Villages along Lake Tanganyika in Zambia look tranquil.
But in these fishing communities that have never heard about Jesus, life can be dark.
When a fisherman in Mpulungu, Zambia, launches a boat, he consults the local witchdoctor about the appropriate sacrifice to ensure good fishing. Sometimes the witch doctor prescribes a goat. But other times, it’s an old person in the village or a baby. One time, the witchdoctor told a fisherman to sacrifice 100 babies.
“Villagers live in fear and bondage,” said Southeast member Holly Steward, who has been working in Zambia for five years with Operation Mobilization. “The Zambian people are wonderful, but they depend on the witchdoctor for their health and success in fishing. They are slaves to rituals.”
Though Zambia is officially a Christian nation, the Gospel never reached remote fishing villages along the lake. Though the country was evangelized after David Livingstone explored the area, Zambian Christians believed that evangelism was the job of white missionaries, but they are beginning to understand that sharing the Gospel is the lifestyle of every Christian.
Villagers face many issues, including alcoholism from a strong home brew, children orphaned by AIDS, polygamy and gut-wrenching fear of curses.
When Steward went to Zambia for a year in 2008, she had degrees in voice and English and worked in the corporate world.
“Once I saw the need, I knew that was where I was supposed to live,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Now several children, including a baby boy, are named Holly in her honor. She has learned to eat fish heads and fried caterpillars. She is used to intermittent electricity, speaks one of many tribal languages and likes local food.
Her job in Zambia is handling everything in support services, communication and strategic planning. But some days that means tracking down a stray goat or talking with someone in the village all afternoon because the culture is relational. She also teaches English and took in an orphaned teenager named Sunday, who had worked as an anchor boy on mission boat trips.
Before joining the mission team, he lived as a slave in different households and never had a bed or attended school.
Now Steward’s days begin with “Sunday school” as the two work on his schoolwork and Bible study. Sunday has learned to read and write, speaks English and goes out with teams to work with the children.
Steward believes mentoring Sunday may be the most important work she does.
“Someday Sunday will be an evangelist,” she said.
At the Operation Mobilization base in Mpulungu, Zambian believers are trained to be “fishers of men.”
They go out two by two to villagers around the lake who have never heard of Jesus.
“First we send two men into an unreached village,” Steward said. “They feed those who are hungry, play games with the children and love on people. Next, we send a married couple to live as a family. Ministry is pretty simple. They love God and each other. The husband may model love by carrying water with his wife. Village women have even asked what potion the missionary wife used to get her husband to do that.”
Sharing and discipleship happens as the missionaries do life in the village. It happens on fishing boats and around cooking fires. It’s the first time many see husbands caring for their wives, parents caring for their children and people relying on God instead of witch doctors.
“When they move in, the missionary house becomes a place of light, and people are drawn to the light,” Steward said. “There may be no church building, but discipleship is happening. Our missionaries teach them to do fishing God’s way, to depend on Him instead of ritual sacrifices.”
In Tongwa village, there were no believers or churches until Zambian missionaries moved into that village, teaching people to know Jesus and experience the freedom of living according to God’s Word.
In time, villagers learned about a God Who loves them, about forgiveness and how to live. Now believers in that village have volunteered to move to unreached villages in Zambia, Burundi and Congo.
“It’s almost as if they can’t sit once they know the truth,” Steward said.
A new goal is to provide each missionary with a “Fishers of Men Church Planting Toolkit” as they enter an unreached village. It will include a solar panel and battery so they can show the “Jesus” film, audio Bibles in the local language, a fishing boat and net.
That kit will give the missionary the ability to feed his family and fish with faith that God will provide without the traditional rituals.
“Our goal is to see people living around the shore of the lake worshiping the Lord in spirit and in truth,” Steward said. “The vision is to see African missionary families living in the village communities bringing the light of the Gospel.”