Approaching the Seventh Day Apostolic Church camp at Ntalika Village, Group Village Head Nyalika in Traditional Authority (T/A) Nsamala in Balaka, I am welcomed by two bearded men working in a carpentry workshop situated just in the peripherals of what looks like a makeshift village.
One of the men comes up to me and asks what I am looking for.
“I am looking for the one in charge of this camp,” I respond.
The men look at each other and tell me that there is no such person on the camp.
“We don’t believe in supreme leadership,” one of them says.
However, they assure me they will look for someone I could talk to.
Just looking at the members of the church at the camp, one sees a picture of unity and discipline.
They always dress in white apparels regardless of age and gender, work as a team in income generating activities and share resources.
However, having been told that they do not believe in ‘supreme leadership’, I cannot help but ask myself a few questions: Who instils the apparent discipline? Who do they obey? Who unites the group?
This is the story of Seventh Day Apostolic Church members, locally known as ‘Apostoli’, who live in temporary camps and conduct their business as an isolated community.
I was told to brace myself for a long wait because they had to look for the person who would speak to me. I asked if we could call him using my mobile phone, but with a dismissive smile, I was told that they do not use mobile phones.
That left me with no option but to wait.
An hour passed without a sign of the ‘spokesperson’ I was hoping to meet. As I waited while seated on one of the unfinished chairs being worked on by the carpenters, I noticed that the grass thatched shade had the grass on its roof so sparsely spread that it provided no shelter from the scorching Balaka sun.
I took out my phone and started taking selfies, just to pass the time.
Meanwhile, men would pass me by as they went about their business, while children were seen playing here and there. Similarly, women were busy doing household chores—from fetching water from a nearby water point across the tarmac road to sweeping the yard or cooking.
I was curiously watching the goings on at the camp when, finally, the man I was waiting for showed up.
Medium build, dressed in a white robe and bearded, like the rest of them, he humbly greeted me as he sank into a chair, directly facing me. Again, I introduced myself as a journalist who wanted to learn more about their way of life.
He listened to me attentively, and then said he was not the right person to speak.
“But there is someone who is responsible for receiving visitors. If you want to see him, come tomorrow morning before seven o’clock,” he advised.
The following morning, I arrived at the camp around six in the morning. After waiting for over two hours, I was introduced to a youthful looking, light-skinned man, the one responsible for visitors.
Again, after I introduced myself to him, he disappeared into the camp to bring forth yet another person.
Finally, at around 8:30am, a man who introduced himself as Seaman Banda came to meet me.
Banda said he was not a leader, but “just a mere preacher”. He took me aside because carpenters were about to start their work where we stood.
After I introduced myself, he sternly warned me against recording his voice and taking his picture. He also warned against taking pictures of any part of the camp, saying their faith does not allow that.
“What else does the faith prohibit?” I asked.
“We don’t listen to the radio, we do not use cell phones and we don’t go to the hospital for medical attention. We also do not send our children to conventional schools,” Banda said.
He added: “We have our own schools here where we teach spirituality, reading and numeracy. When the children grow up, they are given technical skills trainings such as building, tailoring and carpentry. Even with their skills, they are not allowed to work outside the camp except when we are working to meet orders of people who seek services from our workshops.”
According to him, they believe that government schools teach children “immoral things” such reproduction and that man evolved from apes, which is contrary to biblical teachings that children must not be exposed to nakedness and that man was created by God in his own image.
Banda says the Apostles also believe that government hospitals and pharmacies are there for private gain. He said: “We don’t go to hospitals because basically most drugs are not meant to heal but to generate money for pharmacies. In John 5:14, the Bible says the solution to healing is prayer.”
In this community women have no place in leadership or income generating activities. Their role, according to Banda, is bearing and raising children, as well as preparing meals for the family.
“This is a lot of work for the women. It would be unfair to add more responsibilities to the list of what the women already do,” Banda says.
Much to my surprise, the church members read newspapers. At some point during the interview, Banda pulled out a newspaper cutting to stress a point he was making that the world is living in the end time as described in the Bible.
Life in the camp is different from conventional communities. The funds realised from income-generating activities that men do are used to purchase supplies such as soap, food and other basic needs, which are then distributed among families at regular intervals.
Banda says the camp has separate tents for girls and boys, where all boys and girls sleep as though they were in school hostels. On the other hand, married people live in married people’s section of the camp.
However, my request to get inside the camp and have a look at the school, the girls’ and boys’ facilities was met with a firm ‘no’.
I was left wondering if there is anything the people are hiding when, in a casual manner, Banda said: “Next time you need to pray hard before coming here.”
Commenting on how this lifestyle could affect children, Eye of the Child executive director Maxwell Matewere is of the view that children belonging to such religious faiths need protection.
Said Matewere: “Denying the children medical care and education is as good as killing them. As much as we know that these people have their beliefs, it must be known that children are not part of the decision making. As such, they must be exempted from these things until they are old enough to make their own choices about following their parents’ religious beliefs.”
Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Elderly, Children and Social Welfare, Mary Shawa, said government is aware of some religious faiths that subject children to situations which deprive them of their rights, and is seeking ways to address the problem permanently. n