A grim affair tainted by blood

Pictures of dead women and children in a mass grave…a man with a stake rammed through his mouth… a young woman with the skin of her thighs in shreds after a gang rape by soldiers.

These images are not lifted off the pages of a Robert Ludlum thriller, but come alive in official police photographs at Lusaka’s National Archives, in a declassified intelligence file on Operation Red Stallion. This sting operation was an interlude in the Lumpa Uprising, a grim episode in Zambia’s history. A combined effort of the army and mobile police unit, the operation was a siege against Alice Lenshina’s Lumpa cult in July 1964.

Among the contents of the declassified intelligence file is a ‘passport to heaven’ Lenshina issued to one of her followers. Pointing to Lenshina’s exalted status as a prophetess in the Lumpa Church, the document was found on 7 August 1964 in the ruins of Paishuko, a village north of Lundazi, after clashes between her followers and United National Independence Party (UNIP) supporters. Other artefacts include letters Lenshina wrote from Livingstone Prison to Lewis Changufu, then Minister of Home Affairs, asking for permission to visit her daughter’s grave. 

Plays and books
In September this year, Lusaka Play House hosted a stage production of ‘Lenshina: The Uprising’, directed by lawyer and art enthusiast, Mwambi Kasakwa. Her interpretation of the Lenshina saga follows the intertwining events centring on a woman who gained fame and notoriety after a claimed encounter with Jesus Christ in September 1953. As legend has it, Lenshina was taken ill, died and resurrected. She then began to practice her eccentric spiritual leadership.

The theatre is compelling as the cast replays the grim events of the uprising, a part of Zambia’s history that inspires paralysis given the mayhem surrounding it. Writings on Lenshina document the death of more than 700 of her followers and members of the security forces. Over 400 people were wounded in the unrest, thousands more streaming into Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – to seek refuge. 

There are moments when the saga causes one to recoil as the mind comes to terms with the grisly events touched off by the Lumpa Uprising. Armed with a profound intellectual commitment, Kasakwa ably handles a complex and emotional historical issue, the small cast serving the play well. 

The play brings to mind two other accounts of one of the bloodiest episodes in Zambia’s history. One is the book ‘A Time To Mourn: A Personal Account of the Lumpa Church Revolt in Zambia’, written by John Hudson, who was a District Commissioner in Isoka at the time. Another is ‘Prophetess Alice Lenshina: God’s African Commander, Her Generational Blessings and Legacy,’ by Apostle Margaret Buter, a UK-based local government politician who I sat with in journalism class at Evelyn Hone College between 1990 and 1993.

Hudson’s pious prose offers a background to the uprising, documenting how, after her alleged visions of Christ, Lenshina gained reverence among a band of followers who grew into a church of over 150,000 members. 

Born Alice Lubusha Mulenga in Chinsali in 1920 and baptised at Lubwa Mission into the Church of Scotland, she later started baptising converts who came to make up the Lumpa sect. Lenshina then took up the role of a traditional and religious seer while encouraging her followers to hog traditional lands in Chinsali where they built fortified settlements. (Alice was her baptismal name, while Mulenga was her traditional African name. The name “Lenshina” was a Bemba form of the Latin word “regina” translated as “queen”).

She began to deftly fan defiance against politicians among her avid followers. By the time the initial stirrings of the Lumpa Uprising appeared, half of the 71,000 people in Chinsali were members of the Lumpa Church, the sect spreading to the Eastern Province.

Lenshina’s growing influence led to friction with three forces. One was the traditional establishment, with local chiefs unhappy with her rising power. The other was the long-established Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland, who bristled at the influence of the up-start but wildly growing cult. And then there was the pre-independence political establishment, with UNIP seeing her growing influence as a threat to its designs for total domination in the run-up to independence. It was against this backdrop that the festering ulcer that became the Lumpa Uprising burst.

Buter’s book, written from a Pentecostal Christian’s view of Lenshina, is stoutly defensive of the Lumpa sect leader by a writer who says her father was related to Lenshina. Claiming prophetic inspiration for her book, Buter outlines what she calls untruths about Lenshina, including the popular legend that the so-called prophetess would make her followers drink urine. 

Her argument is quirky, perhaps off-putting to those who see Lenshina as a blatant historical villain. The “generational blessings and legacy” she links Lenshina with include Zambia’s independence in 1964 and President Frederick Chiluba’s declaration of Zambia as a Christian nation in 1991. “The greatness of the anointing was manifested through Prophetess Alice Lenshina at the age of 29 after she arose from the dead, having been on a miraculous journey in heaven and her encounter with Jesus Christ,” writes Buter in a postscript to her book. 

“This is an account of her journey in life to show how even now her star shines brightly in the universe with the generational blessings she left behind, having founded the African Lumpa Church in 1957 with 150,000 Christian Church members in less than five years at its height and how she had a ministry full of signs, wonders, miracles and a show of the great power of God.”

