If you have been following my blogs the last couple months, you are aware that I have been on a most remarkable journey in Zimbabwe, Africa. It is the experience I had once hoped for and at low points never thought would eventuate. To say I am grateful would be grossly understated! I have never been so frequently awestruck as on this trip. I will need my tear ducts replaced after I return home as they are completely worn out.
For those of you just catching up with my story, in the 1980’s I came to Zimbabwe in search of a racially integrated peace project I had heard about. After years of searching for such a thing, and many disappointing dead ends, I was both excited and relieved when I arrived here to discover it actually existed. It was and still is, the most authentic expression of Christianity I have yet to experience. Former combatants in the Rhodesian Bush War of the 1970’s, had discovered what Lincoln, Gandhi and King had years before, the teachings of Jesus and his emphasis on loving your enemies. It was not an easy task as after years of racial tension and armed conflict, there were a great many emotional wounds on both sides. Bravely, together, they linked arms and worked hard to tear down the walls that had divided them over the generations. As happened with the aforementioned peacemakers, others were threatened by the prospect of peace as they prospered and maintained their power by the creation of conflict. On November 25th, 1987 sixteen peacemakers were killed and the dream for a unified Zimbabwe seemed to die with them. For the next 30 years, the country’s various groups were diabolically pitted against each other by a ruler who used a “divide and conquer” strategy to stay in power. More murders and killings took place with it reaching another fevered pitch in the 2008 Presidential Elections. The suffering over the last 30 years has been unimaginable and the sense of loss devastating.
THE TIMES ARE A CHANGIN’
Thirty years after we buried my friends in the soil of a blood-soaked Zimbabwe, something potentially amazing happened, the first change of leadership in the nation since Independence in 1980. In the major cities of the country, citizens emerged after years of oppression dancing in the streets. People from every race and tribe were hugging and taking photos with each other. This was the long awaited moment the masses had been hoping for…freedom. While that hope is now tempered with a cautious optimism after seven months, it is still here. The people have spoken, they want change! They are tired of conflict and want unity to rebuild their nation and enable it to reach its enormous potential. It was into this environment I found myself arriving in late February of this year. It was refreshing to experience. In emerging out of years of oppression, there is still a residual suspicion that hangs over the culture and relationships. Fear is just under the surface and I found myself running headlong into it in my attempt to return to the grave site where my friends were buried.
In mid-April my dear friend Thabani, who was a key member of the original peace project, came from Liberia where he is now working to see me. We had last seen each other in 2010 when a second edition of my book “Saving Zimbabwe: Life, Death & Hope in Africa” was launched in South Africa. Neither of us at that point anticipated it would be another eight years between visits. Then again, neither of us anticipated the resistance to our story we would get from the then Zimbabwean government. The book was placed in the Exclusive Books store in Tambo Airport which Zimbabweans pass while traveling in and out of South Africa. The books started making their way into the country and the Zimbabwean government was not pleased! To add fuel to the fire, I discreetly shipped more books into the country in 2013. Back in 1987, the government had told two huge lies about our project 1) That it was missionaries from overseas who had been killed when actually only three were from outside Zimbabwe. 2) That it was owned by white colonists when in fact it was in a Trust/Not-for-Profit and everyone (both black and white) shared equally in any benefits. I suspect I also raised their ire when I exposed the fraud of the Land Reform Initiative by questioned why the black farm managers and those who lived on and worked the farms were chased off. The fact that all the farm implements were sold for cash by the politicians who took them over and most of those farms still lie fallow is revealing. I was told you are no longer welcome in the country and it seems neither were my friends. A few years later a couple of them were arrested for visiting the grave site!
You can imagine my surprise when I was allowed into the country in February. Unfortunately, experiencing resistance was not over quite yet. On April 13th Thabani and I were told by local village leaders that we were not going to be allowed to visit the grave site where my friends were buried! It seems they were afraid I was coming to take the land back. I was extremely disappointed and even hurt. Those very same leaders had children who were benefiting from the books and medical supplies I had donated via my NGO Compassionate Justice International. It was a slap in the face after extending hands of compassion to them. I reminded myself that Jesus experienced this same dynamic in his life. I hid my tears and moved on. On the way back from our disappointing attempt, we stopped to see Mama Joice Dube whose life had been profoundly affected by Gaynor Hill one of those killed back in 1987. Joice has dedicated her life to carrying on Gaynor’s heart and vision for peace. She has been a huge advocate and teacher for young village girls who tend to get pregnant in their early teens and become tethered to poverty in the rural areas as a result. Through her “Mighty Girl” program, she is encouraging them to dream big and make smart choices.
Joice was so disappointed to hear our story that she decided to do as we say, “run the issue up the flag pole” and appealed to high ranking government officials in the Esigodini area. Thankfully, they were disappointed in the reception we had received and communicated that we should be allowed to go with one caveat; we needed to take a police officer with us. I was both thankful and suspicious. You see the Esigodini Police were the very unit who had arrested my colleagues a few years earlier and put them in jail there! My friends were subject to interrogation, with me and my book central to much of the questioning. One week after being told I could not go, I found myself walking through the very same Esigodini Police station with officers intensely staring at me. It was intimidating to say the least! We wound around and through the rabbit warren of a station in search of the officer assigned to go with us. His superior asked Joice a few questions before releasing us. I thought we were done until I learned we also needed to visit the President’s Office which has a satellite branch just across from the station. This was a much more enjoyable experience as this official was very accommodating and glad to be of service. It took me a minute to get my head around the fact a government official was being nice to me! From there we all loaded into the 4×4 Truck of Thabani’s cousin Vusa Dube, and headed out on the dirt roads to Mbizingwe.
