A Greek ‘tribe’ in Africa
Clockwise from top left: Metropolitan Bishop of Zambia Ioannis gives a Greek flag to descendants of the Vlahakis brothers. Bishop Ioannis holds a service at the hut that serves the Greek Orthodox mission in Kanima. The island of Kanima in the Zambezi River. Extended members of the clan are seen at the Vlahakis family cemetery.
It sounds like fiction but it isn’t. It includes a Greek “independent state” deep in Africa, a Greek “tribe” living in the vast forests, a Cretan revolutionary – dubbed “Jungle Zorbas” – who fought with beasts and killed a crocodile with a bat, and a Greek Orthodox cleric who is today struggling to save the remnants of the Greek presence in Zambia.
So, in the 1890s, in the town of Malia on the island of Crete lived a young man named Nikolaos Vlahakis, known for his revolutionary action against the Ottomans.
As the yearning on the island to be united with liberated Greece swelled, Vlahakis, refusing to put up with the oppression and sick of being a target for the Turks, left his homeland in 1894.
He fled to Asia Minor with a Greek flag, an icon of the Virgin Mary and a copy of the Bible in his backpack, and from there he managed to travel over 11,500 kilometers until he reached Mozambique.
After walking more than 2,000 kilometers of near-impenetrable jungle and other tough terrain, Vlahakis finally settled in the town of Chirundu, in what was then called Northern Rhodesia, on the border with Zimbabwe.
“With the arrival of Vlahakis and his brother, Orthodoxy arrived in the region,” Metropolitan Ioannis of Zambia told Kathimerini. “[They were] humble and simple people who, perhaps without realizing it, became the ‘good land’ on which the Gospel bore fruit and then Hellenism took root,” he added.
After settling in his new homeland in the jungle, Vlahakis started hunting wild animals, worked in mines and engaged in livestock raising to survive. Such was his physical prowess that he is said to have killed crocodiles with a bat and saved many natives from animal attacks.
Rumors of his exploits swept the jungle and made him famous among the local tribes, who made him their informal “leader.” As a true Cretan, however, Vlahakis felt an unbearable loneliness without his own people by his side, and so he returned to his homeland in the early 1900s to fetch his younger brother, Dimitris.
According to information that has come into the possession of the local Greek Orthodox Church, upon their return to Rhodesia, the Vlahakis brothers settled on a small island called Kanima in the vast Zambezi River, where they founded an “independent Greek state” in Africa, and raised a Greek flag.
“Their good reputation, excellent relations with the natives and hard work did not go unnoticed by the founder of the territory of Rhodesia, Cecil John Rhodes, who gave them a large enough area of land to cultivate,” Metropolitan Ioannis said. “There, the two brothers started their farm, named Demetra, and engaged in the cultivation of tobacco. At the same time, they both continued to hunt with great success. That made them famous all over the region. The two brothers from Crete were the only example of Europeans living together with the natives in the same conditions.”
The two brothers started their own families, marrying local women and living happily and in harmony with the tribes that lived around them until April 13, 1913, when Nikolaos died after being injured by a lion in the forest. The local tribes mourned his death and buried him with the honors reserved for a leader, at the top of a hill, overlooking the “independent Greek state” he had created years earlier.
But the seed planted by Nikolaos Vlahakis had sprouted in the jungle. His brother continued to live on the farm, adhering to the Orthodox faith and traditions, making sure that his children grew up with Orthodoxy and a proper education and upbringing.
“His 32 descendants – Nikolaos left behind a daughter – all bore Greek names, such as Nikolaos, Stefanos, Athena, Xenophon, Thekla, Cleopatra, Kalliopi, Konstantinos, Anna etc, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren, most of whom bear the names of the first two brothers.”
With Dimitris’ death on September 17, 1939, the era of the two pioneer Cretans ended, but their legacy remains. Their descendants, who are members of the “Vlahakis tribe” and proudly bear the surname, total about 3,500 people, scattered not only across Africa, but around the world. They maintain relations with each other, with the graves of their ancestors and the Greek Orthodox mission in Zambia as a common point of reference.
Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of the Republic of Zambia, who is considered the father of all independence movements on the African continent, awarded the Vlahakis family the honorary title of the 64th tribe of Zambia during a public speech.
Upon his arrival in Zambia, Metropolitan Ioannis considered it his duty not to neglect the traces of the Vlahakis brothers, the first Greeks who took refuge in the depths of sub-Saharan Africa, and who, “by bringing with them the holy of holies of the nation, became one with the natives and created a new, separate tribe, without ever forgetting their homeland.”
Thus, he proceeded to plan a “village” in the area where the two Vlahakis brothers first settled, with the establishment of a missionary center, which will initially included a church, a spiritual center, a clinic, a school and a trade school.
“So far, the legal process for the purchase of land from a descendant of the historical Vlahakis family, Harris Vlahakis, to the Holy Metropolis of Zambia has been completed, and the boundaries of the plot have been drawn. Also, an architectural plan of the missionary center has been prepared and an indicative estimation of the labor expenses.”
Last year, Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria laid the foundation stone of the project and now Metropolitan Ioannis has embarked on a mission to find funding.
“It will be a contribution of historical importance for the place and its people, not only for the descendants of the Vlahakis brothers, but also for every person who wants to get to know Christ,” the metropolitan said.
“To this day, people worship in a covered open space, which with the help and love of the Lord has withstood the intense rainfall of the tropical climate,” he added, while appealing to all those who are financially able to help the mission to complete the work “in memory of the flag bearers of the Greek spirit and the Orthodox brothers from Crete.”