Zambia in History-Alice Lenshina

Alice Lenshina was a Zambian woman and self-appointed “prophetess” who is noted for her part in the”Lumpa Uprising”, which claimed 700 lives.

Lenshina founded and led the Lumpa Church, a religious sect that embraced a mixture of Christian and native beliefs and rituals. The Lumpa Church rejected the authority of any “earthly government”, it refused to pay taxes and it established its own tribunals. Shortly after Zambia became independent under President Kenneth Kaunda, she and her followers were engaged in the so-called “Lumpa Uprising”. The uprising was suppressed and she was detained, but the Lumpa Church was never entirely eradicated.

Lenshina preached a basically Christian doctrine but with baptism as the only observance. Baptism was a special ceremony administered by Lenshina herself. She attacked witchcraft and sorcery, which placed her in the long tradition of witch eradication movements in Central Africa, but to these she added the condemnation of alcohol and polygamy. The Lumpa composed spirited Bemba hymns, far superior to the wooden translations in use among Protestants and Catholics. The religion gathered its members into villages where the hymns and rejection of traditional religious practices created what she promoted as a new, cleansed society worthy to receive the Savior when He came again. The grand cathedral built at Zion in 1958 has a pillar upon which Jesus Christ was to descend for His second coming.

The problematic teaching of the Lumpa Church for the government – both colonial and independent – was its opposition to earthly authority, a doctrine it seems to have accepted from the Watchtower Society, itself a splinter sect of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Lenshina became very ill with cerebral malaria in September 1953 and fell into a deep coma. On regaining consciousness, she claimed that, during her coma, she met Jesus Christ, who gave her the task of spreading a special message. She became the focus of a revival movement at Lubwa mission, where she was baptized. Lenshina preached a Christian doctrine with baptism as the only observance. She attacked witchcraft and sorcery, and condemned the consumption of alcohol and the practice of polygamy.

Gradually the revival became a witchcraft eradication movement and evolved into an independent church called the Lumpa Church in 1955. The new church rapidly joined the competition for souls against the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland. Lumpa was so successful that by the late 1950s it may have had up to 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 the colonial Northern Rhodesia government.

Lenshina was known to bless millet seeds during the sowing season, a role normally played by chiefs and she did lead acampaign to eradicate witchcraft, but both these acts are part of Bemba and Christian religion. These acts do not prove that Lenshina was indigenising the Christian teachings by incorporating Bemba ritual into Christian worship. Afterall she was delibeartely undermining Bemba religion by these and other interventions. Despite the White Fathers attempt to explain her vision as a result of ngulu spirit possession we know that Lenshina did not regularly fall into a trance as ngulu mediums do.

Despite her love of singing we do not find her being driven into a trance by the music as ngulu mediums always do when they hear the music of their spirit. Lenshina’s healing sessions also show that she did not claim or aspire to the gift of healing. All she did was give a sympathetic ear to people who had legal, health or political problems, many of which she had no understanding of and did not pretend to. But the people would go away relieved just like those who surrendered their rosaries to her. They were happy that Mama had taken the load off their minds and given them strenghth to face the colonial world.

Most Zambian accounts of the Lumpa Church ignore the decade of the Federation and concentrate on the period of confrontation with the colonial state. Invariably they remember Lenshina for its “revolting witchcraft rites” such as the alleged use of excresences in magic to protect them from bullets. Not all members of the Church were illiterate and not all could have been ignorant of the power of Bren guns but it is assumed that their belief in an imminent second coming, that Lumpa church membership cards were pass books to heaven somehow prove their backwardness. Yet all Christianity hinges on just such a faith as the Lumpa members had and continue to have. Persecution does hinder the growth of religious movements, but some do thrive on persecution by the state or by the established Church.

1958 Lenshina had rejected government registration of her church as an approved organization. The Lumpa also rejected taxes and formed their own villages which threatened the traditional authority of the chiefs. Lenshina also challenged the dominant nationalist party, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) of Kenneth KAUNDA, which witnessed a decline in membership when her followers withdrew from political groups. The UNIP regarded Lumpa as a rival, and there were an increasing number of violent clashes between the two groups.

At Zambia’s independence in 1964, the Lumpa Church constituted an open challenge to the new government’s supremacy. Lumpa followers fortified their villages, and the subsequent conflict resulted in the death of 700 church members during police and army attacks. The skirmishes lasted for three months, ending with the banning of the church and Lenshina’s arrest. She was released in 1975 and was arrested again two years later for holding a church service. By that time, however, the movement was effectively dead. Lay movements, such as the Catholic Legion of Mary, reclaimed many of the former members of the Lumpa Church for their churches, often by incorporating the very hymns that had resonated with Bemba national feelings.

Of the other national leaders to have come from Lenshina s home town Chinsali, Kaunda, Makasa and Kapwepwe, only the latter seems to have had a tolerant attitude towards Lenshina. This could be because they both had ties to the royal Crocodile clan and were thus related. However, Makasa who also has ties to the royal clan was very harsh in his dealings with Lumpa and dismissed Lenshina herself as an ordinary woman. When he was transferred from Katete in Eastern province to Chinsali to campaign as UNIP candidate in the 1963 parliamentary elections, Makasa says he did not expect to find any opposition to UNIP.

So when he discovered that Lenshina was not pledging allegiance to his party, that she was asking her members not to register for elections and stating that UNIP arsonists (i,e. Makasa s freedom fighters) would not go to heaven he was very annoyed. He blamed the pro‑Federation, White led United Federal Party for turning Lumpa into an obstacle on the road to independence. The exclusive villages that Lumpa members had built without the permission of the district commissioners or Bemba Native Authorities were no go areas for UNIP electioneers and UNIP leaders were convinced that they knew the reason for the government s reluctance to intervene

She regretted the fact that the political actions weakened the religious impact of her message, which stressed the sanctity of marriage, opposed both polygamy and traditional African folk magic and promoted the upliftment of common people, especially women. Lenshina never faced a trial but was detained by Kenneth Kaunda in Mumbwa district, beginning in August 1964. Her husband, Petros Chintankwa (who died in 1972), was detained with her. In 1965 they were moved to Kalabo district, near the Angolan border, but they escaped in October 1967. They were caught, jailed for 6 months and restricted in Mkushi district. In May 1970 Kaunda placed her in detention and ordered the destruction of her temple church in her home village of Kasomo. Finally she was released from detention in December 1975 but was put under house arrest in Lusaka’s New Chilenje compound, Nkunda Road. She died on 7 December 1978 while under house arrest and was eventually buried at Kasomo village where the Kamutola Church stood.

The Lumpa Church continues to exist to this day, though it is split and called by various names, the most prominent of which are Uluse Kamutola Church, under Chilemweni Nkonde (the biggest), Jerusalem Church, under Bubile (Daughter to Lenshina) and New Jerusalem Church, under Nkaya, in Kitwe’s Chimwemwe Township.

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Ollus Ndhom

Ollus Ndhom is the editorial chief at MuAfrica, a newbie online magazine. He is a self-driven and assertive youth with a belief in the power of words. His hobbies include writing commentaries, composing poems and serving God.

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