Anabaptists witness hope amidst Zimbabwe's ongoing traumas

By staff writers
September 11, 2007

“Keeping our faith in times of trouble” is a model of hope, an international Anabaptist delegation to Zimbabwe has affirmed. It says the Brethren in Christ Church (BICC) in the troubled country is alive and strong. The Mennonite World Conference (MWC) team also met local Catholics.

The eight-member 'Koinonia Delegation' was sent to Zimbabwe by MWC, a global family of Anabaptist churches, from 17 – 26 August 2007. Reporting back, they say they visited churches and their leaders, institutions and projects and conversed with ordinary people at the national conference.

The delegation also met with the newly formed BIC Peace and Justice Committee, representatives of the Catholic Commission for Peace and Justice and with Mennonite Central Committee staff.

The delegation found a country in escalating crisis, with overwhelming shortages of food, water and fuel, power outages, inflation variously reported from 5,000 % to 7,000%, record unemployment and low salaries.

Many people with jobs must choose between paying for transportation to work or buying food for the family. So they walk – up to 20 kilometres one way, they say. Teachers, who are paid the equivalent of $18 US per month, are leaving in droves.

The Mtshabezi Mission Hospital, with no doctor for six years, has few patients. The next closest hospital, 35 kilometres away, has one doctor. For emergencies, patients must travel 180 kilometres to Bulawayo. Drugs are in short supply.

“I have travelled to Zimbabwe once a year for six years,” said Pakisa Tshimika, leader of the delegation.” I have seen small changes in the past, but the socio-economic consequences of government decisions in the past few months were worse than any of us anticipated.”

The visitors saw long lines of people waiting their turn to get water and to buy staples, with no guarantee that there would be anything available at the end of their wait. Many store shelves were bare or had only a few items for sale, but owners keep the stores open so they don't lose their vendor's licence, knowing they may not get another. Some families don't eat for three days.

The quality of education is dropping, they learned. Children, who haven't eaten, fall asleep in class. Some schools operate without desks or chairs. The teacher may have the only text book or 10 students may share one text. Paper and pencils are few or non-existent, making it impossible to test children.

Some delegation members visited the Mtshabezi mission, one of the largest BIC initiatives in Zimbabwe. It has a hospital, teen mission, Bible school for about 45 adults, 600 primary school and 1,000 secondary school students, 900 of whom are boarding students from all over the country. Schools were scheduled to open the first week of September 2007, but parents and teachers didn't know how they would feed the students.

The entire delegation felt the impact of food and water shortages and blackouts when they attended the thirty-second annual BIC conference at Matopo Mission from 22 – 26 August.

Organizers had expected fewer than 2,000 people, but attendance climbed to 3,600, the second highest ever. They weren't prepared to feed so many. Then the electricity went out. As a result many people did not have a meal the first night or the next morning. With no power, water pumps didn't work, creating a sanitation problem.

By the second day, the cooking situation was resolved. People hauled in wood and 25 huge outdoor cooking pots, like the ones used at the MWC assembly in 2003 in Bulawayo, to cook beef and mealie-meal.

The international guests, however, were treated with great hospitality and provided with ample food.

“I had a hard time accepting special status like eating first and getting more food,” said John Byers, “but Oscar [Manzini, assistant chair of the conference executive] told me that is their culture and I should accept it.”

The delegation noted that the church has a clear sense of needing to speak to government on behalf of the people but agrees that public challenges and loud protests will only result in more harshness. They have little faith that the election in 2008 will resolve anything.

“I observed a common, underlying reality: the people of Zimbabwe are marking time.... There is a sense that all of life is in suspension, but still there is hope,” said Yvonne Snider Nighswander.

The resilience of the people generated much discussion among delegation members, who also saw a nagging fear. The fact that 23,000 people were killed by the government in the 1980s remains fresh in the collective memories of the people.

Church leaders responded warmly to the Koinonia Delegation's visit. “We are overwhelmed by your coming.... It strengthens our resolve to minister,” said one pastor.

The pastors made two requests: that the delegation share what they have seen and heard and that they pray - for the people of Zimbabwe, for early and good rains, that God will soften the heart of the country's president and that peace and justice will come.

The delegation presented a gift of $15,000 which the church decided to use for relief. A committee in Zimbabwe will determine details.

Government restrictions apply on importing goods and money beyond a limited amount. However, Larry Miller, MWC general secretary, said: “MWC is determined to provide channels for the global church to respond to the Zimbabwean church in specific and concrete ways and will give further information as soon as possibilities are in place.”

With thanks and acknowledgments to MWC.

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