Time To Honour Alice Lenshina

IN the UNIP government when information was monopolised, a hero or heroine was defined by the state with several people being called ‘dissidents’ and those who supported the government earning the enviable name ‘patriots ’ or ‘comrades’.

Recently my friend and fellow columnist Sishuwa Sishuwa wrote in the media about the difficult of defining who a hero is, with the task usually being done by people in authority who decide who should be honoured and who shouldn’t.

There is one internationally-acclaimed iconic Zambian who has been called a villain despite making huge contribution to this country. Her name is Alice Lenshina.
I know many Zambians who have been fed with lies and half-truths about this great woman would disagree with me outrightly and accuse me of glorifying a rebel, cultist and self-centred egoist who led to the death of scores of her followers.

I expect this outcry, because I know many have not bothered to understand Lenshina and the situations that created her.
To those who have roundly condemned the hugely misunderstood woman, I would remind them that Lenshina, the matronly, semi-literate Chinsali woman was many things rolled in one; mystic, pioneer of the Zambian church, feminist, and anti-witchcraft campaigner.

Recently, Lenshina was included in an important book In Praise of Black Women together with iconic female characters like Madam Yoko, Queen of the Kpaa Mende and national heroine of Sierra Leone; Princess Kesso, a Fulani Muslim princess from Guinea who became one of the world’s first black models and Ellen Kuzwayo, member of the African National Congress, whose struggle for civil and women’s rights landed her in prison.

Other great women who were listed with Lenshina are Dulcie September, the ANC representative in France, killed for her ardent support for the cause of freedom; Miriam Makeba, internationally loved South African singer; Winnie Mandela, who carried on the struggle during Nelson Mandela’s long imprisonment; and many more who made a mark in a male-dominated world.

Lenshina, a Bemba woman, was born Mulenga Lubusha later christened Alice in a Church of Scotland mission in northern Zambia that was just blossoming in the region competing for souls of unconverted ‘natives’ with the Roman Catholic Church.
Lenshina experienced a mystic call in 1953 after a bout of cerebral malaria that put her in a coma. Malaria was greatly misunderstood then by Africans, many who sometimes linked its symptoms to demon possession.

When she eventually regained consciousness, Lenshina claimed to have met Jesus Christ during her coma and proclaimed herself a prophetess called by God to teach a new way of spiritual living for Africans and elicited a mass response regionally with a membership of about 65,000 followers from her homeland, Tanzania and Malawi.

Her new church was called Lumpa, which in ci-Bemba means ‘supreme’ or ‘best of all’.She later earned herself the name Lenshina ,a ci-Bemba bastardisation of Queen Regina of England.
The church lost some 600 lives in a clash with the Kaunda government in 1964 due to refusal of Lumpa members to give unconditional support to the ruling political party that culminated in banning of the church and detention of Lenshina.

It was this clash and grim results that led to UNIP to launch a smear campaign to criminalise Lenshina and her followers. All the good things she did were overshadowed by the massive propaganda against her.
Though Lenshina died in 1978, her followers are still active in Zambia and neighbouring Congo. Her contribution to the birth of the Zambian church, feminism and campaign against witchcraft have been ignored or underplayed.

I am not calling for recognition of Lenshina basing on her beliefs which I find ecclesiastically unorthodoxy and quaint but on her influence on the Zambian church, contribution to feminism and crusade against witchcraft.

With no external financial help as was the case with other churches, Lenshina built a grand temple at Kasoma village named Sion-Zion in 1958. Gradually the revival became a witchcraft eradication movement and evolved into an independent church called the Lumpa Church in 1955.

The new church Lumpa rapidly out-did both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland becoming so successful with a massive membership of 150,000 members in the northern and eastern provinces of Northern Rhodesia.

The church’s drive for membership was so aggressive that it was seen as a political threat by both the colonial government then led by the United Federal Party (UFP) and UNIP.
Lenshina’s contribution to the history of the Zambian church was heavily under-played by the arch-rivals of her church-UNIP.

However, her influence was so enormous that UNIP adopted the Lumpa slogan of Kwacha-dawn using it as a political slogan for Black Nationalism. Lenshina’s followers had used the word to denote the spiritual awareness.

Lenshina’s other bitter rival the Roman Catholics, who constitute the biggest church in Zambia, also borrowed heavily from the inspiring Lumpa hymns. The Catholic Lay movement Legion of Mary adopted some of the uplifting Lumpa hymns.

Lenshina’s uplifting hymns were far superior to the poorly translated versions sung in other churches. Lenshina’s songs have survived into popular hymns sung in main-stream churches. She was a prolific composer who claimed that Jesus Christ himself taught her many of the hymns.

Prominent Zambian academician Owen Sichone, an authority on Lenshina and the Lumpa church, has rightly noted that the prophetess was given a bad name by her arch-enemies UNIP who waged a successful propaganda calling her a demented cultist who forced her followers to drink urine.

Professor Sichone knew Lenshina personally when he worked as a young teacher in Chinsali and has disputed the numerous myths about the woman who has been painted as a monster who should not be revered by right-thinking people.

Other scholars have upheld Prof.Sichone’s acute observation by noting that Lenshina preached a Christian doctrine with baptism as the only observance and successfully attacked witchcraft and sorcery surpassing other conventional foreign faiths in the crusade.

According to Bemba texts of hymns collected from Lumpa followers and published in 1960 by anthropologist Père Louis Oger, the Lumpa was a Christian church like any other but was more indigenised, thus its popularity with Africans.

Professor Sichone has also highlighted Lenshina’s fight against discrimination of women long before the Beijing conference by pointing out that she outlawed polygamy and widow inheritance, which the Zambian feminist movement is still battling against today.

She also proved that a woman can lead a religious organisation when independent churches led by male prophets on the other hand barred women from preaching from the pulpit. Lenshina questioned this sexist practice.

Zambia has gone through a lot of transition since Lenshina’s death. They include more freedom for women, children and other marginalised groups.

More research keeps on resurfacing in favour of the greatest woman Zambia has ever produced. Her charisma, fierce determination and enduring power are enviable and should be honoured by level-minded people who recognise merit.