College, Road Blocks and High Emotions

Yesterday we awoke to the news that fuel prices had been more than doubled overnight. This morning we hear that the prices for everything else are going up and we already know that a general strike has been called for the next three days. What this means for us is uncertain, but the plan is to visit the United Theological College (UTC). Our driver arrives and appears fairly calm about things and says that the issues are focussed upon those going in to the town and that we should be fine.
The drive is seemingly uneventful to the majority of us in the minibus, though our team leader points out a couple of empty tear gas canisters that had been fired already this morning to disperse a crowd. We notice that we are taking a different route to the one we have followed previously but the journey is not noticeably longer or different to normal.

We are welcomed to the college and provided with a tour of the facilities. At the moment the college is closed with the majority of students returning when classes resume in February. The only people on site are the students who are married who have homes on the campus and of course the staff who work here. Since the ousting of the white farmers land has been taken and built upon with little regard for how or where. Much of the land belonging to the college has been taken over by what are described as permanent squatters. This poses a number of problems for the college but they still have enough land for the college buildings and campus at the moment.

We have a look around one of the accommodation blocks, which are very basic. They are quite dark and without residents have a feeling of abandonment. As we walk away from the single student accommodation there are a couple of children, we wave and say hello. They are completing chores, hanging out washing and doing some washing up. We are invited to look at one of the homes of a couple where the husband is training to become a pastor. It is small but comfortable and homely.

We walk around the college looking in classrooms and a tuck shop. The tuck shop is not quite the same as we might have in the UK, providing snacks, but rather a small store supplies basic groceries. One classroom has an entire wall that is a chalk board but it has a frame in the centre. We like the idea of main lecture noted being written within the frame but additional comments and ideas spreading out across the wall, the thinking that takes place outside of the box. We stop at the library and I chat with a couple of the librarians asking for their personal book recommendations. In addition to Bonhoeffer the librarian suggests a book on sociology by Haralambos, I will see if I can find it when I get home. There is a tree bearing fruit that we don’t recognise, we discover that it is called the mutamba but again it will be something I will need to look up to know if it has an English name. The chapel has a peaceful feel about it. The cross on the wall, lectern and communion table are very beautiful in what looks like a slate type stone and wood.

We then take a look at a significant building project and learn that this will be a new lecture hall and classrooms. The college is currently accredited by the University of Zimbabwe and can only award diplomas. These diplomas however are being taught at a degree level, take three years to complete and include a dissertation. For years the University of Zimbabwe has been moving the goal posts the accreditation of degree courses. The college would not have prioritised new teaching facilities but the university has made it the latest requirement in achieve the status required and it is likely there will be other demands that follow. Another university said degree accreditation would only be provided if a swimming pool is built for student, though there is no demand for students for this or other such indulgences.

The highlight of the day for me was what we described as a lecture and the Zimbabwean’s called a presentation, by the college Principal, Rev. Dr Kennedy Gondongwe. It was insightful, honest, challenging, gripping and inspiring. Rev. Gondongwe articulated the theology, thoughts and practices I have had as meandering ideas but he expressed them with clarity and in a succinct manner. Rarely do I hear Christians speak about the faults and mistakes of the church as well as its successes and positive contributions. It was excellent. I have blogged the notes separately but the general thrust was a prophetic voice calling the church to rediscover the principal, narrative and heart for justice that is central to Jesus’ Gospel rather than the self indulgent models of self sustainability and growth for our own benefit.

The other aspect of the presentation that was good was we were a blended group of students, both ourselves from Cliff College and those from UTC, and a few of their lecturers as well. What was shared in the lecture was relevant to all and spoke into the situations of all our church denominations and our home nations. We had a short break which gave an opportunity to meet with the students, to find out about them and them us. We chatted about our homes, the students here are from all over Zimbabwe and from a range of different denominations training to be pastors. Although there is a large majority of men I am pleased to see that there are a good number of female students and that gender equity is very much on the agenda of the college.

Following the break two students from each college are invited to share about college life, why they came to the college, and their experiences so that we can compare and contrast. We feel proud of our team members who share something of their story and answer questions well, offering a different narrative about the church in the UK than the students are expecting, I think mostly they are surprised and excited to realise there are young people in the church. The UTC students tell us of their experiences. I am completely floored when one of them speaks about life on the campus. He is very positive about his college experiences and there are many parallels in college life between the two groups of students but there is one significant difference. Due to the land that has been taken over and the permanent squatters having built homes and settled there are increased risks to the students. The college was already situated in what is described as a high density area, or township, and therefore there is are high level of poverty and deprivation. One of the students shared that they face robberies, with people even entering their homes and demanding money or taking items. Worst of all was when he said that there are female students who have been raped. This is always possible wherever we are, but here it seems it is part of the way of life. An expectation and fear that rape will and does occur.

Our caterers have come across town to provide lunch for ourselves, staff and a number of students. I ask how they found the journey over and whether they had encountered any problems. They replied that they had had stones thrown at their van, but were thankful it was at the back after they passed through rather than at the front. I began to get a sense that things were becoming more intense and that the journey back to our lodge could be interesting. During his lecture the principal had shared about a time during 2008 when about 50 people have found refuge in the chapel, I suggested it may be used for refuge yet again.

