Zambia long ago

By Peter Finlay

A freezing December has turned my thoughts back over 50 years to the day my train trundled across the mighty Zambezi with the Smoke that Thunders only a hundred or two yards away – Mosi Oa Tunya in the name David Livingstone first heard it called in the original Lozi of the peoples in whose land it lay. He peered in wonder into its vast depths from a little island perched on its very edge. Then he made the biggest mistake of his life in naming it for a little lady in England. It was the only place in all his travels that he re-named. He had too much respect for the music and traditions of the African languages he knew so well. Yet one has to be full of huge admiration for this man who single-handedly took on the challenges of a continent ravaged by the slave trade and who through years of desperately weakening illnesses forged ahead to bring the message of his beloved Saviour to all the peoples he met – and in his deep love for them he vowed to free them as far as he possibly could from the curse of slavery. It’s hard not to see him as one of the greatest sons of his country embracing as he did both its west with a grandfather from Ulva (next to Mull) and the Lowlands too with his upbringing in the Clyde Valley.

For myself I rejoiced in the breath of freedom as I crossed that amazing river and knew I was now out of the lands of apartheid to the south. I had stood on Table Mountain and looked down at a small island below and knew that I was looking directly at the prison of one Nelson Mandela. In the land I was entering the leader’s name was Kenneth Kaunda who grew up in the north in the small mission station of Lubwa where his own father had brought the Christian message from neighbouring Malawi. I myself spent a good number of months there myself travelling from village to village on my yellow chi-tuku-tuku or n’chinga ya mulilo. You can take your pick as to whether you prefer a motor bike be called after the noise it makes or if you would choose to call it a fire bicycle!

I had first spent some months living in the small village of Lupungu to learn the Bemba language. How fortunate I was that my teacher was an elder at the village church called Eleazar Namweleu Katongo who was said ‘to speak and preach in perfect high class old style ciBemba, with clear diction’. He was in fact a most delightful man, warm and full of laughter. Also in Lupungu was Ba Joseph, Eleazar’s blind friend and Ba Dinah next door to me who with her daughters would cook my ubwali (thick maize porridge) and whatever relish was available to go with it – spinach, fried ants or caterpillars or – easier on my palate – omelette from the hens that skipped about everywhere. Strangely in the hut so close to mine that my neighbour and myself could have touched hands without stepping outside, was a young man called Timothy Kandeke. He had studied in Poland and was very interested in philosophy and politics. We used to discuss the philosophy of Berkley and others. He has since published books on the Bemba language and ’The Fundamentals of Zambian Humanism’ concerning the thought of Kenneth Kaunda. So Scotland and Poland met in an obscure village in one of the most remote places in Africa!

My work took me into prisons, hospitals as well as isolated villages. For the prisoners it might have been a relief from the daily drudgery to sit on an upturned bucket for a sermon or a prayer or to sing Lesa e kachema wandi (the Lord’s my shepherd) which sounded quite lovely to the local tune with the Bemba words. In a village early in the day one might see a schoolboy sweeping the school yard with a small hand brush still draped in the blanket that had given him some warmth in the cold night air – remembering most of Zambia is about the same height as Ben Nevis. At the weekend one might find another boy teeing up in a corner of the town (almost entirely European) golf course with his home made club. Leprosy was fairly common and visits to the nearby Leprosy village were made. There one would see so many patients their legs in plaster casts to protect their feet from accidental cuts or burns when they no longer were able to feel the normal warning signs of pain. They would do all sorts of agricultural type work, even cultivating fruit and maybe harvesting the lemons or whatever with the aid of their crutches. In almost every village beer was often brewed and one might see someone stirring a large pot of the brew they called ubwalwa as part of the process. When it came to drinking it they were not thinking so much of pints as of something a bit more generous! One would stay the night with the villagers in huts they provided. Not every morning would one be awakened by such a charming young lady as the appropriately named Chama Mulenga who stayed near her lovely grandfather. She had quite a mischievous way about her with laughter all over her face. Some of the places I went to were far down in the immense Luwanga Valley where herds of elephant roamed. A delicacy there was the beautifully tasting little antelope – the duiker. It was lovely roasted but to those who knew the cuisine of the country the best flavours were brought out when stewed in its own excrement. Yes, truly! (I tried that variant only once!)

It was very surprising indeed when once I went into a village to be told there had never been a musungu (literally someone the colour of millet) there since Livingstone himself. I suppose that totally unplanned and unknowingly our paths must have crossed a few times however vast the distances there are with endless forest in every direction. The relatively small Lake Mweru was one of the lesser known places he was the first European to set eyes on. I am glad I have photos I took of youths fishing on its waters from their dug-out canoes.

Well to its east was the far larger and so beautiful Lake Malawi and once I found my (or my chitukutuku found its) way up the multiple hairpin bends to the place that still bears Livingstone’s name. Livingstonia Hospital was manned by a single doctor from Northern Ireland and I soon was welcomed as his guest. Donald Brownlie worked heroically and sometimes I went with him to some of his ‘clinics’ 2000 feet below on the Lake shore. I would join him sitting in the back of the little lorry that served to transport the patients to and fro between shore and hospital. The whole way they would be singing their favourite hymns in the local Tubuka language with Donald as enthusiastic as any of the patients. There he would be with his patients and his stethoscope examining them while hens wandered about jumping over the sufferer. Not that this flustered Donald in the least.

These were good days in Africa and the sense of its beauty and the beauty of its peoples has never left me. From time to time I still manage to give voice to that lovely hymn – ‘Lesa e kachema wandi, nshakabili pe’….and something of the warmth of that continent might just find its way into the winter chill.


Prayer in prison


Future golf champion


Leprosy patient harvests lemons


Beer in the making


Chama Mulenga’s good morning


Doctor Brownlie in his clinic

All photo credits: Peter Finlay. Featured image shows boys fishing in dug out canoes on Lake Mweru.