(Jan 1, 2013)
We bought tickets for the 7:30 am bus to Kapiri Mposhi, but it’s the kind of bus that doesn’t leave until it’s full. So while it was sitting in the station, waiting to fill the last of its seats, a young man walked on board and started to preach. Tall, thin, wearing black satin trousers and a white sports coat, and of course, carrying a large bible with a black leather zip cover.
I was twice surprised by this. First, I wondered if he was supposed to be there, and was half expecting the bus driver to appear at any moment to ask him to please leave. But when nothing happened, I realized this must be an accepted practice, on this bus at least.
Second, I assumed, based on experiences in the US, that he was the Zambian equivalent of a street evangelist, and I prepared myself to hear the usual gospel message of repentance and salvation. But instead, he turned out to be more of a traveling preacher – he told the passengers he would just take a few minutes of their time to share a message with them for the new year. He was obviously assuming that most of his listeners were already Christian and didn’t need to hear the basics.
Walking up and down the aisle, he challenged the passengers to commit their lives to the Lord in this new year of 2013. And he kept to his word – after about 10 minutes (that’s short for a sermon in Africa), he wrapped up his message with a prayer. Apparently he had some listeners, because at the conclusion of his prayer, I heard more than a few ‘amens,’ some of which were quite loud and responsive.
After this, he walked down the aisle one last time, holding out a large white envelope, apparently for donations. I was again surprised to see that almost everyone in front of me dropped something into the envelope.
This blending of religion and public identity, I think, is far more common in the African way of life than it is in the West. People are much more comfortable operating out of a religious context, regardless of the religion. They are generally unapolagetic about their beliefs, and though they may challenge expressions of faith other than their own, they aren’t usually offended by them. In fact, I have found it is much easier, in this part of the world, to have a lively discourse about religion without causing offense, than it would be to have a similar discussion in the US.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 97.5% of Zambians call themselves Christian. With numbers like that, one could almost say that Christianity has grown to become a national identity – to be Zambian is to be Christian. And that’s exactly how it felt on the bus that morning. Christianity was a given, the accepted norm out of which the passengers were operating. So it didn’t come as a shock then, when we finally pulled out of the station, to hear Zambian praise and worship music piping out of the bus speakers. It accompanied our entire journey, and no one objected.