WHEN LOVE COMES TO TOWN
Our first stop was to the village headmen who are the village administrators that work under the Chief. These were the very men who a week earlier had shut down my visit. One week later it was a different story as they were falling all over themselves to be accommodating. One of them canceled his meeting with the Chief so he could lead our procession which seemed to pick up people as we went along. Our first stop was to Stephen Ncube the last surviving leader of the Community of Reconciliation. He will turn 90 years old in September. I had a very emotional re-connection with him a week earlier and at that point asked if he would be open to recording a video about his experience the night our friends were killed. He agreed with the condition I provide him a sheet of paper, so he could write down his thoughts, and not forget them once the camera started rolling. While he collected his thoughts, we went to visit the grave site. Sadly, I could not even see the memorial while walking towards it. Neglect and mother nature had surrounded it with trees and bushes. As we navigated them, Joice took time to share with Officer Kuda and the others what had happened there and why her life had been so profoundly affected by it. I watched intently as those in the party were riveted by her story.
From there we visited the community ruins and along the way I shared in more detail about the community’s vision. I begin to realize that most of those with us, knew nothing about this story though they lived near the memorial for years! It seems fear had silenced those who had any knowledge as war vets and others had moved onto the community lands and forbade the villagers from ever visiting the grave. The story had been lost over time and in that moment, God was resurrecting it as those listening were moved to tears. Suddenly I noticed a shift from fear to pride that such an amazing thing had once existed in this very place. The questions started coming and even a request to rebuild the community caught me off guard. It was a stunning reversal. There was only one building that remained intact from all the original community structures and it was the very first one built…a prayer chapel! They built it while living in tents and showering under a 55-gallon drum. It was manned 24/7 while the vision took form below. Today there is a small church meeting in the building under the care of Pastor Evans Bhebhe. Pastor Moyo who looks after another church in the area also accompanied us on our expedition to find the ruins of the community.
I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES
Once we were done, we headed back to the village to eat lunch and interview Stephen. I will never forget what happened next. Since I cannot speak Ndebele, Stephen’s native tongue, I asked Joice and a young man named Bongai Ncube to do the interview while recording it on my iPad. As the interview was taking place I was watching Officer Kuda intently as he was making handwritten notations in his notepad. I started to get a bit concerned as this has been a politically explosive story and I was not sure what his actual mission or motives were. After a few minutes he stopped taking notes as he was gripped by Stephen’s testimony. His eyes even watered at certain moments. After Stephen completed his story, Officer Kuda being deeply moved, walked over to Stephen and bowed before him. He took his hand and thanked him for not only telling his story but the sacrifices he had made attempting to build such a beautiful thing. What was lost on both of them in the moment, but so moved me, was that it was Officer Kuda’s police unit which had arrested Stephen’s grandson Guide just a few years earlier for doing what we had just done, visit the memorial! Later Officer Kuda would ask for my WhatsApp number and after dropping him off at the station he started texting me. He was undone by what he had seen. He later commented to me “Bob, if Zimbabweans lived like these people there would no longer be a need for guns!” I found myself sitting alone in my room with watery eyes thanking God that my friends blood had not been shed in vain. God was using their living testimony to inspire Zimbabweans that there is a better way, one which had once existed in this very country.
GIVE PEACE A CHANCE
The ripple effects of that day have continued as others are beginning to dream again that Zimbabwe can change and there’s a better way forward. I was asked to speak at a church in Bulawayo where I shared the transcendent perspective of Jesus. He was not caught up in the cultural paradigms which prevent us from loving others. He healed the servant of an Imperialist Roman military leader. He pointed out to a Samaritan woman that the thousand-year conflict which had divided their two cultures was based on false premises. He shared a tender story with a Judean legal expert suggesting the one who actually understood his Father’s heart, was the Judean guys political, cultural and religious enemy! Jesus simply didn’t look at situations from our earthly perspective. He was transcendent. Consider for a minute that most all conflict is around things we cannot take with us when we die! We have lost the perspective the Founding Fathers of our faith had, they lived in the context of eternity.
Plans are in the works to restore the memorial site. An assessment team is going out to see what needs to be done first. Some of the fencing needs to be replaced as it was stolen. It is likely the whole thing needs to be replaced after 30 years. Once I get the assessment I will know how much funding I need to raise to complete the project. Given the huge shift which has taken place as fear has been replaced with desire and pride, we are discussing turning the site into a much larger memorial. We will have to navigate some political hurdles to assure government leaders that our mission is not a political one. Future generations must be made aware of the cost of freedom and peace so that they don’t lose it. We are looking to open a small museum there, so school children in the area can see what it once was and what Zimbabwe could be again. After 30 years of oppression, the reemergence of Zimbabwe will be slow and not as fast as people want but a crucial ingredient is in the air here…Hope.