Celts among the Shona
African Encounter 1948-1951
Anselm Corbett, O.Carm. First published – 1994.
The rocky, Connemara-like land, granted to the Church by Cecil Rhodes in the Triashill Mission covered about 23,000 acres. It was divided between Triashill Mission and St. Barbara’s Mission and would have taken no prizes for pasturage and ploughing, though the local inhabitants managed to eke out a mere subsistence. The superior in each place was not only head of the mission station but also superintendent of neighbouring African villages. Each family had to pay an annual hut-tax of ten shillings, they called it pufana, for the privilege of living on mission land. This was by arrangement with the local Commissioner and the money that accrued was used for the maintenance of the mission dirt roads.
The people were content with this for they were thus assured of their land and their rights. The whole thing was, perhaps, rather paternalistic and therefore objectionable, but, in the circumstances, we had little choice. The Commissioner at Nyanga Police Camp was the Government boss living some thirty miles north of us. In all civil matters, especially in regard to marriage, there had to be close liaison between him and the mission. Merely civil marriages were registered at his office. When a couple who were Catholic wished to marry in church, they had to approach first of all the priest to obtain from him a signed, printed document called an Enabling Certification which attested to their Christian state and wish. They carried this document with them when they went to the Commissioner to settle the lobola or bride price, in cattle or money or both, as already agreed between the families concerned. This agreement was thus duly registered and made legal. When they had concluded these negotiations and arranged the date of the marriage, banns were called and the couple had to spend a week at the mission for the customary instruction and preparation.
A wedding was always a big occasion in our villages. The bride was accompanied by some older married women called ‘vanambuya’ who affixed a small cotton bag of sugar on her back as an omen of hope for childbirth if the girl was still a virgin. The German nuns had one white satin gown and veil in store for every Christian wedding, but the bride was not permitted to wear the veil if she was already and obviously pregnant. This questionable practice was agreed upon by the Catholic elders of the villages and the Sisters as an indication, we surmised, of disapproval of pre-marital sex! Being new on the scene I was discreet and did not interfere.
Regarding civil disputes that often arose in the villages, there was an unwritten arrangement between the commissioner and the mission that all non-criminal and petty cases could be tried by the superior of the mission. This accord saved the commissioner much bother and in fact was preferred by the Africans themselves. If they had to travel on foot all the way to the Police Camp at Nyanga, where the commissioner, or Ngosi as they called him, sat under the Union Jack, they would have needed several days away from home while they waited in a queue for their problem to be settled. Besides, it often happened that a bribe was expected by the commissioner’s lackey if they wanted things speeded up. Altogether, they preferred to be judged by Baba Mukuru, the Big Father, or Superior, than by Ngosi. Father wouldn’t be too hard on them!
Africans love litigation. It can be a real battle of wits as well as a source of much entertainment even in the most trivial matters. I remember a row one Patrick Dera had with his sister-in-law, Cecilia, over the ownership of an inspanning chain used for harnessing oxen. Patrick, a charming rogue with sparkling eyes claimed the chain was his. Cecilia, a woman of some spirit, vigorously asserted that, on the contrary, it was hers. She had only lent it to Patrick and with her husband away at work in the Johannesburg mines she must have it for the ploughing season. Patrick went on with a long rigmarole of an argument to support his ownership. A crowd of their neighbours had come along too to see the show. They chuckled and laughed and nodded in such a way that I began to have my suspicions of Patrick’s veracity.
Our court was held under a shady tree at the edge of the compound in order to accommodate the audience. The long, silvery chain lay in a heap on the ground before my chair. I was beginning to wonder how I would come to a decision when I saw Brother Angelus Kinsella approaching from the direction of our sawmill. Inspiration came to me and I called him over. There was a chorus of “Masikati - good afternoon - Brother!” from the squatting spectators. Then I addressed him briskly: “Brother, will you please fetch a large file from your workshop.” He nodded, went off and returned with the implement. The litigants and their neighbours were watching with growing curiosity. I explained carefully in Shona that I wanted Brother Angelus to cut the chain in halves so that Patrick and Cecilia would have equal shares. Patrick smiled complacently while she protested shrilly, “Baba, don’t do that! It is a good chain and Brother will destroy it. Let Patrick have it.” Then I decided: “Cecilia, the chain is yours, take it home.” And I gave Patrick a lecture about telling lies. He was a bit crestfallen; it had been a good try on his part but the people clapped my decision. Cecilia, who knew her Bible well shouted, “Tasvikerwa na Soromoni!” - “Solomon has come to us!” So I took a bow. Dismissing the court I repeated words I said at the end of every case: “Ndatonga kamwe!” – meaning: I have judged once for all, there must be no more argument. Actually those two words became my nickname among our Africans – ‘Ndatonga kamwe.’
