Celts among the Shona
John O'Sharkey, O.Carm. First published – 1949.
Mission work is so new to me that I leave a description of it to more experienced pens but I think it might be of interest to our readers if I try to paint a picture of our environment and the kind of country in which we work; the background, as it were, to our missions, to give at least a few of my impressions of it.
Here at Triashill, we are in the mountains, almost at the highest point in Zimbabwe. The mountains dominate everything; they fill the whole skyline with an extraordinary variety of shapes and colours, and at times look almost theatrical. The mission itself is on a hill, and in almost every direction there are extraordinary views of brown grasslands, long valleys, and rocks; hills of bare granite and miles of low trees and bush; and everywhere there are paths of red dust making a network through the countryside. The red soil shows wherever the ground is broken; and at this time of year, in June which is winter, the land is parched. We cannot expect any real rain until October; occasionally there is a thin mist in this mountain region, but it makes very little difference. Usually there is uninterrupted sunshine, very hot even now; but the winter nights and early mornings are cold. We are sheltered somewhat from the strong mountain winds by the trees that have been planted around the mission; mostly cypress, and gum-trees as everyone here calls eucalyptus. Beyond the trees are our farm-lands, which would no doubt look poor to any Irish farmer. I am afraid that a field of maize, - ‘mealies’ they say here, - cannot compare in richness of appearance with a good wheat field; maize is such an untidy plant that, to me at least, it always looks wilted; and the stalks are so far apart that the bare ground shows plainly. It is the staple grain here, and we need a large quantity, more than we can produce, for the two hundred children who live in the school. Then there are ground-nuts, millet and a few other crops. Water is precious, and the land is seamed with channels to hold it, and prevent the rains from flowing uselessly off the surface. It still seems strange to me to hear people welcoming a day’s rain.
Living on a hill has some disadvantages; for instance, one cannot go a mile without climbing, either up or down. Most of the African homesteads here can be conveniently reached only on foot; and sometimes ‘conveniently’ doesn’t seem the best word. There are some roads over which a car or truck can go; but even the main roads are poor, and the others are unbelievably bad, studded with rocks or channelled by streams; in fact, one has frequently to drive through a small river, which may be quite impassable when the rains come. I have seen the effect of only a few days’ rain; but it was quite impressive enough. So when we have to go to one of the other missions, or to one of the ‘outschools’ or villages, it is usually quickest and easiest to walk, It can be pleasant, too, when the sun in not too high, and there is a breeze; even at present there are innumerable flowers everywhere, nearly all scented, and the air is decidedly bracing. There are other things besides flowers, however; if you walk through long grass you will find yourself studded with most ingenious and prickly burrs of various sorts, and have to pick them off laboriously when you get home. Then there are ants too; but they require a book to themselves.
The villages in this district seem to vary only in size. The standard form of house is circular, with a conical grass roof, and is built either of rough bricks or of poles plastered with clay. Very rarely one sees a square house, or one which aspires to have a sort of veranda, with pillars which are never quite straight. The houses are grouped irregularly, where the ground is level; some of the larger villages straggle for a considerable distance. During the day there are usually few people to be seen; the men and women are in their fields, and the children are herding cattle, or at school; but they always return before nightfall to the security of their villages. I had not intended to write about the people but in mentioning their villages I cannot pass over what impressed me most on entering any of them: the friendly greeting I received from everyone. There is a remarkable courtesy among these people, which is both natural, I think, and a matter of traditional etiquette; I hope it will never lessen.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of this part of the country is its spaciousness, its feeling of emptiness. Although it is not very sparsely peopled, most of it seems to have been quite unaffected by its inhabitants; they leave scarcely a trace on it. It is this aspect of Zimbabwe which overseas readers will have to keep in mind if they wish to visualise the missions in their true setting; they are very small points in a large country. There is much for them to do.