I grew up in a large family of 9. It was school holidays. All my brothers and sisters were home; so were my older sisters 16 and 18 years old. They were going to Kanyanga Catholic Girls Boarding School. They frequently sung hymns and recited exotic sounding Latin Catholic chants while doing house chores. At the time I was attending the Tamanda Dutch Church Boys Boarding School which was 3 miles from Dzoole School where our lived at the time in the Eastern province of Zambia in Southern Africa. We had to attend church twice a week. From what I heard from my sisters, our Dutch church prayer rituals did not sound nearly as exotic, exciting, and as enchanting to the soul as the Catholic ones.
One Sunday in April 1965, my sisters were going to church. I asked if I could go with them. My oldest sister had no problem carrying me on the back carrier of her bicycle as I must have barely weighed a scrawny 70 lbs. (32 Kgs) as an 11 year old as my body was ravaged by schistosomiasis or bilharzia tropical parasite for over 5 years.
The innocuous trip from Dzoole School to the Nashoni (nation) road junction on the main Chipata-Lundazi Road was downhill. My sisters simply coasted on their bicycles. We rode the bicycles on the main road for 2 miles (3Kms.) up to Dalala Store where we had to turn right going up a steep hill to Khokwe Catholic Mission along the Chiziye Road.
We arrived in the church just in time for mass to start. All I was curious about was to see and hear some of what my older sisters had been talking and singing about. I was somewhat impressed and after a while, I was even beginning to feel bored as the entire mass was in a language I could not understand which Latin was.
At some point half way through the mass, that’s when the unexpected happened. The white Catholic priest was wearing a white robe. There were two Zambian altar boys helping him to get the communion ready. As he sung, chanted and the 3 of them were moving around, I saw a very distinctive white figure floating in near the corner by the window a few feet away behind them. I was momentarily frozen and could not tap my sister to tell her what I was seeing. The figure floated away. The white vertical figure appeared again momentarily near the window. And then it floated away and disappeared. I was puzzled, awed, and mesmerized. My sisters took the communion.
I could not bring myself to tell my sisters what I had just seen during mass just before the priest was getting the communion ready. When we arrived home that afternoon, we ate lunch. But I could not stop thinking of what I was hundred percent sure I had seen; a white floating figure a few feet behind the church podium near the window. That evening I asked my father if I could join the Catholic Church.
My father’s calm thoughtful response was that I already was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church Mission. He added that we already had my 2 sisters who were Catholics in the family. He did not want too many of us to become Catholic. He never asked me why I wanted to join the Catholic Church. I never told this story to anybody for the last 50 years. I mentioned it once casually in a sentence 3 months ago in an email to a group of Zambian friends.
The soul and the spirit may be very closely related in children. Because children may not be able to give a name to what they experience, it is very easy for adults to either dismiss or not pay attention to the child’s profound spiritual experiences or not even be aware of them. If a child asks something that is religious or church related, always ask them carefully why? They may be searching for a way to express their soul and discover spirituality. They may have just had a religious spiritual experience.
By Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.