Some miles from Triashill was St. Barbara’s Mission where the superior was German, Fr. Emil Schmitz, S.J. He was a severe though just and charitable priest, punctilious to the last detail in everything. The Africans under his jurisdiction had named him ‘Baba Bodo’ because Bodo means ‘No!’ and that more than often was his response to many of their requests. He treated them, I thought, as a good father might treat unruly children. At the time I first met him he was in his late seventies, tall with bowed shoulders and wore a wisp of a white beard. His assistant was a Londoner, Fr. Frank Markall, S.J., who looked after the out-schools and there were three German Jesuit Brothers, all over eighty years of age. The old ones were veterans of the Central African missions. Fr. Markall, a fine priest in his forties, thin of figure and precise in manner, though very good-humoured, was later to become Archbishop of Harare.
One day towards the end of 1948 he stopped for lunch at Triashill, on his way to St. Kilian’s outschool. He told me that a few days previously a Catholic African had called to see him at St. Barbara’s and said he had been sent by some old Christians who wanted a school and church in the Valley of the Honde River that was situated many miles to the east and right on the frontier of Mozambique, then called Portuguese East Africa. Frank Markall wondered if he and I should go there together just to investigate. I agreed.
The following week we set out on the long journey to spend a few days in the Honde Valley. There were no tarmacadamed roads, only a rough track led down hundreds of feet on a steep mountain slope. Our new Chevrolet truck got stuck fast in a drift of the Honde river as evening fell. So we had to pass our first night with the water rustling around us and our cook as we tried to sleep. The mosquitoes were a torment. However, at sunrise our cook sped off to the nearest kraal and soon a mob of cheerful Africans and a team of twelve oxen had hauled us onto dry land.
The man who had reported to Fr. Markall at St Barbara’s and whose name was Enoch Sanehwe had gathered a welcoming party of old Christians. They were eager for confession and Mass and they had children to be baptised. Enoch told us that they were a remnant of a group of villages above the mountain, on the escarpment, that had been evangelised early in the century by the Trappist Fathers from Triashill. Three miles from Enoch’s home we saw a rather primitive Methodist Mission built on a small stream, a tributary of the Honde. It was a beautiful, broad and fertile valley enclosed by mountains, one range on the Zimbabwe side, another across the bordering river in Mozambique. Over the western range tumbled a lovely ribbon of water called the Mutarazi Falls. It seemed indeed a little Eden.
Early the next year I visited the Honde on my own for Mass and the sacraments and with Enoch’s help, to pick a site for a school. The work had to be done slowly and patiently but we succeeded in getting the permission of the local chief, Ron. On another occasion I was accompanied by Bernard Clinch. The difficulty with Ron was that he was almost perpetually drunk and his numerous wives were kept busy brewing the beer. Yet he was a cheerful rascal and admitted frankly that we must choose a moment for discussion with him when he was temporarily sober! In the meantime, the Commissioner of Nyanga, whose jurisdiction in that region embraced the Honde, called interested missionaries to a special meeting for the purpose of parcelling out sites for schools. It took place at the top of the range overlooking the valley at the Pungwe River. From there we had a panoramic view of the place, spread out like a map. The indaba was a grand picnic party for the commissioner and his family as well as numerous white friends. Fr. Markall and I dined out of our flasks of tea and packets of sandwiches while the rest had their servants prepare a huge barbecue. The allotment of sites was concluded quickly and without argument. A government land surveyor had us consult a large parchment map he had made and we pinpointed the villages on it, at the same time pointing out their relative positions in the valley at our feet. That pukka sahib celebration, so typical of the era, marked the official start of our Honde Mission.