Our team leaders were clearly tense but did not want to talk about the situation. Other members of the team had managed to get online and read one or two things which meant they had questions and wanted to talk. We focussed on lunch and enjoyed a delicious meal, including ice-cream for dessert. I chatted with one of the lecturers and we discussed the current political situation and the need not only for a change in government but a period of stability and transition to then enable a completely new style of politics to emerge. The mood is jovial as we gather for a photo with staff and students from both colleges and that mood continues as we get on the minibus, though there is nervousness and anxiety. Our team leader forcibly demands silence and the mood changes. The tension of the risks faced for our journey becomes completely apparent. Whilst we were in a lecture apparently 8 people were shot not far away. The township that we are travelling from has been one of the worst affected in Harare and we don’t know what we will face as we attempt to make the journey away from the college. We were instructed not to take photos and so in order to manage my own fears and anxiety I switched on my phone and began writing the narrative of the journey as we experienced it.

In short it was long and tense. We saw remnants of road blocks including smouldering tyres, concrete blacks and lampposts bent to the ground across the path of the road. There were a lot of people around. We crept along and took detours down side streets to get around road blocks to keep moving. The distance was not too far but it was certainly the longest drive of my life. Our team leader had the opportunity to travel ahead of us in a different vehicle with the college principal who was guiding us through the town. For the second time today I was floored when he responded without skipping a beat that he would stay with his students because we are a team. What does it mean to be a servant leader? A willingness to lay down your life for another, a willingness to stay in the place of greatest risk when you are offered a means of getting out rather looking after yourself and leaving others in the fire.

Rather than heading straight to our accommodation we stop instead for a coffee once we know we are in a safe neighbourhood. There is an outpouring of views and thoughts. A couple of people are very quiet whilst others of us want to talk. In order to keep people positive we again ask the question “what are your three highlights from the day?” Rather than discussing the anxious drive and the things we had seen we lifted our minds eye to some of the other aspects of the day, the lecture, meeting students, hearing from our fellow students, ice cream for dessert, arriving safely, Salvation Army visitors for breakfast this morning, and a particular conversation. The events around Zimbabwe, particularly Harare and Bulawayo, will change the course of the next few days for us but could be a start of change in Zimbabwe for years to come. We are grateful to be safe and feel the sense of privilege we have to be able to walk, drive and fly away from the issues with nothing more than a tense drive.

As we board the minibus the sense of apprehension returns, not that it has completely gone away. Most of us didn’t know how long the drive was or what we may see. It was thankfully short and uneventful and it was a great relief to pull the gate closed behind the bus.

It is almost two hours before I make it to my room. I chat with the woman on reception, telling something of what we had seen and discussing the prices of a couple of items I am interested in purchasing. I hadn’t realised there was a craft shop within the compound of our lodge and so I decide to take a look and to explore the rear of the property as I’ve not been around to see the pool or thatched gazebo. I am joined by one of the guys in our team and we chat about the day, team dynamics, theology, the trip so far, the people we’ve met and the relationships we have developed. Another team member joins us as we sit in the gazebo drinking a bottle of water. Eventually we decide there are things each of us would like to do, phone calls to make, and so we disperse. I have a really good long chat with my children. It is probably the most grateful I am to see them, to know that they are safe and to see them playing as they show me lego and my little pony. I didn’t need them to say anything, it was just good to see them. I explain what has happened to my wife and reassure her that we are safe.

As a team we take time to debrief. It is perhaps the most positive and unified I have felt with the whole team for a number of days. We haven’t reflected or debriefed for the past few days and it has been missed. We enjoy a delicious dinner and then come together as a team as a number of us feel it is necessary to talk about team dynamics. After 14 days together, meeting mostly as strangers, the formation process of forming, storming, norming and performing is working its progressing. Added to the anxiety and emotion of the day there are things that need to be aired. It is too much for me and I need to walk away. The team continue without me and I hear it is an emotional, difficult and ultimately beneficial time. I meet with our team leaders and one of the other guys and weep. I was terrified in that minibus. I could picture my kids and my wife at home. All of the emotion of returning to Zimbabwe and not daring to dream it would happen for past 20 years only to be here, exploring and witnessing and learning on a most wonderful trip. Honoured that people have chosen to share with me some of their struggles and frustrated at a few minor things all had to come out somewhere. Graciously the guys listened and we prayed together.
Before we head to our own rooms for sleep we learn that there is talk of the protests and rallies coming to the area we are staying tomorrow. We discuss the potential options of staying put, getting to the airport and waiting it out there until we can fly, seeing if we can get on an earlier flight, even paying for an armed security escort if necessary. Until tomorrow there is little we can do unless we need to make a quick exit during the night, though this is deemed unlikely.

I return to my room, lightened of emotional baggage but mindful of the potential tomorrow could hold. I call home and have a good chat with my wife. She has my passport details if necessary and adds credit to my phone so that if the internet is turned off we can continue to communicate. It is not easy to say goodnight. Althoguh it is late I pack my bag so that whatever happens I am ready for the day ahead.

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