Zimbabwe: a challenge to the truth
CROYDON - Any critical account of life in Zimbabwe is written off by the government-sponsored media in Zimbabwe as 'propaganda'. 'UK media lies', aimed at securing re-colonisation, poison the minds of potential visitors and investors, blinding them to the peaceful and harmonious reality of life in a wonderful country. If it wasn't for Western countries such as Britain, there wouldn't be any problems to speak of.
Well, I have just returned from a two-week visit to Zimbabwe with a group of 20 people from my Episcopal Area. We began to plan the visit nearly three years ago and became increasingly diffident about it as conditions deteriorated there more recently.
Our fears were not based purely on British media coverage of Zimbabwe, but also on reports we were getting from the country through contacts in the churches at all levels. Our visit, then, afforded a unique opportunity to see for ourselves what is going on there as well as develop our long-standing link with the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe.
The situation looks like this:
Inflation is well above 3000 per cent and rising, thus making any planning impossible. The official exchange rate was 250 Zim dollars to 1 US dollar; but the parallel rate (on which prices are based) was 16,000 Zim dollars to 1 US dollar. The black market rules.
Nothing has been repaired for years and the country's infrastructure is collapsing. Constant power cuts, sometimes lasting for days, are interspersed with water shortages. In Gweru, the administrative centre of the Midlands Province, we were without running water for our last five days; in Kadoma, where I preached and presided on Sunday April 22, there has been no running water for two months.
We saw signs of malnutrition in children, and adults suffering from hunger fatigue. Some of the people we stayed with are normally eating what is called 'zero one zero' - no breakfast, a basic lunch and nothing in the evening. This year's drought has devastated the maize crop.
Agricultural land, once so rich and well-farmed, is now largely abandoned. The land-reform process has been catastrophic, not because it was morally wrong in itself (the UK agreed to it), but because it was ill-conceived, appallingly executed and has proved economically disastrous. You don't need a GCSE in economics to know that it could never work.
Many businesses and industries have closed down or are working at a small percentage of their capability.
HIV/AIDS is wreaking devastation and life expectancy for a male is now 34 years.
Our visit was designed to give us unique access to ordinary people. Our hosts were generous and hospitable, wanting us to be comfortable and looked after. However, nothing can hide the reality that lies behind this warmth. People are going hungry and are beginning to feel hopeless. One priest said to us, 'You see us walking, but we are dead already'. They are fearful of the authorities and pessimistic about the possibility of next year's elections bringing any change. They end many conversations with: 'We must pray that God's will may be done.' And therein lies a problem.
One of the aspects of Zimbabwean life that is hard to comprehend is the disjunction between 'hope' and responsibility. Many of the people we met hope that radical change will come and their lives improve. But when we said that prayer must be accompanied by action, this was often dismissed. It is clearly easy to be critical from a distance of these people's apparent unwillingness to take responsibility for the changes that are needed (eg voting against Mugabe in 2008), but nevertheless this is a striking feature of many conversations.
Our group comprised eight clergy and 12 lay people of different ages and backgrounds. We had educationalists, medics, a lawyer, IT specialists - all of us falling in love with Zimbabwe and her people. We spent time together as a group, but were then dispersed to different parts of the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe. Therefore, the picture we built came not from second-hand reports, but from personal experience. Water shortages and power cuts were experienced by all. Hunger was identified by all. Fear of intimidation was discerned by many.
From high-density townships to rural villages, the picture was remarkably consistent.
In the midst of all this the Anglican Church is struggling to keep hope alive. The worship in the churches we visited was vibrant and life-changing. The music was fantastic everywhere we went. People know how to celebrate - but whilst celebrating their faith and their God, they are not celebrating their circumstances. Priests and people are trying to enable one another to remain faithful under pressure and to have the courage to do what is necessary to bring about change. We met some very brave and good people.
However, the Anglican Church is also hindered in its witness. The scandalous Bishop of Harare, Nolbert Kunonga, dominates the church and makes it impossible for the Church to speak with one voice. He is a Mugabe man and is supported by Bernard Malango, Primate of the Province of Central Africa. Archbishop Malango (who has announced his retirement from the end of 2007) is a 'conservative' Primate who sees sexuality as a moral issue, but appears to see little problem with (presumably, non-moral) matters of financial fraud, incitement to murder and corruption. Kunonga has his support.
Following a recent Provincial Episcopal Synod (April 12) the bishops issued a statement that appeared weak in its demands, as this newspaper reported last week. Yet it clearly called for change in Zimbabwe and, by implication, change in governance and government. Those who have ears to hear will discern in this an encouragement to bring about such change. Even Kunonga signed a plea for change. The regime of Robert Mugabe will end - all empires do - and many of those who have climbed on his back will go down with him - including those who are prepared to let their people suffer in the interests of their private power games.
Our visit has left us with much to reflect upon. The extraordinary faith and spirituality of the people we met reaches out in costly praxis to the hungry, the orphaned and widowed, the sick, the aged and the bereaved - but how can they speak and act prophetically before people who cannot bear criticism or challenge? How can we best support the ordinary people of Zimbabwe through the networks we have in the churches there? How can we help prepare for the rebuilding of this suffering country in a way that does not patronise, but enables Zimbabwean Christians to re-shape their country and church? How can we most usefully use our resources to support those who will one day be able to offer good models of governance and the exercise of power? How can we most effectively pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ while they suffer in a land waiting for liberation?
And are these observations the result of naïve consumption of British propaganda? No. We saw for ourselves.
The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines is Bishop of Croydon. This article was originally published in the Religious Intelligence.
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