One of the Anglican missionaries introduced himself to us as Father Langton-Davies from Panhalonga, a splendid Church of England mission run by the Community of the Resurrection, a High Church Religious Order. A most gentle and agreeable man, he told us his father had been a close friend of G. K. Chesterton, the great Catholic writer. Soon after this Pungwe indaba, Enoch was installed as first teacher in Honde ‘Roma school. He himself had only Primary education but he possessed lots of nerve and initiative. He began atop a small hill. His pupils numbered twenty, most of them Chief Ron’s children. His equipment was a piece of chalk and a blackboard hanging from a tree! Such was the genesis of the splendid Honde Mission of today.
At the end of 1950, having already taken over Triashill and St. Barbara’s Missions from the Jesuit Fathers, I was asked by Raymond Lamont, with the consent of Bishop Chichester, to replace Fr. Tom Swift, S.J. at Mount Melleray Mission some miles north of Nyanga Police Camp. The number of Carmelites was then quite sufficient to staff the former stations. Mount Melleray, a gem set in the beautiful Eastern Districts of Zimbabwe was in its infancy. Besides caring for the central mission, my task was to reconnoitre the region with a view to adding more outschools to the five established by Fr. Swift. ‘Merrily’ as the Africans pronounced it, was situated on the lower slopes of the Inyanga mountain range and in the shadow of a high peak called Mowosi. Near that point the range flattened out for some miles forming a broad plateau on which there was one outschool dedicated to St. Thérèse. Beyond that plateau, as I soon discovered, the mountain fell away gradually to an extensive plain which was Chief Nyamaropa’s country and which reached as far east as the big river Gairezi, that marked the frontier of Mozambique.
There were no roads across the mountain. One rough and rocky track led over the range by a roundabout way many miles south of the mission. To get into Nyamaropa from Melleray, it was more convenient though more exhausting to climb up the escarpment on foot. Motor transport did not take kindly to the rougher way and then there were rivers that were difficult to ford especially in the rainy season. West of the mission there was another broader plain that went on one side as far as the Police Camp and on another side ended at the bank of the Inyangombe River.
Having settled down at Mount Melleray, my chief occupation was to know the ropes, under Fr. Swift’s tutelage. He and two Jesuit Brothers with the help of Julius Nyakatawa, an excellent African builder, had erected some brick classrooms, a substantial church, a small maternity clinic as well as rather spartan accommodation for themselves and a group of African sisters. From our shelf on the mountainside we enjoyed a panoramic view of bush country flowing away from our arable fields and embracing numerous African villages as well as the homesteads and ranches of a few Afrikaner white farmers who were well disposed to us. Below us and snugly ensconced at the foot of an isolated little hill was an Anglican mission, Schwartzkopje, run by a hard working black minister. Generally speaking, except for small sounds of animals, birds and calling voices, a blissful silence hung over our mission. In the evening, just after six o’clock, sunset over the Inyangombe was breathtakingly lovely.
It must be added that, to Fr. Swift’s credit and ingenuity, after nightfall the mission was not plunged into total darkness. He had provided the place with electric power. In a deep ravine, he had installed a huge iron peltenwheel, or waterwheel, and using the water that rushed copiously down the mountainside, had harnessed it to a dynamo that worked day and night. It generated enough power to light dim lamps throughout the mission. The abundant water also provided an irrigation system for our maize field before it was released to descend to Schwartzkopje and other farms at a lower level. Frogs and cicadas croaked and chirped in nightly chorus from the irrigation canals.
In time, our community increased with the arrival, by turns, of more Carmelites, including Frs. John O'Sharkey, Senan Egan, Anthony Clarke, Ambrose Roche, and Brothers Bernard Clinch, Angelus Kinsella and Brocard Boyle. We were fortunate indeed! The African Sisters were indispensable in the school and when they accompanied us on pastoral visitation to neighbouring villages.
