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Michiko in Zambia

(Pictures that accompany this story are here.)

In the fall of 1990, I was an exchange student in Zimbabwe. I’ve been a Buddhist all my life and I was 21 at the time. I didn’t go to Africa thinking I would meet other Buddhists, so I kept up my practice on my own. If I was with my city family, I would go out in the yard, under a tree, to have some privacy for gongyo. When I was in the village, I found that when I did this, members of the family would knell down and pray with me. I also got a kick out of being the first person (that I know of) who has chanted Nam Myoho-renge-kyo at 2000-year-old cave paintings in the Matopos mountain range, and at Lake Kyle. 

About two months into my trip, two things happened. One, I really started to miss seeing the Gohonzon and two, I happened to introduce two of my Shona teachers to Buddhism. My mom was sending me World Tribunes and SGI Graphics. She also sent me the name and address of the Zambian leadership. Zambia is a country that shares its northwest border with Zimbabwe. I called the leader in Zambia and discovered that they had a meeting the following month. She said I could stay at her house if I came. I agreed and told her I would be coming with my two guests. 

I asked my two guests, Patrick and Constantine, to make our transportation arrangements to Zambia. I was leaving the next day for a month-long trip and would arrive back on the day we were to leave for Zambia.

The day I returned from my month long trip, Patrick and Constantine met me. They were packed and excited and ready to go. They had found a driver a man who was the Zimbabwe equivalent to an ex-CIA agent, and he had a friend with him. So it would be me, Constantine, Patrick, and these two tall men in a small rickety Toyata. The state of the car was alarming to me. But there was no time for me to argue. We had to hit the road or we would miss the meeting in Zambia.

As part of my last minute checks, I read my mail. There was an urgent telegram from the leader in Zambia. “Please don’t come,” it said. “The priest has come from Japan to do Gohonzon conferral and I don’t have room for you.” I sat in the mailroom of my dorm in disbelief. It was a sunny morning. Through the portico, I saw my shakubuku eagerly waiting for me to pack my bags so that we could go. If I went, I wouldn’t have anywhere to stay, I didn’t know Lusaka, Zambia, at all. For that matter, I didn’t know Constantine and Patrick that well either. My hopes of seeing the Gohonzon in Africa were vanishing before my eyes. I sighed and picked up my next letter. It was from the head of Nichiren Shoshu International Center. My mom had urged me to write to him about being a Buddhist in Zimbabwe and earlier in my trip, I had written him. This was his response to me. I don’t have the original, but I remember that it encouraged me to look at the large picture -- that introducing people to Buddhism would forever affect their lives and the whole of Africa. 

This letter stopped me from telling Constantine and Patrick that we weren’t going. Instead, I went out to the car and I told them I was going to pack my bags and be back in a second. That was my first look at the ex-CIA types. I was scared. I went back to my room and consulted with my friend Milly. “Milly,” I said, “If I don’t go, I’m going to miss the experience of a lifetime, but if I do go and something happens to me and I can’t make it back, I will have violated the rules of the program; I’ll lose all 15 credits, which means that the $15,000 my mother paid for me to come here will be washed down the drain.” 

Milly, a dear wonderful friend to this day, said, “Michiko, go.”

Minutes later, we pulled out of the college and were on our way. The car was cramped, and the ride was long. In my naivete, I had looked at the big map of Africa to judge how far it was from Harare to Lusaka. The distance looked about the same as from New York to Washington, so I expected about a 5 hour ride. Well, Africa is a little bit bigger than the United States. To put it in real terms, we left the college at 10 am and arrived at the border to Zambia at 5:50 pm. 

“The border is closing in 10 minutes,” the ex-CIA said. “We only agreed to get you this far. There are buses to Lusaka on the other side of the border, but you probably won’t make it tonight. Sorry.” He got in his car and turned around and headed back to Harare, kicking up dust.

The border is actually the Zambezi river. The border crossing is a large bridge, about ¼ mile long. During those times, Zimbabwe and Zambia were considered frontline states to the Apartheid government of South Africa. So border closings were strictly enforced. The three of us sat there with our bags for a moment, extremely perplexed. Did we dare try to run across the bridge to Zambia? What if the border closed before we got there? The Zimbabwe side would close too. We would have to spend the night on the bridge. If we stayed on land in Zimbabwe, we would have to sleep on the hard ground. 

“Michiko,” Patrick said, “You must have faith. You told me the Shoten Zenjin would protect us, and we are on a mission for the peace of Africa. We have to go.”

How could I argue with that? Patrick’s enthusiasm lit us up and we ran to the Zimbabwe border, made it through at 5:55 and onto the bridge. One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do was not stop and admire the Sun setting over the Zambezi River from that bridge. It was a magnificent sight, which I had to completely ignore in a mad dash to the Zambia border. Now, Constantine and I were both packing a bit more weight than a very lean Patrick. So we slowed down and he kept going. “GO PATRICK!” we yelled, “TELL THEM TO KEEP THE BORDER OPEN!!!”

