Traveling by Land or River in Zambia Tests the Oblate Virtue of Patience

Oblate Mission in Zambia

By Fr. Billy Morell, OMI

Prior to the breakdown, (L-R) Fr. Emmanuel Mulenga, Bishop Evans Chinyemba, and Fr. David Uribe seem to be enjoying the ride
Fr. Bill Morell, OMI

I just hit the 10-day mark of my Zambia Mission visit. Yesterday was particularly memorable despite having nothing directly to do with the projects I came to visit. We are four from the states (Fr David Uribe who is my successor in Oblate fundraising and his director of major gifts and planned giving, Kevin Miller; Fr Emmanuel Mulenga from the US Provincial Council) & Bishop Evans Chinyemba, of the Mongu diocese… along with our faithful coxswain, Teddy, the most longsuffering human I know.  

“Getting there is half the fun.” Whoever came up with that theory had certainly never taken yesterday’s ride up the mighty Zambezi from Mongu to Lukulu.  Nothing like a boat ride from hell to put a little meat on a theory.  When the six of us finally pulled out of Mongu’s sandy harbor after waiting an hour-and-a-half for our boat to show, we should have been suspicious of the “half the fun,” bit. Another saying was the giveaway. 

The harbor the Oblates left from was very similar to this one located just outside Mongu

“Well begun is half done.”  Well begun and half done, we should have known what was ahead.  Bishop Evans, in arranging the boat for our transport, —  instead of many hours of bouncing down endless sand tracks by car– assured us the boat trip was half as long and many times more accommodating. The thought of two and-a-half or three hours of smooth sailing was more than convincing. For me, it was appealing.

Typical road in rural Zambia

When we bounced into Lukulu nine-and-a-half hours later, packed in the back of a land cruiser with all our luggage and three cans of unused outboard motor fuel fouling our air, thoughts of smooth sailing were long gone.

Seeing these women doing wash in the river, Fr. Morell commented, “Women on shore washing clothes behind a flimsy stick fence to keep out the crocs.”

But in fact, at first travel on the great Zambezi was great… occasional grass-hut fishing villages and lush Barotse Flood Plain grasses as far as we could see. Relaxing, cool, beautiful, and fast… not a bad definition for “smooth sailing.” Sadly, at the 2-hour mark, a coughing and jerking motor made smooth sailing a dream of the past. Eventually the motor failed completely. Constant yanking of the motor starter cord would occasionally give us a minute or two of movement, until it didn’t anymore.

Beaching the boat while they await help

Finally, we beached the boat and waited. The cool river breeze gave way to the blazing sun from a cloudless sky, and we waited. The hour and a half wait at the start of our trip was child’s play compared to this waiting. It occurred to me we were awaiting rescue. It also occurred to me who in the world would come to our rescue? No one knew we were in trouble or where we were. In all our hours on the river we’d only seen tiny dug-out canoes. Other things occurred to me as we waited: our little supply of water and food weren’t going to last long; of course, there was no cell service in this remote stretch of the river and, of course, we had no way to tell anyone where we were along the miles of shoreline; and of course, the heat would give way to winter cold when it got dark. And all the while, in the background of waiting, our hapless coxswain yanked the motor cord endlessly, always with the same silent response. So, we make of waiting the missionary virtue of patience.

It paid off. Fr Emmauel, exploring the river side sand dunes found one high enough for him to get a single bar on this cell phone.  He connected on a single call. Br. Max in Lukulu. Bishop Evens was able to compute we were within a few kilometers of a distant outstation of Lukulu.  Max was able to let us know a friend of his, a South African fishing guide named Gerard, was actually on the river heading our way in his speed boat full of supplies for his fishing camp. He couldn’t be too many hours down river from us! 

Help at last!

After 7 and a half hours, hosted by the mighty Zambezi , the sun began to set. Gerard gunned up to us and Br. Max also putted in from that outstation upriver in a banana boat, Rescue!

As Gerard towed our boat and our happy selves to the village where Max’s four-wheel Land Cruiser awaited us, he assured us our rescue adventure was not quite over.

All and all, the rescue took about 5 or 6 hours.  For, after transferring luggage, equipment and gas from the abandoned boat up the steep bank to Max’s vehicle, it was still an hour and a half drive over sand tracks to Lukulu. Packed in the back of the Land Rover, we arrived in Lukulu around 8:30 in the evening tired, sun-stunned, smelling of gas, hungry… and grateful to God for rewarding our missionary practice of patience.  We also arrived to find a crowd of members of the local Missionary Association had been waiting too.  They had gathered long before we got there to welcome us and hear a talk from Fr David…  and share their supper with us.  We broke up with them about 10:00. 

Bed felt mighty good. It had been a long day. For every one of the 6 of us our evening prayer was in the missionary tradition, gratitude to God.  We were saved…   And we were looking forward to visiting the Lukulu projects, especially the New Nursing College and the Training School, we had traveled so long to see.