The gentle language of Angola’s Ovimbundu people did not fit their harsh lives.
From a distance one might have thought they sang softly one to another—long lines of men and women kicking dust with their bare feet on a trail out of the scrub land. But they did not sing. They gave orders. They cursed and quarreled. And the people with them walked in shackles under the midday sun.
The Ovimbundu people dealt in slaves.
From an early age, Ovimbundu boys learned to be rough and survive. They walked with their fathers and uncles five hundred kilometres into the area of the headwaters of the Congo and Zambezi rivers. There they bought rubber and slaves.
Long after the slave trade in other parts of Africa had ended—up to the early 1900s—Ovimbundu traders brought suffering captives out to Bié and the Benguela coast. Sometimes as few as one out of five made the journey. They cast dying women and children into the brush, chopping off their hands to save the shackles. And if a woman with a baby died, they dashed it against a tree to avoid having to care for it.
Among the Ovimbundus on a trading journey to the Upper Zambezi in the mid-1890s was a boy named Sanji. He came down with smallpox and his companions left him near Nana Kandunda to die.
No one brought Sanji water. No one as much as bothered to kill him to end his misery. The people of Nana Kandunda did not like the tribes from the Angola coast and only mentioned in passing that they had seen an Ovimbundu dying beside the trail.
The report affected one woman in Nana Kandunda differently. She was a Christian. Since 1889 Jeanie Gilchrist, a young sister of a Brethren Assembly in Scotland, had lived in Angola. When she heard of the dying Ovimbundu she set out with a water jug to look for him.
Jeanie found the young man delirious with fever and thirst. With the help of some of her friends she built a grass shelter for him and cared for him. Day after day she brought him food and drink and told him about the Lord Christ.
Sanji drank in every word she said (Jeanie could speak to him in Ovimbundu for she had first lived in Bié), and of the truth of the Gospel of Christ he had no questions—he saw it in action. By the time he could walk again he wanted nothing other but to serve Christ for the rest of his life.
For some time Sanji lived in Nana Kandunda with the Christians who quietly met there on the Lord’s day to break bread and drink wine in remembrance of him. He loved the peace and order among them. The Christian men worked hard, saved their money, and returned good for evil. The Christian women were content. They spoke kindly to their husbands and children. They dressed modestly and veiled their heads to pray. “My people need to know about Christ and the joy he brings,” Sanji told them. “I must go back and tell them!”
Back in Bié, Sanji’s family received him gladly. But they did not receive his message. “We have our gods,” they told him. “How dare you, a young boy, tell the akulu (elders) what they should believe and do!”
Night after night in the onjango—the council house where the men of the village met to discuss their work and plans—Sanji tried to tell his people about Christ. The akulu made fun of him and told him to be quiet.
Finally he told them a story:
One time in our country there was a severe drought. It had not rained for many moons. Rivers and lakes had dried up, and hundreds were dying of thirst. The animals of the forest gathered to consider what they should do. The first to speak was the lion. He as king demanded obedience from the rest.
I know where there is water,” he said. “If you follow me, I will lead you to the perpetual spring I drank from as a cub.”
When he had finished speaking, the tortoise crawled into the circle and lifting his head, said, “I know where there is water!” The lion was so angered at his insolence that he cuffed him with his great paw. But the tortoise only rolled with the punch and did not get hurt. That day they all followed the lion. But after a long weary journey, when they got to the so-called perpetual spring, it was dry.
On the next day they gathered again. This time it was the elephant’s turn to speak. “Listen to me,” he bellowed. “When I was young and there was a drought, the leader of the herd, a wise old elephant, always took us to a waterhole that never dried up. If you follow me, I will take you there.”
When he finished speaking the tortoise waddled in again and piped up, “I know where there is water!” The elephant was so angry he stepped on him with his great foot. But the sand was deep and he sank into it without being crushed. That day they followed the elephant. But when they came to the waterhole it was totally dry with gaping cracks running every way across its surface. Weary and tired they had to retrace their steps.
Next day it was the leopard’s turn, then the buffalo’s. Even the hyena had his say. But all efforts were in vain and every day the tortoise gave his little speech, “I know where there is water.”
Finally, disillusioned and discouraged, when they had come to the end of their resources, Brother Rabbit spoke up. “Dear friends,” he declared, “we have listened very respectfully to our leaders and have loyally followed their advice, but we have been disappointed. Now we are weary, tired, and very thirsty. I would suggest that for once we give Brother Tortoise a chance and see whether he knows what he is talking about.”
It was very humiliating. But they were all so thirsty they decided to follow the tortoise at least once. So, with Brother Tortoise out front and the lion, the elephant, the leopard, the buffalo, and all the rest following they set out on a long journey. Brother Tortoise led them to a lovely bubbling spring that came out of the rock. They all drank and were refreshed and satisfied. From that time on they did not follow only the oldest among them, or the most respected and powerful, but the one who could prove what he said was true.”
Sanji ended his story by saying, “For so long we have followed our elders on the dark paths of witchcraft, fear, and death, and we are still thirsty. What they have shown us has not met our needs. But . . . I know where there is water! Follow me and I will take you to Christ!”
For the first time after his return, Sanji found the men of his village willing to listen to him. By now they had seen his changed life. It gave credibility and power to what he told them, and within a short time a great number of Ovimbundu people left their old ways to believe in Christ.
For the rest of his life Sanji faithfully taught and led the Ovimbundu Christians. In their central meetinghouse at Chilonda, built like their houses with whitewashed mud walls and a grass roof, he spoke innumerable times.
Many Ovimbundos, after the slave and rubber trade declined, lived in poverty. They slept on dirt floors and dressed in potato sacks with holes for their heads and arms. But Sanji, taught them how to lead peaceful and productive lives. He loved to sing, and lived to see his grandchildren sitting at the front of the meetinghouse—boys and men on one side, girls and women on the other, under kerosene lamps suspended from the rafters—singing with him.
A tall, white-haired man in his old age, Sanji commanded the respect of those who met him. When a sister in England heard of his untiring and self-less work she asked for the privilege of sending him a monthly allowance to live on. But Sanji did not know whether he should accept it. “I have always depended on the Lord and he has taken care of me,” he said. “Why should I now do otherwise?”
The morning after he received the offer, Sanji went out for a walk. He could think and pray best in the morning, and like his tribesmen who lived from hunting, he carried his rifle with him. Only a short distance from his house a duiker leaped out of the grass and he got it. “See,” he said on his return. “I do not need a monthly allowance!”
By the time Sanji the converted slave trader died, little assemblies of Christians met throughout Angola’s Ovimbundu region. Destined to a fearful baptism of blood during Angola’s revolution and civil war they would face trials far beyond what Sanji could have imagined. But through the testimony of his life—and a cup of cold water given in the Lord’s name—the body of Christ came alive in Angola.
Main source: Wilson, T. Ernest, Angola Beloved, Loizeaux Brothers, Neptune NJ, 1967