The Life of Alice “Lenshina” Mulenga – Lenshina Myth Unveiled
ONE of the most famous religious movements in Africa was led by Alice Lenshina Mulenga who lived in the Chinsali district in Zambia.
Alice was born in 1920 in Zambia, then called Northern Rhodesia.She called herself a Zambian prophet and the founder of the Lumpa Church.
Alice Mulenga, who as Lenshina meaning ‘regina’ or ‘queen’ went on to become the founder of Zambia’s most well-known independent church.
She was a Bemba, raised as a Presbyterian.
Lenshina experienced a mystical call in 1953 after a bout of cerebral malaria that put her in a coma.
Malaria was greatly misunderstood by many people at that time that sometimes linked its symptoms to demon possession.
When she eventually regained consciousness, Lenshina claimed to have met Jesus Christ during her coma.
She said she was a prophetess called by God to teach a new way of spiritual living for all Africans.
With no external financial help as was the case with other churches in those days, Lenshina built a grand temple at Kasoma Village named Sion-Zion in 1958. Gradually the revival became a witchcraft eradication movement and it became an independent church called the Lumpa Church in 1955.
The new Lumpa Church rapidly gained more members than the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland.
It had a membership of 150 000 members in the northern and eastern provinces of Northern Rhodesia.
Alice Lenshina’s increasingly large following posed a serious threat to the male priests and the United National Independence Party (UNIP) which was led by the first Zambian president, Dr Kenneth David Kaunda.
She resisted the doctrine of mission churches and politicians and identified more strongly with grassroots people.
The UNIP wanted every Zambian to overthrow the British colonialists.
Lumpa Church also wanted to see an African government in power.
But then, Lenshina openly challenged UNIP and this resulted in the decline of membership.
The UNIP therefore saw the Lumpa Church as a rival.
Violent conflicts between the two groups started.
The UNIP members burnt houses of Lenshina’s followers.
Lenshina fought back and there were many deaths as the Lumpa Church burnt UNIP cadres’ houses and fought the UNIP activists.
Lenshina was arrested and she died in prison in 1978.
Some of her followers moved to the DRC and others remained in Zambia up to this day.
Alice Lenshina had many enemies.
Rev Paul Mushindo, who took over the United Free Church of Scotland in Central Africa, had difficulty in accepting a woman prophetess.
At the same time, he could also not “accept an illiterate woman as a rival and far more successful church leader”.
Although many writers have viewed Lenshina as a dissident or a rebel, others have argued that Alice Lenshina was misunderstood.
Lenshina initiated the Lumpa Church as a result of African cultural suppression by the missionaries and colonialists.
She was inclusive in the way she did not discriminate against people based on class or ethnic origin.
One argument from a researcher noted that: “To those who have roundly condemned the hugely misunderstood woman, I would remind them that Lenshina, the matronly, semi-literate Chinsali woman was many things rolled in one; mystic, pioneer of the Zambian church, feminist, and anti-witchcraft campaigner.
“Her contribution to the birth of the Zambian church, feminism and campaign against witchcraft have been ignored or underplayed.
“Lenshina composed spirited Bemba hymns, far superior to the wooden translations in use among Protestants and Catholics.”
She claimed that Jesus Christ himself taught her many of the hymns.
Her songs were uplifting.
Some of them have survived into popular hymns sung in main-stream churches today.
Prominent Zambian academician Owen Sichone also noted that the prophetess was given a bad name by UNIP who waged a successful propaganda calling her a mad cultist who forced her followers to drink urine.
Professor Sichone knew Lenshina personally and denies the entire negativity associated with her.
According to the historian, Roy Hinfelaar, it was the exploitation and exclusion of the Christian mission era that inspired Lenshina’s reaction against colonial domination.
Lenshina also realised that there were restrictions to her ministry as a woman and sought to start the Lumpa Church in revolt or resistance against such domination. Lenshina was inclusive in the way she did not discriminate against people based on class or ethnic origin.
She is also seen as an embodiment of resistance to dominant Western Christian methods of worship.
Many people believed that Lenshina had special powers as a prophetess.
She operated within a Bemba holistic worldview as she healed the sick and delivered people and sheltered them within her church. Rosemary Radford Ruether has observed that: “By practising traditional forms of healing, not only was Lenshina resisting Western teaching regarding healing, but she was also reclaiming the ancient role of healing that women played in society–a role that was being eroded by the teachings of the missionaries.
“She was the first Bemba woman to challenge the status quo within Bemba mission Christianity and developed her own mission paradigm from an illiterate Bemba woman’s perspective.”
She spoke against harmful cultural practices such as sexual cleansing of widows, polygamy and witchcraft. She saw the mission as translating, which led her to compose hymns from within Bemba culture and it was indeed her ability to translate the gospel that empowered her church to resist Western missionaries’ power and she promoted indigenous Bemba culture of translation alongside her own version of Christian religion.
Lenshina was therefore at the forefront of liberation theology because she “dared to make sense of the Christian faith within the language and idiom of the Bemba people.”
But controversy over who Alice Lenshina still remains.
She was against the state and she fought against colonial Christian ideological doctrines that did not recognise the values of African culture.
Her Lumpa Church also denounced the teachings of the foreign based churches, indigenous authority and occasionally attacked UNIP activists who were intolerant of their faith.
In the end, there is no doubt that Alice Lenshina was an enigma who proved that an African woman can lead a religious organisation successfully.