We drove out of our accommodation in Bvumba and wound our way back through the mountain pass towards Mutare. If I was a Zimbabwean I have noticed I would be giving the approximate distance in kilometres and the direction according to the compass. All I can say is we followed the road, knowing we were close to the Mozambique boarder, pausing to look out across the picturesque landscape from Prince of Wales View. A few artists are crafting from soap stone and serpentine and selling their wares.
We drive on, into the city. Our guide for the next couple of days will be Rev. Godfrey Gaga of the United Methodist Church (UMC). Between our guide and teachers from our own college I am to learn some of the similarities and differences between the UMC (essentially American Methodism) and what I will describe as the Bristish Methodist Church, though whilst the roots are British each national church is now autonomous. This is perhaps the significant difference between the two denominations. British Methodism has followed a path of encouraging autonomy, and although there is a hierarchy there are no bishops. The UMC follows a different ecclesiology (it’s way of structuring the church), with a hierarchical structure including bishops and less autonomy, the headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, is the seat of the highest authority even for those in churches across the world. There are of course pro’s and con’s of each model. Typically I am informed that it is unusual for the UMC and British Methodist Churches to be found in the same countries, but Zimbabwe is one of a handful of countries where the two can be found, and therefore Zimbabwe is one of the places where the potential for partnership working and the potential for conflict is at its most acute.
Rev. Gaga is a tall, proud man. He makes a joke about sharing his name with Lady Gaga and lets us know we can call him Godfrey. Tomorrow he will show us around Mutare, his church and the area in which he ministers, but today we are to visit Africa University. We meet Godfrey in the centre of Mutare, and on the drive up into the mountains to the university he tells us a little about Mutare. Apparently this is an area rich in farming, gold and diamonds and that Mutare has been known as “Little London,” which I find interesting as he then goes on to say that it is slow compared to Harare and London is anything but slow. Again we hear about the 80% unemployment rate and that the frequency of church attendance has dropped since people are trying to find work.
United Methodist is very strong on this side of Zimbabwe. The Methodist Church Zimbabwe started on the other side. They meet in Harare. Known as the American or British Methodists colloquially it seems. Due to the different models of church the funding for each of the denominations is very different. The UMC has a standard salary for each bishop, minister, etc. and although thus varies on a continental basis it means that there is more stability for the ministers as they know that they are not reliant on the local congregation or the national economy but a central fund.
Our primary visit today is to Africa University. It is a place that leaves me with competing and contradictory thoughts and emotions. Although the university is funded by the UMC this is not a theological college but a university striving to be the Oxbridge or Ivy League institution of Africa. The buildings on the campus are new, substantial and high quality. This is not a university for local students but has a proud desire to welcome leaders and future leaders from across Africa. It is an exclusive and world class campus, comparible to the institutions I have visited in both the UK and US. The university had a number of faculties and teaches agriculture and natural resources, social sciences, health sciences, Peace, Leadership and Governance as well as theology. The mission of the church through Africa University is to “make leaders for the continent of Africa” and alongside academic courses to teach and be a witness to the Christian ethics, values and worldview.
We are greeted by the university chaplain, given a warm welcome and a tour of the chapel and prayer room. I does not compare to the other churches I have been to in Africa but contemporary churches in the US and Western Europe. I love the carving around the pulpit, lecturn and communion table illustrating the Gospel of Jesus in distinctly black Africa imagery. Jesus is African.
In contrast to the other universities and colleges we have visited we are not greeted by the principal, dean or senior faculty buy a marketing officer named Wesley. Wesley is well dressed and well groomed. He provides us with a history and overview the university. There is a pride in making connections to the Old Mutare Mission, established in 1884 just 2 km down the road. We are told of a prophecy in which it was seen this mountain would be inhabited with people from all over Africa, which of course with the university it now is. Wesley is the first person I heard mention Mugabe since being in Zimbabwe, and I was surprised by the honour he bestowed upon Mugabe and the pride of having him come for the ground breaking in 1994. Wesley explains thay the university is a “love project” and is reliant in donations from abroad, when more than 50% of funding for a new building comes from a single source the building will be named after that individual or group. Apparently there are approximately 1500 students from 25 different African nations and over the lifetime of the university students from 33 different nations have completed studies, with 90% returning to their home countries and serving in positions of influence. On this campus there is accommodation for visitors to the university, such as parents or directors, which is comparable to a 4 star hotel. There are also study centre’s in Mutare and Harare to enable those in employment to access the university for study. Lectures are in English but students also learn French and Portuguese depending on their background and if English is not well known there is a 1 year intensive English course. Whilst students of other faiths are tolerated the university seeks to showcase Christianity.
I am again taken aback as we visit the library. I do not recall seeing a cross or any Christian art but prominently displayed was a photo of current Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Furthermore we were taken up to see a room displaying the history the UMC in Zimbabwe, including photos of Cecil John Rhodes and other colonizers. Both Wesley and Godfrey, black Zimbabweans, spoke of these men from the late 1800’s in heroic terms. I was surprise and somewhat uncomfortable.
