SIAMUSAMBO, Zambia — The G8 leaders’ pronouncement last Friday about aid to Africa reflected the views of international bureaucrats who, as Paul Theroux wrote, ride from meeting to meeting in new Land Rovers.
I wish they would instead ride 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.
Here in this tiny village, Africans and Americans greeted each other with formal words — "How are you doing, my brother?" — and lots of informal hugs. Then came a two-hour church service that could awaken even jaundiced members of suburban evangelical churches. Zack Brady, a 20-year-old American spending his summer helping out in Zambia, exuded afterward: "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 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 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 Christian group active in Zambia, reports: "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, as in a Rocky movie. Zambians are friendly toward Americans, Beall says, because "they see we’re here to give and not take."
The Sons of Thunder effort includes a school now with 300 students, courses in growing more and better crops, and an orphanage where, as nurse JoAnn Byrum put it, "We get infants days or hours away from dying."
Nigerian pastor Anderson Mwiikisa, 85, said that if it weren’t for the American effort, "these children would be in the grave." It’s that type of help that makes Americans popular here.