By Dhanapalan Rayer, SJ

“Greet people first!”

I was only one week into my time in Zambia, and I found myself walking down the corridor of the school administration building. The school’s Headmaster asked me to go to the staff room and find a teacher named Mr. Banda. I entered the staff room and, not knowing the teachers by name, I had to call out, “Is Mr. Banda here, please? The Headmaster is looking for you.”

Mr. Banda inquired, “How are you, Father?”

“I’m doing well, thank you,” I replied.

I then asked him, “Are you Mr. Banda?” Without waiting for his response, I added, “The Headmaster wishes to speak with you.”

To my surprise, Mr. Banda posed another question, “How are the other priests at the community house?”

I answered, “They are doing well.”  Then I repeated, “The Headmaster is calling you.”

He said, “It’s alright. I heard you say that the Headmaster is looking for me. But you should greet people first. Engage in conversation, ask them how they’re doing, and then you can deliver your message.”

I promised, “Okay, I’ll do that.”  Then I proceeded to say, “The Headmaster is calling you.”

This interaction was a revelation for me. “Greet people and talk to them” became a life-changing approach for me in Zambia. I started conversing with people, whether they knew me or not. Remarkably, for the past 27 years, no one has reacted negatively.

A smile for every mile!

Zambia stands out as one of the most welcoming countries I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. ‘A smile for every mile’ was the slogan of Zambia’s national airline, and it perfectly encapsulates the warm reception one receives here. The people greet you with radiant smiles, reminding us that peace often begins with a simple smile. Zambians are renowned for their love of peace and harmony.

A unique handshake

Another remarkable experience I’ve had is the traditional Zambian handshake. Zambians have a distinctive and meaningful handshake. It begins with the standard handshake, followed by a unique step where they clasp each other’s thumbs and shake. Finally, they conclude with a third handshake, all in quick succession. This three-step handshake not only reflects their warm and welcoming nature but also conveys a sense of closeness, as the firm grip in their hands makes you feel connected.

The people greet you with radiant smiles, reminding us that peace often begins with a simple smile. Zambians are renowned for their love of peace and harmony.

‘The bearded mouth…’

I am deeply intrigued by the Zambian tradition and culture, particularly their profound respect and regard for their elders within the family. As the end of the school term approached, I would ask the students about their holiday plans. The recurring response was that they intended to spend some time visiting their grandparents. Parents echoed this sentiment, often stating that they would drive to the village and entrust their children with their grandparents. This strong bond between generations is heartwarming.

Allow me to share a poignant memory from years ago that remains vivid in my mind. I was enjoying my evening in the school’s football ground area when, in the distance, I noticed two young boys following each other while pushing a wheelbarrow. As they drew closer, I could see that one of the boys had tied one end of a rope around his waist and the other end to the wheelbarrow, allowing him to pull it. The second boy was gripping the wheelbarrow’s handles, maintaining control. At first, I assumed they were merely playing. However, as they approached, I realized there was an elderly man lying inside the wheelbarrow. These two boys were on a noble mission, taking their grandfather to the mission hospital because they had no other means of transportation. It was a remarkable testament to the compassion and creativity of these young boys, who, despite their tender age, had ingeniously found a way to ensure their grandfather received the necessary medical care. I left the location with a heavy heart, burdened by emotions.

In Africa, there is a proverb that wisely proclaims, “The bearded mouth does not lie.” This saying underscores the inherent trustworthiness of elders, who draw upon their wealth of life experience when they speak. In any social gathering, the words of the elders carry substantial weight and influence, owing to the profound respect and wisdom they bring to the discourse.

Raised his fist in the air!

In the very first week I spent in the classroom, the students were exposed to a multitude of accents—Canadian, Polish, Irish, and American. However, the one accent they struggled with the most was my Indian accent, and I, in turn, found it challenging to understand theirs. My task was to teach mathematics, and together, we made every effort to bridge this linguistic gap.

One day, a student brought his mathematics notebook for grading. As he tackled a problem, he made an error halfway through. I marked it as incorrect, and he was visibly upset. He returned to his desk to rework the problem but made another mistake, this time with only 25% of the question remaining. I had to mark it as incorrect again. Clearly, he wasn’t pleased with the X marks on his paper. He tore it up and started over, carefully working through the problem.

These two boys were on a noble mission, taking their grandfather to the hospital because they had no other means of transportation.

This time, he was confident he would succeed. When he brought it back to be graded, he expected a checkmark. However, there was still some anxiety on his face. As I held his notebook, I examined his work up to the halfway point, looking at his face to gauge his feelings. I added a checkmark, but then I paused, and his expression changed. He thought I was going to put another X. Instead, I placed a large checkmark. In that moment, he raised his fist in the air  and exclaimed in our local language, Tonga, “Ndayijanaa!” which means “I got it!” He repeated it several times and sat down, elated.

That was the first Tonga word I learned. This experience enlightened me. Every time I step into the classroom, I remind myself that my goal is for the entire class to say “Ndayijanaa!” and that is my aim and desire. When I stand before 40 students, those 80 eyes are eagerly looking up at me, ready to learn something new. My duty is to make them say “Ndayijanaa!”

That experience from my first week of teaching has guided me for the past 27 years. I am profoundly grateful to the Lord for enlightening me through that experience and for enabling me to maintain that spirit all these years.

My students have been wonderful teachers, helping me improve my communication skills and teaching me the nuances of asking questions effectively.

Singing and dancing for God:

Once I celebrated the Sunday Mass at the local parish church, where I adhered to our customary 12-minute sermon, allowing me to conclude the Mass in just one hour. Following the service, the priests and altar servers gathered outside the church to greet the congregation. As they exchanged greetings, I couldn’t help but notice their surprised comments: “Father, you finished fast, ah…ah… !”

With a curious smile, I responded, “Are you pleased that I finished quickly?” They replied with a mix of admiration and disbelief, expressing their thoughts with more “ahs”. Sensing their uncertainty, I asked for clarification, saying, “Im not quite sure I understand what you’re saying.” Finally, a gentleman explained that both the sermon and the Mass were too short. This made me realize that my approach had left some desiring a longer service.

However, my visits to this church have nurtured an appreciation for their music, singing, and dancing. The congregation possesses angelic voices, and the whole congregation would sing Gloria wonderfully well. It is indeed a truly heavenly experience. The graceful movements of their dances during the service are a sight to behold. (Although I’ve developed a desire to join in their dancing, I must resist, as it may lead people to believe I’ve suddenly developed some peculiar fits!)

Towards transformation:

I can keep on sharing more and more about my experiences in Zambia, where I have spent a significant part of my life. Over these 27 years, I have seen my pupils making tremendous efforts. Despite the limited opportunities available to them, these pupils have consistently strived to make the most of their circumstances, and I am proud to say that the Jesuits are continually working to provide them with more opportunities. “An untuned guitar is no better than a piece of wood.” I hope and pray that the pupils in our school as well as all the pupils of Zambia will continue to ‘tune’ themselves constantly. By doing so, they will become more efficient and effective, ultimately contributing to the transformation and progress of this country and the entire African continent.

Fr. Dhanapalan Rayer, SJ (CEN) has served Zambia for 27 years. He now teaches at the Canisius Secondary School, Chikuni Mission, Chikuni, Zambia.