These letters were written between 1999 and 2003 to my beloved family as an informative and entertaining discourse of life in Zambia. I am going to reprint this series of letters over the next couple of weeks on my blog at the request of many who have read them in times past. I hope you enjoy them and capture the spirit in which they were written originally. Please feel free to leave a comment. I dedicate this reprint to my family… I love you all.
~ Pastor Tom Cunningham
Rain. Serious in your face, run for cover, the sky is falling kind of rain. We are in the middle of Zambia’s rain season. Most continents have spring, summer, winter and fall. Zambia has rainy and dry seasons. Rain season is a specific time of the year set aside to water everything, sufficiently. It is like the morning in the garden of time. It seems that somewhere in some cosmic wonderment all the moisture that is sucked out of everything Zambian during the rest of the year is somehow held in one place, then dumped back into the country in huge vats full at spaced intervals. Everything is lush and green and I have trouble rendering in my mind all the sandy brown that is really here when there is no rain, which is the rest of the time. Where there used to be red sandy plains with scattered dry weeds, now there’s green foliage that has grown and covered it like a living blanket. Almost like the brown and sand is still there, just covered for a season. The rain comes fast and furious and is gone just as fast. Rumblings of thunder and the beginnings of lightning are the only warning for the downpour. Then in an instant, more rain than you have ever seen (and you all know I lived in Seattle) comes out of the sky in a vengeance. Instantaneous floods accumulate and all thoroughfares become a furious waterway searching for a way to accommodate gravity to the lowest point on the earth.
As the heavens have opened to create sustenance and beauty for a craving Zambia, so does the earth open its mouth to the abyss of time that belches out the birth of another kind…creatures. Bugs. It is not just rain season it is also bug season. Bug of the week. Unimaginable, flying, hideous, let’s make a science fiction movie, come from everywhere and nowhere type of bugs. After a good rain has drenched the earth and the sun begins to rest, the earth opens in pockets and flying insects of never discovered variety flutter to the air in search of the eternal porch light…any light…every light. This week it is the flying termites; ½ inch long termites with delicate wings appearing from everywhere and nowhere by the millions. From the distance, it looks like the wind blowing dandelions after they’ve seeded in the summer. Fluttering whiteness filling the sky. Your windows are closed; all your screens are secure. But that doesn’t matter. These creatures don’t need an opening; they need only to see the glow of light emanating from inside the security of your home. But security in Africa is relative. They seem to march toward the light in a focused determination, moving through obstacles by osmosis, never dissuaded from their destination. Light. They flutter in your kitchen and you check the windows. Sealed tight. “Where did they come from?” you ask in bewilderment. They belong here. This is rain season and you are the intruder. So, you turn off the lights to discourage their needs, but they wait on the walls, quietly mocking your resolve. They know that they can wait longer than you can stand the dark. So, you turn on the lights and they flutter once again to their purposed destinies. You wave towels and fly swatters at them, but it is their Africa and they will not go quietly into the night. Then as the night wanes, they lose their wings in piles on the floor and they begin to crawl; crawling on top of each other in a hideous mating ritual. You stomp on them and sweep them up, but now they are coming under the doors. So you give up and turn out the lights. “Go to bed” you say and forget about this. “You’ll get used to it,” you promise. Sleep is fitful. You remind yourself that Africans have been dealing with this for years, and quit being an American pansy; they’re only ant-like, oil-filled, monstrous creatures of the night that lose their wings and crawl on your floor! Somehow you don’t feel any better, but you fade to sleep and dream about giant bugs as they chase you through the night. In the morning there is only piles of wings as a memorial to the previous night’s encounter.
The next week it’s the same thing repeated in a sardonic melody as a tribute to this Dark Continent. Only this time, there is a kink to their providence. Instead of fighting them off and disdaining their very existence, something new is happening. The Zambians are waiting by their firelights in expectancy and eagerness. Now, instead of discouraging the creatures, Zambians are flocking to streetlights, building their firelights brighter and more inviting. Bringing with them a flat pan of water they carefully set under the light like a fisherman casts his lure. The flying termites can’t resist a puddle of water, so they dive to the source…just one small drink and it is back to the light. But in a twist of fate, to the Zambian’s giddy delight, they touch the water and instantly their wings argue against the weight. They remain trapped, though alive. They cannot move. They pile on top of each other, every termite insisting his fate will be different than his predecessor. Just one drink and back to the light. But they never return to the light. After a good night at the streetlight a diligent Zambian can carry away 4-6 pounds of these unsightly creatures. But to them, they are not bugs they are relish. Food. Grub. “Inswa” they call it. They are placed in a hot frying pan and with a spatula or spoon they are kept at bay, unable to crawl out. When all are dead they take them out back and thresh them into the wind, as the wings are blown away. The carcasses remain. They bring them back inside and super heat them again until they are cooked into a delectable snack. Like popcorn. Or as one American Missionary put it, “Like Rice Crispies with an extra CRUNCH.” So, I began to alter my thinking. Here God has placed a people in the searing sun for nine months a year with just one season of rain. The rain signifies harvest and life. Continued plenty to last another season, sustaining the people for generations. Then, almost as a sign of life and celebration of the rains, God brings manna from heaven that instinctively flies to the firelights of His creation. Delivered to the doors of the hungry as a gift of love. Falling into the very puddles the rain has created, the victims are trapped with no effort from the predator. A gift. A season and a time to look forward to all year long. God’s sustenance for a wayward people He loves.
