Chiyembekezo: How It All Began

Read the account of what started the movement at Mbenjere and how Chiyembekezo came to be. This series of articles was written in February through April of 2015 and covers the events with a local witchdoctor that led to our presence in the area. 

From Sorcery to Salvation:  Part 1

Everyone was waiting for the witch-doctor to enter the village. Earlier in the day I was driving through and noticed a large crowd of a couple hundred people gathered under a tree. Men, women, young and old streamed in from all directions, all rushing to one place with a look of excitement on their faces. It was a nervous excitement similar to that of a child when doing something known to be wrong. Word had traveled around that the witch-doctor was coming. 

In the local language they called him “nanga”. He walked into the village, surrounded by six men armed with clubs. I assumed that they were his personal guard. Everything regarding the nanga is based on fear and intimidation and that is what gives them their voice and authority over the people. Looking closer, my second realization was that the witch-doctor wasn’t actually a he but rather a she! She approached the tree with pomp and ceremony in her ghostly, white robe and painted face. The crowd parted before her as she walked through and a seat of honor was given as everyone circled around, waiting for her to speak. 

Before we go further, it’s important to understand how the people regard a nanga. To them, they’re witch-finders but not witches themselves. They claim that they use their power to find and root-out those who are actually practicing dark magic. There’s obviously no difference between the two but in the minds of the locals, a nanga is someone who’s working on the people’s behalf. 

With this in mind, I was told that the nanga / witch-doctor had originally been invited into the village to heal one who was gravely ill. Although, instead of going straight to the sick man, their invited guest claimed that no healing could take place until she had cleansed the village. Thus the reason why they had called the assembly in the first place. 

I caused no small stir standing on the fringe of the crowd that day. Everyone was glancing over and wondering why this white man was in their village. As all this was going on I was trying to think of some Biblically and culturally sensitive plan of attack. They don’t have a class in Bible school called, “What to do when the witch-doctor comes to your ministry area!”

The nanga was speaking in a different language from that of the people so she had to use a translator. She proceeded to call out five, elderly members of the village, claiming that each one was using witchcraft in their homes. These five were poorer than most and it showed in their well worn and ragged clothes. They were in many ways the lesser members of the village. Of course, all five denied any participation in such practices and looked rather upset that they were even accused of such a thing! 

The witch instructed her personal guard to escort her to each of the homes so that she might discover the source of the spiritual disturbance, thus authenticating her claims on those she had chosen.  Of course she managed to find something in each house. The whole thing was a sham based on fear and superstition. I felt like I had gone back in time to the late 1600’s with the Salem witch hunts. It would have been pointless to address the crowd at this point as they were all rallied up in a frenzy. So, I started looking for the headman. This is the one who governs the general happenings of the village and initially authorized the nanga’s invitation earlier that week. As I searched for this man the witch trials continued. 

The nanga took her time as she paraded her findings from the homes of the accused. These items supposedly held spiritual powers that the user channeled to conduct their wizardry. The nanga held up a dead bird for all to see. This was one of the talismans that she claimed was found. The people gasped in shock at this revelation and you could tell that the five were already guilty in the crowd’s eyes. Each talisman was shown and each of the accused was given an opportunity to say a word in their defense. 

About the time we had located the headman of the village, the accused were all considered to be guilty (no surprise there) and were about to undergo the traditional ritual of expelling their dark powers through a series of slices on their forearms. 

It was a good time to stop the proceedings. 

From Sorcery to Salvation:  Part 2

Several hours had passed since we arrived in the village. At this point, our first priority was to make sure that the accused would remain untouched and safe from the mob. It was getting dark now and the sun had already begun to dip into the horizon. From Mbenjere it’s an hour’s drive home and normally I would never be out this late due to the hazards of driving at night. With the sun setting behind the trees, the headman approached where we were waiting.

As we got into our conversation, we explained how what was going on was wrong on so many levels. To start, taking someone against their will and lacerating their arms would be illegal. Secondly, one who is a Christian shouldn’t be practicing traditions from the old ways. I could tell he was a bit uncomfortable and to be honest, so were we! Although, to my surprise, he assured us that he was indeed a follower of Jesus Christ and that it was the people who had invited the nanga and not himself. We received his word that the five accused members of the village wouldn’t be touched.

So, with the threat of immediate danger past, we then addressed the issue of the nanga. Why was she even allowed in the village in the first place? Why had she been given a voice to address the village? While we were talking, she had moved into the hut to see the one for which she was called for to heal. The headman told us that nothing could be done to remove her from his village since she came by invitation. Although, he assured us that she wouldn’t be allowed back once she left. It wasn’t exactly what we wanted and I would be lying if I didn’t say I was a bit disappointed. 