Buter further writes of her account of Lenshina: “In this book are also an account of atrocities against humanity and the terrible massacre of the innocent Lumpa Church members, Christians, mass murdered by a state for refusing to combine the Church and the political agenda at the time.”

Blood and tears
Rivalry between UNIP and the Lumpa Church came to a head in 1964, both in the north and the east, stirred by competition for members. Kenneth Kaunda, the new pre-independence prime minister, met Lenshina in January to negotiate a semblance of calm in the tensions as the rift between UNIP’s members and those of the Lumpa Sect widened. However on July 24, a battle between Lenshina’s and UNIP followers erupted, triggering riots that were only quelled by the army. 

Headlines in the Northern Times (now Times of Zambia) at the time vividly depicted the swirling emotions: ‘Crazed men swoop on villages’, ‘Marauding Lumpa Warriors slaughter 17 and take hostages near Lundazi’. Kaunda declared a state of emergency and called for a week of national mourning. As state troops moved in to curtail the fighting, the newspaper ran a banner headline: ‘N.R. army sent in to crush Chinsali fanatics’. The story painted, in vivid colour, the unfolding drama: “Hundreds of troops are pouring into Chinsali tonight in an all-out bid to crush rioting Lumpa Church tribesmen”. Another news report under the headline ‘Lenshina followers not prepared to listen to reason – Dr. Kaunda’ told how “Prime Minister Kaunda, in a broadcast to the nation tonight, referred to disturbing reports of villages being destroyed by marauding bands of Lumpa Church followers”.

A Northern Times commentary called the state to arms, while describing some of the elements of a rebellious cult that had run riot. “The renewed fighting that has broken out between Lenshina followers and the police near Chinsali very clearly indicates that a problem Government thought it had under control is nowhere near solved. A police officer and a constable lost their lives on Friday, and 19 of Lenshina’s followers have since lost their lives as a result of defensive fire by the police. This violence comes less than a month after a pitched battle in the area in which five of the sect were killed…

…Government has not disclosed its plans, but if it does not grasp the nettle now it will be courting far worse trouble. The difficulties it faces are obvious. These are not revolts in the ordinary sense of the word by men ambitious for power, but defiance by people, ignorant and misled, who in truth, know not what they do.

The Lumpa Church is a curious mixture of good and bad. It outlawed witchcraft as a beginning and condemned worldly amusements such as dancing and beer drinking, but it has also proclaimed the New Testament obsolete, interfered with attendance at missionary schools and encourages belief in the old African spirit world.

For a church, it has a record studded with intermittent violence, but until recently, the violence was targeted at individuals. Now it has taken a new and ugly turn – defiance of Government authority… 

…For some reason that has not yet been made clear, they [Lenshina’s followers] have been worked up into such a state of fervour that they are ready to attack the police with spears and axes, with the tragic consequences we are seeing now. Basically this seems to be a problem that must be dealt with by patient re-education, but that is a long process that can only start when the leaders of the violence have been taught a very severe lesson.”

The rising tide of violence, mirrored by these news reports, formed a backdrop to Operation Red Stallion. In Chinsali, the first of the Northern Rhodesia troops arrived to link up with the mobile police unit as security forces moved to quell the rebellious sect. The siege against Lenshina’s followers had begun in earnest. On 3 August 1964, Kaunda banned the Lumpa Church. A few days later Lenshina surrendered to the police.

One member of the remnant Lumpa Church recently spoke of how state troops swooped in as the episode reached a gruesome climax. “The government troops came in large numbers armed with sophisticated weapons and opened fire on innocent and harmless people. They threw grenades into the church building, killing women and children who had taken refuge. The church building was partially damaged. The security forces used graders to clear the area, which was littered with bodies and one mass grave was dug at Chinsali,” he recalled. “This grave was filled to capacity and some bodies remained uncollected in the bush. There could be more mass graves in Northern Province than people know of because bodies of Lumpa members were usually buried away from operational areas.”

A sorry epilogue
Lenshina’s religious beliefs were certainly unconventional. Whether she did see visions of Christ in her supposed death in 1953 will remain a point of amusement and speculation. She died in December 1978, leaving a legacy tainted by blood, tears and death. In her differences with traditional leaders like Chief Nkula, religious leaders like Reverend MacPherson at Lubwa Mission, and Kaunda who ordered her detention without trial, Lenshina emerged as one of the most colourful people in Zambia’s history. 

A flyer advertising the play ‘Lenshina: The Uprising’ describes her as an “unsung heroine of Zambian nationalism”. While some newspaper accounts paint her as an odd cult leader who led hundreds of her followers astray and to their death, other accounts say she regretted that her teachings led to the maiming and killing of her cult members. But even today, she is still held in awe and considered a messenger from God by the remnant of her church. Her tomb in Chinsali, where the church once stood, is a 1.8-metre white-washed concrete cubical at the edge of an isolated village called Zion. 


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