Constantine and I huffed and puffed into the border office at 6:01. 

“I’m sorry, madam,” the border guard said, very sternly. “This office is now closed and the border is closed.”

At that moment, two people came to mind. Ms. Fumiko Snelling and Mr. Ted Osaki, pioneers in the Washington area. I felt that they were right there with me, pushing me and giving me confidence.

I dropped my bag, locked eyes with the guard and said, “Look, I’m on a mission for world peace. I have two people here who are going to significantly change their lives and they must attend the conference we are going to. See, I chant Nam Myoho-renge-kyo and the whole universe is behind us on this mission. You are going to let us through this border.”

That was the closest I’ve ever come to a Jedi mind trick in my life, because seconds later, he was stamping our passports and we were through.

6:01 pm, at Chirundu, Zambia-Zimbabwe border. Where was the bus to Lusaka? I scanned the scene. People were hunkering down for the night, laying out their blankets. Cooking fish they had just caught. There were big rig semis that were going to wait till the next day to get into Zimbabwe, but no bus. 

“There!” said Constantine, pointing at a blue Toyota pickup with a covered bed. I couldn’t believe it, but I was NOT going to stay at the border. I approached the driver. He reeked of alcohol. I paid him for the three of us. He opened up the back of the truck and it was packed with people already. The ride to Lusaka was going to be at least 2 hours. Somehow, the three of us squeezed in. I had the privilege of sitting on a battery that nobody wanted to sit on. This turned out to be a great benefit however, because everyone had overlooked that the battery was closest to the window. So I had fresh air for the whole ride.

I also had a vantage point into the cab where the driver was sitting, and could see the road. I was the only one in that truck who knew that we narrowly escaped with our lives at least 10 times on that drive as the driver zigzagged down mountain ridges and steep inclines, drunk. 

Finally, we arrived in Lusaka at 10:00 pm. We were unceremoniously left in a parking lot in an industrial area of Zambia. It was poorly lit and I realized that Lusaka was not Harare. Lusaka was still developing and things like payphones and ATM machines, common in Harare, were few and far between in Lusaka. 

Fighting exhaustion, we trudged along to the nearest hotel. The Hotel Lusaka. I had only $121 Zimbabwe dollars. I thought that this would help pay for rooms, board and transportation. Dirty, smelly and tired, I approached the front desk. “I’ll need a room for three please.” 

“Yes, mam,” the front desk clerk checked her availability. “We have a room available, that will be $$$ kwacha.”

“How much is that in Zimbabwe dollars?” I asked, about ready to drop.

“I’m sorry mam. We don’t take Zimbabwe dollars.”

I was stunned. I argued, “Well, can you take them tonight?” The words came out faster “See, I don’t have a place to stay and I didn’t know and...”

“I’m sorry, I cannot take Zimbabwe dollars.”

My Jedi mind trick wasn’t working this time. 

“Well, can I use your phone.” I thought I would try the Zambian leader, just in case. Maybe the priest, who was staying with her, hadn’t arrived yet, and she might have extra room. 

The clerk took us upstairs where the video operator was busy loading kung fu videos for hotel guests to watch. “You may use this phone,” she said. 

I called the leader. The priest had indeed arrived. I was too embarrassed to tell her that I had no place to stay, because she had told me not to come. “Ok, well, see you tomorrow at the meeting!”

“Oh,” she said, “ The meeting is not tomorrow. Its Sunday.”

“Ok”, I replied meekly.

The weight of my situation was dawning on me. I had useless money in my pocket, that had to last for not one day, but two. I could not call my Zimbabwean academic advisor because I would risk losing all my credits. I hadn’t told him I was going to Zambia. I couldn’t call home for money, who would let me do an international call? I was watching kung fu movies with two shakubuku in the hotel Zambia. What the hell?

At the moment, I freaked out. I started ranting. “Oh my God, what have I got myself into? How am I going to get home?” I ranted for about 5 minutes while Constantine and Patrick looked at me like two lost children. They had put their trust in me. They had put their faith in me. I was their Buddhist leader. And I was losing it.

Patrick finally broke in. “MICHIKO, you must have faith! I’m trusting you. You told me Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo works. You must chant, Michiko!”

So I stopped, I sat and I chanted. Somehow, chanting made me see the comedy in the situation and I started to laugh. Suddenly, we were all laughing, even the kung fu movie operator (see picture at right). We started to tell him our story, about how we had made it through the border, and how we were on a mission for world peace. Then we all just sat and watched movies for a half and hour.

“You know,” The movie operator said, “Let me see what I can do for you all.” He left and came back a few minutes later. “How much money do you have?” he asked.

“121 Zim dollars,” I replied.