Before leaving the university we were given a tour of part of the farm by the farm manager, Trevor. The farm covers 80 hectares and the university owns about 200 hectares on the mountain. There is livestock section and agriculture section. We stopped to see the pigs, with the large boar (know as shotgun) and the many pigs and piglets. The farm produces its own pork, eggs, chicken, milk, sheep, goats and rabbits, and is working towards having cattle for beef. In addition to the livestock maize, potatoes, wheat, cabbages are soya grown. The farm sells it’s produce at a subsidised rate to the university but also elsewhere. The farm is set up in such a way to be own business and not be risk to university. I like the farm and the business model of mutual support with the university, as this is also where students train in agriculture.
I am left with mixed views about Africa University. On the one hand it is a world class institution based in Africa and training African leaders and influencers. Rather than travelling to US and European institutions there is now an opportunity to study in Africa. The university is reliant upon foreign funding rather than being self sustaining and is therefore at risk of loss of income at any time with a change of governance, a policy decision or an economic downturn of any of their donors, which are all different conferences of the UMC. I love the philosophy and practice of training African leaders in Africa, but the UMC ownership and therefore US control suggests to me this is a US University located in Africa rather than an African university. The facilities are excellent, the campus, staff and students are manicured, westernized and wealthy. What I wrestle with the most, however, is that located just 2 km away is the Old Mutare Mission that would benefit with some if the UMC investment at the level of the university.
The Old Mutare Methodist Mission
Godfrey is proud to take us into the Old Mutare Methodist Mission that began in 1897. Apparently Old Mutare is where the old town was but Cecil Rhodes knew they did not have the technology to enable the railway line to be brought through, therefore he moved the town to where it’s present day location. Within the mission are buildings and memorials from the early colonizers. The current chairman’s office was the first administrative block of the British settlers. The location where Cecil Rhodes dug his first well is marked with a plaque. When I share my surprise about this Godfrey tells me that Rhodes was a hero.
Making up the mission are a school, a hospital, and an orphanage all funded by the UMC. We drive slowly past the school and children are waving and laughing. We waved and laughed back. Some of the younger boys ran to try and keep up with the bus.
We pulled in to the hospital. Godfrey told us it was the best hospital in the area. Compared to an NHS hospital it was very primitive, compared to others in Zimbabwe it was still fairly basic. It was uncomfortable to just walk onto one of the small wards uninvited. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in hospital and have a group of tourists barging in on me unannounced. I stood outside the paediatric ward and waved at a little boy. He was not sure. I crouched down and another little head poked out from behind a parent. I played peek-a-boo around the door. The parents laughed. The children remained cautious. We left with my heart aching.
The final destination Godfrey wanted to show us was a place he described as a shrine. It seems un-methodist to have a shrine, quite odd. This is a spot in a hill where a pastors wife would come to pray. She created a safe place to meet God for women, and women would come from all over (Mutare, Bulawayo, etc.) to pray here. Godfrey explained this is the most important place for the UMC in Zimbabwe. For decades people have come to pray, offering prayers and tying written prayers to trees. Rocks are pulled up, each stone representing a person’s prayers. People come for days and nights to pray. Recently the shrine has been developed with a stone and cement area for prayer, a font, a lecturn and a toilet block. If I was told it was simply a place to pray I’d have been ok, to make it a shrine is strange, as though prayer offered here will have a greater impact than those offered elsewhere. There are three young adults praying and worshipping as we arrive. Although the ground is teeming with ants to enter the shrine requires us to take our shoes off. A few of us do, other remain outside. We say a prayer, sing a verse of Amazing Grace, joined by the young adults who were also there, prayed for them and then return to the bus. Heading back past the school and the excited children we go for lunch.
Lunch is late and yet again we are eating fried chicken. I find myself sat next to Godfrey, my head and heart wrestling with the conflicting realities of wealth and poverty. I learn that Godfrey is Chaplain to MDC presidents office. He explains to me that Zimbabwe needs to bring white farmers back to the country and to compensate them for what was lost as they were chased off their land 18-19 years ago. He explains the Chinese are not developing but they are taking for themselves and they have no history in Africa. In contrast he explains that the British have history, they settled and developed. Rhodes is a hero because he brought civilisation and housing. I wonder about the history before Rhodes, but this is a history almost destroyed by the era of colonisation and post-inpendence. I’m concerned that only looking back to the days when Zimbabwe was apparently known as the breadbasket of Africa will not bring the answers Zimbabwe needs.
I chat with a couple of children, sharing a few bubbles and laughter with them. There is desire from within our team for chocolate, so we stop at a supermarket and gawke at the varieties of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and the inflated prices.
There is time to relax at our guest house and a few of us take a short nature walk. Then over dinner we share conversations and reflections about our day and the place we have visited today and over the past few days. We compare and contrast our own college with those we have visited and those with oneanother. A statistic is shared that the biggest business in Zimbabwe is the church. With all the talk of economy, politics, church and state I and left wondering where salvation is going to come from. For all the business of the church I am struggling to see Jesus. It’s not a harking back to the old mission, though there are lessons to learn there, the is a need for something new.