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I spent six days in Zimbabwe and saw multiple Zimbabwes within the one country. In Gokwe I saw rural hardship together with rural resilience through visits to local community working groups (small-scale farming, chicken-rearing) and credit unions. I saw projects to provide basic sanitation (toilets of varying kinds!) and fresh, flowing water coming from solar-powered pumps. En route to Gweru and Gokwe, I saw roadside markets, some impromptu, some established, as people offered their produce for sale. I saw urban Harare with its mix of large, modern, well-maintained finance buildings, and smaller stores in differing states of repair. I saw township Harare, sometimes the epitome of what can only be called ’urban squalor’, yet out of which aspirational children and young people emerge, building on their school education and seeking university places. I visited a game reserve, just 40 minutes from Harare, testament to the country’s natural beauty and its capacity to conserve a range of indigenous animal life, yet to which mostly only the wealthy can afford to go. I experienced six power-cuts in six days.
And in the midst of this I saw churches and church-related work and met profoundly faithful and courageous people. Travelling as designate President and Vice-President of the British Methodist Conference our focus was inevitably on the Methodist Church in Zimbabwe, and on MeDRA (the Methodist Development and Relief Agency). MeDRA are one of All We Can’s local partner organisations in Zimbabwe. MeDRA’s work introduced us to two key people: Clever Tabaziba, MeDRA’s Director and Forgive, a regional worker in Gokwe. The skill with which they each build on their existing rapport with groups, community-leaders, district administrators, church leaders and politicians is frankly astonishing. We saw them do this with humour, tact, courtesy and insight.
An exhilarating visit to the United Theological College in Harare – serving and supported by seven different churches – made me aware of the continued need to acknowledge the impact of colonialism in the country. I had wanted to go there to seek guidance on ‘post-colonialism’ as a theory, particularly as it affects theological thinking. Church leaders and scholars had their doubts about it, despite its good intentions to critique Eurocentric ways of thinking. It remains, for them, too abstract. The tutors wanted me to see that while the missionaries had their faults and some of the missionaries’ educational methods may need revising, they also provided education and training for those who challenged the colonisers.
Many of the people we met in Harare had not themselves been to Gokwe. It had therefore been a privilege to have been introduced to so many Zimbabwes in such a short space of time. I am left with many questions. Here are a few. US$34m is needed for the first phase of an ambitious plan to build a Methodist University some 70km from Harare. Much of the funding will have to come from outside the country for this to work. But how do you decide between toilets and lecture-rooms as to which to help fund? And when does financial support become disempowering because it creates a sense of dependency, rather than fostering the mutual co-operation through which local miracles can happen?
We were, of course, well looked after during our visit both by All We Can’s careful planning from the London end, the companionship and leadership of its workers throughout our trip (thanks, Graeme and Claire) and through MeDRA within Zimbabwe itself. We always had food available, sometimes in embarrassingly large portions. We were surely, at times, fed much better than those who with courtesy, kindness and good humour cooked for us and served us. The discomfort I sometimes felt was real, though I did not want to spurn kind hospitality. And only on rare occasions did I not have access to a working, flushing toilet. I am thankful, though, that I was not sheltered from being made fully aware of the tough challenges which so many of Zimbabwe’s population are facing. But what to do with all of this?