With the rains come the breeding of another creature; the evil one; the dark side of Africa. Malaria-carrying Mosquitoes. Mosquito season is Malaria season. Fevers and chills; sweating and shaking. And the granddaddy of them all; Cerebral Malaria. Coma. One can fall from perfectly healthy to coma in 24-30 hours. This is the most dreadful sickness I have ever seen. My usher and my friend, a man that calls me his father and says I treat him more like a son than a church member, lays in the hospital fighting for his life. Just 26 hours before, we were talking and he complained of a rash on his arm, but felt fine. His name is Gideon. We found him in his house (hut) on his bed in a coma after he failed to attend service at church. A service he never misses that he claims to be the highlight of his life. We picked him up and rushed him to the hospital. They began a Quinine drip immediately. Of course this is Zambia. We had to provide the Quinine, the drip, the syringes and peripherals, but nonetheless, he got immediate care. Now, 8 days later he is out of his coma. He can’t talk yet, but he is recognizing us and has fallen in love with MJ’s cooking. He sees her, and then points to his plate and smiles. He should be talking soon and the doctors say he should make a complete recovery. This is good and a great burden off my shoulders. Now I get to talk to him in another way. A way a minister always feels inadequate. An issue there is no study for, no classroom, no testing, no preparation and no answers. An issue I can’t even bring my mind to begin to plan the words I will say. You see, the day we picked him up and rushed him to the hospital in a coma, his wife died of the same thing at a different clinic. She is dead and buried, the funeral is over and the relatives are gone and Gideon doesn’t know a thing. Now that he is gaining his strength, it is unanimously up to his Pastor to tell him the news; break it to him gently as the cliché goes. Like a father to his son, the words escape me. Even in prayer, they escape me. I am secretly hoping he will instinctively know, that somehow it will be easier, that somehow I will get through this. Africa equals death. You can never be desensitized to it. It is too real. Malaria victims, AIDS victims, under cared for victims are dying and filling the cemeteries daily. Shallow graves are being dug to bury the newly dead on top of the older dead. This is the reason I am here. This is the urgency, the calling, and the need. The saving of a nation; a nation that can’t save itself and doesn’t even know it’s dying. This is where destinies are claimed, callings are confirmed and purposes are discovered. All else is trivial. We have a job to do; and do quickly.
A missionary friend of mine made a profound statement to me the other day that will forever go with me. “The safest place in the world to be is the place where God has put you.” Only there will his full divine protection be complete. This is the promise and premise I build my faith on. My family is safe because we are in the will of God. We are blessed with American missionary doctors just 45 Km away. Doctors that make special provisions to take care of missionary families like mine-A fully stocked clinic with American-trained personnel. God has gone through pain-staking effort to assure our safety. That is why we are all healthy, happy and doing fine. Please don’t ever think otherwise. The church is growing and I am experiencing the greatest revival of my life. In just nine months we are numbering over 500 people in service every Sunday morning with exciting mid-week services as well. Lives are being changed; saved. Saved from sin and saved from violent, irresponsible immorality that equals death in this country. No margin of error. An immoral choice in a country that realistically has a 40% AIDS problem means an early grave. And so many young men and women are changing as God is changing them. They are making responsible decisions that will save their futures and the future of their nation’s very existence. This is no small task, no small ministry, no small decision we have made to come here. We are literally shaping the future of a nation based on the same principles that shaped America’s past and made her great. If I had any questions about my decision to have come here they have been quickly swallowed up in the great commission at hand.
Thanks to all of you for your prayers and support. I have an incredible family and I love and desperately miss each one of you. When somebody asks what your son or brother does for a living, there is no need to shyly mutter under your breath, “he is a fanatical missionary in Africa.” But stand proudly and with a bold heart say, “He is helping to shape the future of a nation. He is a missionary in Africa.” God bless you all and until next time.
All my love,