works. After all they were both in the business of winning the hearts and minds of the plebeian poor, and why not use workable techniques.
The thin wooden carving of the crucified figure on the cross hanging on chains above the alter, reminded me of the freshly sliced strips of meat hanging from our old farm house, slowly drying into biltong.
I was suddenly aware of an amorphous sense of homecoming. This was not so much spiritual, even though I was in a house of God, with its tall walls and sparse light. Rather it was because the dimness, high walls and corrugated tin roof reminded me of the inside of the tobacco curing barns on a farm I grew up on near Chikari. I thought it strange that this decades-dormant feeling should whisper to me at this unusual place. Maybe there is a God, I pondered, and if so it must be the Khoi-San Bushman version. Their God has a sense of humor and likes to play tricks with us.
As we stood before the alter, and I prepared to tell the priest what was troubling me, I was cognizant that I was standing at the front line of the conflict and struggle for the fundamental heart of Africa, its spiritual heart. From Robert Moffat at Kuruman, through David Livingston at Kololo, right up to Father Xavier, it had always been these missionaries and their missions who had been the soldiers-of-the-soul who had fought for the essence of Africa. Following in the wake of these men of morality, had come the traders and administrators, with their new laws, coming from places just as far away as the ideas of the new religions.
However unsuitable to the local cultures their ideas, for over a hundred years missionaries have led the charge towards the deepest darkest parts of the beliefs of Africa, with a philosophy epitomized, in many cases inadvertently by what is written on Livingston’s statue at the Victoria Falls.
“Christianity, Commerce and Civilization.”
But now, as the sub-continent reclaimed its old self there were still a few of these old men, like Father Xavier, who remained to fight the rear-guard activity at these lonely outposts in an attempt to save some form of victory in the battle over Africa’s beliefs.
“Father, I need Moses’s help.”
He has always been my help. I need this help again.
Father Xavier had turned and was pacing measuredly beside me as we moved back out into the bright afternoon sunlight.
“When we were with the Buffalo Battalion,” I paused, “he spoke the Portuguese to the Angolan Soldiers in the unit to help me communicate with them, until I had learned enough of the language. Now I need him to translate a different language for me. Just like the Portuguese that he learned from you, it is a language of his people, that language of the Bush medicine men. The language of the witch doctors.”
“Father, because you raised Moses from the time he was a young boy, he has followed in your footsteps. I found out, actually only after many months together, that he is a religious man. This surprised me, considering who we were.”
But he rationalized this to me by believing he was fighting to stop the forces of evil. He said that the communists were the anti-Christ. He was fighting to stop their spread into Africa.
So now I need him to help fight another “evil.”
Opposite us I could see small groups of children. They were sitting on the sand in the shade of the trees.
Each group had at least one adult, either standing or sitting on a chair in the position of authority. Some groups even had two or three adults. I was not sure if these were trainee teachers. Most of the activities of the mission centered around educating.
In this part of the sub-Continent it was well known that the Jesuits provided some of the best available.
As we passed between the groups Father Xavier tarried here and there to listen. Sometimes he would swap a few words with the adults, and with a smile and a nod acknowledge the greeting given to him.
Leaving the kids behind we continued our way back to his office and I picked up where I had left off.
“Father, as you know the Bush is never far from the African soul, and there’s some things that the African will immediately recognize and know how to deal with. These are things that those like me, and maybe you, even though I grew up with them, we will never be able to fathom.”
“Father, I work for a big international Conservancy. It is an organization which is trying to promote conservation in many parts of Africa. I have been hired to try to reduce the level of poaching in the huge buffer concessions that surround the national park. At this time I am focusing on the area of the North East section of the conservation region, the Lunga-Luswishi.”
“But Father, strange things have been happening. Witchcraft is involved, and I don’t understand why. As one who has lived here for so long, you know the people better than anyone. You know that the ancient witchcraft is always lurking below the surface of many of the souls. Powerful forces are subverting otherwise good men.”
“If I am going to succeed, it will not be just a case of tracking the footprints of the interlopers, but also the tracking and searching for the spirits that are afoot in the Lunga Luswishi.”
I was aware of the warmth of the sun, and of the sweat it produced causing the fabric of my shirt to cling to the inside of my armpits.
“Father I am too pale, not just in my skin but in my soul to be able to really reach that dark side of Africa. I need Moses. I need him as in the past to be my translator and guide. Instead of men’s footprints, I need him to help me track and hunt their ideas.”
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