The British Empire Library

A Time to Mourn: A Personal Account of the 1964 Lumpa Church Revolt in Zambia

by John Hudson

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Colin Baker (Nyasaland-Malawi I954-I97I)
Given the recent exposure of the Lumpa Revolt, John Hudson's book is a fortuitously timely publication.

The first part of the book deals with the rise - 'Background' and 'Beginning' - and the fall - 'Armageddon' and 'Exodus' - of Alice Lenshina's Lumpa Church, in north-eastern Zambia. The fall's gravity is encapsulated in the figures of 700 killed, 400 wounded and many thousands fleeing to exile in Zaire.

In September 1953 Lenshina claimed to have died, not once but four times. At her last rising, she continued, Jesus Christ (cf: J C Griffiths's Holy Mother) called her to meet him. Jesus, speaking Chibemba, told her to consult Fergus Macpherson, 'a mature, canny and experienced minister of religion who knew the local people well and spoke their language'. She did so and Macpherson accepted the reality of what he was told. The missionaries felt it important to keep the Lenshina group in the Church of Scotland into which Alice was now baptised.

All was well until Alice began baptising her flock and creating a separate church. She insisted that those baptised should surrender all the witchcraft materials which they possessed. She drew a huge following from a wide area and became 'revered almost as a Bemba chief [as she] received tribute and voluntary labour, assumed judicial functions by settling disputes, and authorised her followers to occupy land and build villages.' This usurpation of chiefly functions - which were exercised by right of customary inheritance and not through the power of witchcraft (cf. Griffiths) - alienated the traditional authorities. She also alienated the politicians by counselling her followers to repudiate politics. Nor were the longer established churches happy: in the late 1950s in Chinsali District over half the population were members of the Lumpa church. It was the conflict with UNIP, however, which was the most serious alienation, for, as with the Malawi Congress Party in neighbouring Nyasaland, UNIP ruthlessly let little, if anything, stand in its way in achieving massive, preferably exclusive, dominance.

Faced with unauthorised building of new, large and stockaded Lumpa settlements - 'seedbeds for fanaticism' - DCs, who were responsible for law and order but without the means of enforcing it, recommended they be disbanded before serious trouble resulted. Had their advice been taken at the time by those in Lusaka, the tragedy which followed later would almost certainly have been avoided. When Kaunda visited Chinsali early in January 1964 Lenshina told her followers to return to their original villages, but they ignored the instruction and further fortified their new settlements.

There was a deep reluctance in government to act: officials in Lusaka - felt by district officers to be out of touch - were too involved with preparations for independence, and the African Ministers were averse to taking determined, possibly violent, action for fear of delaying the independence schedule. When, in May 1964, it was announced that independence would be on 24 October Lenshina and her followers were convinced that a final showdown was inevitable. The confrontation was sparked off by an otherwise trivial event: the chastisement of a Lumpa youth by his UNIP uncle for failing to attend school. UNIP and Lumpa followers began serious fighting. The instructions to the Lumpa to return to their villages was repeated and a short deadline given. A police patrol publicising this instruction was attacked by Lumpa, and a European Inspector and an African constable were killed. These, in mid 1964, were the first serious casualties in the conflict (cf. A F Gray). Further fatal encounters followed. The Northern Rhodesia army was called in and the Lumpa fought them 'with complete disregard for their lives in the face of automatic weapon fire'. (The Federation had been dissolved at the end of 1963 and the regiments returned to territorial control: cf. Gray). Throughout, the administrative officers who accompanied the police and army, made every possible effort to persuade the Lumpas to comply before force had to be used. The situation worsened as UNIP supporters overran Paishuko in the Lundazi District: 'every man, woman and child was massacred. When the army reached the place on 9 August, it was in smouldering ruins [and] the soldiers were horrified to find that most of the victims had been subjected to appalling tortures.' No one was brought to trial for these atrocities.

Although Kaunda's senior UNIP associates, almost hysterical with rage and grief, demanded that the army exterminate all the Lumpas as dangerous vermin, Kaunda ruled that they be forgiven and accepted back into their villages. Lenshina surrendered on 11 August 1964 (cf. B Suttill: 1965), was flown to Ndola and detained until 1975. Many of her followers fled to Katanga where they were well received and allowed to form their own communities. Lenshina, placed under house arrest when released from detention, died on 7 December 1978. Even after UNIP's defeat at the 1991 general election, 15,000 Lumpas remained in the Congo.

The second half of Hudson's book is in some respects even more valuable, for he gives us a personal, first-hand, account of his part, as District Commissioner at Isoka, in the tragic events which took place. He fits the detail of his experiences into the general picture of the first part of his book. He brings reality and immediacy to the story. It is clear from his account that by mid 1964, in the case of at least some of the fortified Lumpa villages, the writ of the DCs and Police did not run (cf. Suttill). One is confronted with the difficulties experienced by administrative officers in the field during the lead-up to independence, which would have been difficult enough without the dangers generated by conflict between the Lumpa church and UNIP. He deals with the little known mutiny by the officers - both European and African - of 1st Battalion Northern Rhodesia Regiment who refused to take action against the Lumpa at Chanama and Jombo until their Brigadier patiently explained, possibly for the first time, the policy behind their orders. Hudson examines the reasons for this mutiny. The white officers knew they would be replaced by Africans within weeks and may not have been too concerned about the long term reputation of the regiment. They may not have wished to risk injury or death of themselves and their men for a cause in which they felt they were being used as tools of dubious politicians. The newly commissioned and inexperienced African officers simply followed their seniors' lead. Publicly spoiling the regiment's excellent reputation was only narrowly avoided.

Hudson's book will interest both those who served in Northern Rhodesia at the time and those generally interested in the lead-up to independence there. Part of his motivation is to record for a post-Independence generation, possibly brought up on a myth of colonial oppression, the way in which the Provincial Administration operated at the close of the colonial era.

British Empire Book
John Hudson
Bookworld Publishers


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