He chuckled, shook his head and disappeared again. He came back with keys in his hand. “That will be 121 Zim dollars please”. I gave him the money and minutes later, we were in a room. As we fell asleep that night, Constantine mumbled something about an African National Congress friend of his who we could get in touch with the next day. Thoughts of visiting the ANC headquarters in Zambia put me in a good mood. I imagined a brightly colored office building, with many telephones to make calls from. I slept well that night. 

The next morning found us all in great spirits. Constantine was even more upbeat about his friend and was sure we could stay with him. His friend would feed us and take care of us and help us get back to Zimbabwe. 

So we set off into the city to find the ANC headquarters. I was still looking for a tall flagpole with the ANC flag flying brightly in the sun when Constantine ducked down an alleyway, nervously glancing over his shoulder.

“Quick Michiko, come on,” he said, pulling my elbow.

“What are we…?”

“Sssshhh. Just follow.”

I imagined that we were taking a shortcut and did as I was told. Down one alleyway, then another, then another, finally stopping to knock on a plain black metal door. 

A man with a rifle opened. Constantine exchanged a few words with him, he nodded his head, and opened the door for us to come in. More men with guns inside. A desk, a few chairs and a file cabinet.

Another man approached us and gave Constantine a hug. They talked and it dawned on me that this WAS the ANC headquarters. It all made sense. The ANC was considered a rebel grouped by South Africa and their Lusaka headquarters had been bombed before. So it made sense that its location was kept secret and it made sense that these men were armed.

A few minutes later, Constantine’s friend left with us and we all climbed on board a bus headed out to the suburb of Kabwata. This was a high poverty, high density suburb, the poorest of the poor. We followed the friend through the neighborhood. Finally, he stopped at a well kept house. A friendly looking man opened the door and the smell of freshly roasting meat wafted out, reminding me of how hungry I was. 

Inside, a thin, pretty woman was bent over a small fire, cooking the meat. The house was neat, and had things that boasted of a more affluent life: a TV, Wrigley’s Spearmint gum, Ivory soap, Crest toothpaste. An ANC calendar hung on the wall, along with a picture of Nelson Mandela. 

We were invited to sit and eat, to which we happily agreed. This was the house of Gordon and Roster Nasilele. Gordon was the local ANC leader of the area. After we ate, we cleaned up and talked. Gordon asked us what the purpose of our stay was. I gave him an SGI Graphic that I had brought with me and explained that we were on a mission for peace and individual happiness. We discussed Buddhism for a while and then Gordon announced that we would go for a walk. 

And walk we did. We received a walking tour of Lusaka. By this point, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Gordon reminded me of a Gakkai chapter chief, describing the difficulties faced by his ANC members in Lusaka. His concern for them was so genuine, that I could sense his pain. He himself was in exile. He had a fairly good middle class life in South Africa before exile. Now he was living in a high poverty area and he and Roster’s five-year-old son had succumbed to cholera the year before. I could not imagine his suffering but felt that by introducing him to Buddhism, somehow, I was doing something to help.

We stopped at an apartment building to visit one of the ANC members. What follows is a bit of synchronicity that I can’t explain: this particular ANC member was also a Gakkai member. Imagine the shock on my face when we entered this man’s apartment and found a HUGE Japanese style black butsudan in the middle of his living room.

It was truly an amazing moment. From that point on, I knew that I was really being protected. That even though I was completely out of money, in a country where I knew no one, with no way to communicate, I felt safe.

From this member, I found out that our meeting was a block away. 

We enjoyed the rest of the night at Gordon and Roster’s house. Waking early the next day, we walked to the meeting place. Imagine my joy when I heard 200 people doing gongyo together.

“See,” I said to Patrick and Constantine. “THAT’s what it sounds like.” I pointed at the altar. “And see that. THAT is the Gohonzon.”

The meeting was wonderful and I was able to connect Patrick and Constantine to the local members. After numbers were exchanged, we realized that it was time to say our goodbyes to Gordon and Roster. Honestly, even though I had met them the day before, it felt like saying goodbye to life-long friends. I took a picture of the two of them, Gordon holding the SGI Graphic, in front of their house. 

Gordon walked us to the truck depot. We figured we could hitch a ride with a driver back to Zimbabwe. Patrick’s father lived in Zambia and somewhere during the course of our trip, Patrick decided to visit him. We found a truck driver named Thousand, who could get us to the border. I wasn’t even worried that I didn’t know how I would get from the border to Harare. I knew we would be protected. 

I gave Patrick a big hug. “Thank you for having faith,” I said. That was the last time I saw him.

Constantine and I boarded the truck and had a nice ride back to the border. We made it well before closing time. We managed to hitch a ride back with a rich diamond mine owner in his white Mercedes C-class. I sipped brandy on leather seats all the way back to Harare. 

Well, that’s the end of my story. I’ve lost contact with Constantine and Patrick and Gordon and Roster, but I’m sure we will meet again someday.

(Pictures that accompany this story are here.)