The Mumbi: where I was baptized and found my sacred pulse for the first time. Carving a narrow vein of lifeblood across the dry earth, the Mumbi is a clear, swift-moving stream that flows through the heart of Kalwa Farm in western Zambia. As a young child, it was my favorite swimming hole, pulsing with warmth and delight. But on the day of my baptism, the water was icy cold, transfused with daily showers brought on by the rainy season.
I am standing there, frozen, in my Dukes of Hazzard sweatshirt and jeans, noticing the clatter of my uncle cooking breakfast on the outdoor stove. Early morning, and light streams in over the horizon. I wade into the water with my father, who stands ready to mark me with the sign of the Trinity. Like the stone cliff that stands guard to one side of the river, my father is reliable but distant. From the other bank, my brother keeps watch. Also protective, yet more playful and within reach.
When I emerge from those frigid waters, I marvel that I actually feel different. All of six years old, and I distinctly remember thinking that baptized Christians should not bite people.
As I wipe my eyes to rescue a stray lash, salty tears send the river of my thoughts drifting backward toward a night from weeks before. I am lying in bed, frozen, while spirits ruminating on after-life dart back and forth across the shadowy Sheol of my psyche. The room is dark in the way only an African night can be, and my heart drums loudly in my ear. In short: I am afraid to die and be utterly alone in hell, and the only way out that has been offered to me is Jesus.
So I swallow hard, throw off the covers, leap to the floor, and pound into the living room, where my mother lingers in her chair, quietly marinating in the last hour of generator light. I call out to her, “It’s time!” and beseech her with a painful urgency that I’m ready to be saved, tonight. Ever responsive, my mother walks swiftly down the hallway to summon my father. When they return, they are ecstatic but to my surprise, not startled. We bow our heads and pray together, letting the fear drain from my body and sealing my heart with a sanguine amen.
For such a transcendent occasion, that moment in the night passed quickly. But other preparations unfolded more deliberately. In the weeks that followed, I practiced the baptismal choreography with my father. I would stand in the living room, still, my two hands with palms facing upward and stacked one on top of the other. Then my father would place his right hand in the center of my back and his left hand underneath mine. Together we would gently raise our hands to my face, covering my nose and mouth—first my tiny hands, then his large one on top for greater security. A rehearsal of intimacy. I would hold my breath and close my eyes as he dipped me backward into the imaginary river. Finally he would lift me to the surface again, saying something about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. It was hard to tell whether we were dancing or I was drowning, but such is the nature of the spiritual life.
In my child’s mind, the waters of baptism would save me from the fires of hell. Whatever church doctrine might say, hell to me meant isolation from the people and places I loved. I knew it was time for baptism because I knew that only a few months later, our family would travel across a vast expanse of ocean to furlough in the US. I knew I needed to be immersed in the Mumbi. What I did not know at the time is that our furlough would extend permanently, and I would never say a proper goodbye to my birthplace. Not even full immersion will always keep you out of hell.
But a font, or a pool, or a river can help you survive it. These days I make my annual pilgrimage to the gulf. I swim out as far as I safely can, letting the salt cure my wounds and the waves carry me forward. I remember the Mumbi and dream: What is this sacred mystery where the waters of the earth make us clean and whole and connected again?
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Jer Warren