The headman wanted to find a solution to make things right so he looked at us and said, since I can’t physically force the nanga to leave, the least I can do is to give you an opportunity to speak to the people on God’s behalf. We accepted this proposal and agreed to come back after a couple days. 

Making our way back to the truck, we definitely felt somewhat defeated and that the devil had scored one for the day. It wasn’t the victorious ending that I had wanted. Some of the children were following us and I could only imagine what they were thinking after watching the day’s events. Sorcery and witchcraft are common place in their lives and they grow up in fear with what they see and experience. Generation after generation are brought up in its grip with very few ever being released. 

Turning to the children, I told them as best I could in Chichewa that what they saw and heard was wrong and that it went against God and His Word. I explained that they didn’t need to follow the path of sorcery but that there was hope.

After these parting words, my team and I entered our vehicle to head back home but even as we drove away through the bush, we began discussing preparations for our return…

From Sorcery to Salvation:  Part 3

After leaving the Mbenjere Village, I spent the next couple of days preparing for the coming meeting. There were so many topics that would have been relevant but I wanted to focus on just one and make it as simple as possible. It all seemed to come down to who they would submit themselves to and who they would follow, whether God or the old ways.

When we arrived, there were a number of people already waiting for us. The headman of the village had summoned everyone earlier that day and while we didn’t have quite as many in attendance as before, it still looked like there was easily a couple hundred people between the men, women and children. We were excited about having such a great opportunity to present the Gospel and our prayer was that God would get the glory through our endeavors. 

Turning to address the crowd, I thanked the headman for allowing us to return and then went on to introduce our team. I came with three other Zambian men who regularly accompanied me when out in the village. Having these nationals with me is so invaluable and they help bridge the cultural gap. Even after fifteen years in Zambia, I’m always reminded with how much I have yet to learn when it comes to the people’s customs and culture. 

We read out of James 4:7-10

7. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. 9. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. 10. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.

We must make the choice to submit either to God or the Devil. Only this will determine who we will serve with our heart, soul and body. When we realize God’s supremacy, we can’t help but see our own sinfulness and our need for Him. 

It was a good message. For sure, this village would see the light! For sure, everyone would accept Christ, with us driving off into the sunset to serve yet another day…

That didn’t happen. 

Instead, a lady raised her hand and asked, “So… what are you trying to say?”

Obviously there were some that weren’t understanding. I was glad at least for the heads up. We took our time and went through the Scriptures again, answering questions as they came until everyone knew EXACTLY what we were all talking about. 

I would say that the general response was very noncommittal. By the time we finished going over the Scriptures the second time, everyone understood our message and purpose quite well. Most just didn’t agree with it. Although there were some, including the headman, that asked for us to return and to continue teaching from the Scriptures. These people had been taught the old ways for generations. It’s a never ending cycle of lies and superstition, holding them from the truth. Sometimes, before you can build up, it’s necessary to tear down.

From Sorcery to Salvation:  Part 4

We started preparing for our third trip to Benjere and having already addressed the issues of witchcraft and sorcery, it was time to build a foundation in the people’s hearts that would lead to Jesus Christ.

It’s difficult to evaluate where a village is in their understanding of the Bible. You’ll find some that originally lived in the city but moved to the bush later in life. These obviously have a much greater knowledge-base of events and people in the Old and New Testaments. However, most who live in the village were born there. All that these people know about Jesus Christ is that he’s mentioned in the Bible and linked with Christianity. The stories that many of us learned growing up in Sunday school are unknown and foreign to so many. 

With all this is mind, I decided that it would be best to start in Genesis and move forward from there. We would go through the Old Testament and learn its history while making spiritual applications for today. My main focus that I would keep reenforcing throughout the coming weeks would be how man has a choice to follow God. From characters like Adam and Eve and Cain and Able to Noah and the flood, man has always had a choice to submit themselves to God or not. 

It was amazing watching their reactions as we went through the major events of the Old Testament. When we reached the point in our Bible study where we discussed how God confounded the people’s languages at Babel, the people cheered and applauded! It was the first time they heard such a thing and they were happy! It was a great time but what was greater was that the people of Benjere were learning about who God was and about his justice and judgment. They learned how even today there’s always a consequence for disobedience and sin.

Currently we have around fifty adults and the same number of children who attend regularly. When the people aren’t in the fields working on their crops, that number usually doubles. There’s around twenty who are activity participating in our Bible memorization program and a handful who have already completed it and have received their Chichewa Bibles. 

God is doing a great work in the Benjere Village and we’re happy to be part of it. When we return to Zambia, we’ll continue to work with the people there as we establish the church and help its members to grow in Christ. 

Written by Damon