The coming of the Presentation Sisters in 1951 was an important event. A mixture of Irish and English nuns, they came from India where they were long established especially in educational and hospital work. Their expansion into Africa was providential though at first it seemed almost accidental. At the time, Raymond was Parish Priest of Mutare and among his parishioners was Pat Sullivan from Inishannon, Co. Cork. Pat had spent many years in India and had married an Anglo Indian. Their daughter had been educated in India by the Presentation Sisters, so Pat suggested that Raymond get in contact with them since the political climate on that subcontinent had changed since its recent independence. They responded enthusiastically to this invitation to work in Africa. Their presence at Melleray was a big fillip particularly in the school and tiny clinic. I recall Mother Peter and Sister Agnes, the former a splendid nurse and the latter an excellent teacher. The whole arrangement was warmly approved by the Vicar Apostolic, Bishop Aston Chichester, who remarked that, when he purchased the site of Mount Melleray, he had given it that name as a tribute to the many Irish religious men and women who had spent their lives as missionaries in Africa. He told me that the Cistercian monks at Mount Melleray in Co. Waterford were aware of this and that we had the added advantage of their prayers.
Our enlarged community made it possible for me to move around the vast region under our care in order to find sites for new schools and possible missions. Besides St. Thérèse outschool on the plateau, there was another, St. Bernard, at the other side of the mountain in Nyamaropa’s country. Further north of us, fourteen miles away, was a third at Nyautari’s village. To reach St. Bernard I had to go over the mountain on foot with carriers, staying there for a week or ten days. I loved those treks and living close to the people. St. Bernard was the nucleus of the great central mission of Regina Coeli, built and developed by Fr. Senan Egan during the years that followed.
That was easy going as compared with my incursions by car and on foot into Chief Katerere’s country which was a four hour drive north of Nyautari. It was a dry area. The water level was low in the bushland between the two big rivers, Gairezi and Inyangombe. In the back of my truck I had to carry a milk churn filled with boiled fresh water for drinking and cooking. One dare not drink freely of river or well water; imbibing or washing in it brought the risk of typhoid fever and amoebic dysentery. Another hazard was a chronic tropical disease called bilharzia, a parasite lurking chiefly in still pools of river water, which inhibited bathing.
Therefore at first, I had to look for a suitable site as near as possible to water. So I concentrated on the Inyangombe riverbank. At the time there were other Protestant missionaries at work in Katerere, the Salvation Army, and the Elim Mission society, both English based and rather hostile to ‘Roma’. Elim Mission, because it boasted a resident doctor, a North of Ireland Presbyterian, had won the favour of the commissioner. He had granted them a good site for a school and a clinic close by his own Rest Camp where there was one of the very few springs of fresh water. They had established as well an outschool at a village right on the banks of the Inyangombe. Now there was a government rule which said that outschools had to be three miles from each other. So I was forced to choose a place for a school away from the flowing water but near the group of villages that wanted a Catholic school.
A lot of my time was taken up walking from village to village and consulting with the inhabitants. Accompanying me was Nicholas, an untrained Catholic teacher who had reached Standard Five in school and was the best I could muster to make a start. He was a good and faithful fellow and was married, though a little too fond of the home brewed beer. He knew the area and was popular with the people. With me too, was Joseph, my cook, who stayed with the truck at the riverside while I continued my walkabout. Each evening towards sunset I returned to the Inyangombe to wash up and have a cooked meal. I even defied the amoeba and plunged into a fast pool where crocodiles did not usually lie.
The temperature in Katerere was always high. One evening while I was eating, three African women, two old and one young, approached out of the trees and spoke to Joseph at his cooking fire out of earshot. They greeted me from a distance but with innate gentility did not approach until I had finished my meal. Then they followed Joseph over to where I sat on the running-board of my truck. He was chuckling delightedly. “Baba”, he said, “they are looking for your wife!” He added that they were not locals but had come from far away near the Gairezi river. I greeted them with due gravity and a pause followed. One of the old women spoke up. “Baba,” she enquired, “mune mukadzi - have you a wife?” I shook my head, “No.” “Baba,” she continued, “do you honour the Virgin Mary?” “Yes,” from me. She hadn’t finished. “Baba, are you Roma of Brother Egidius?” When I assented, they clapped their hands and smiled their pleasure. We shook hands.
It turned out that the old women had been baptised as children before the First World War by Trappist Br. Egidius, who, on his own and on foot had begun the evangelisation of Katerere’s country. The remembrance of the event had remained long after the pastoral care had ceased. Brother and his confreres, being German, had been interned by the British authorities for the duration of the war. Thereafter, for lack of missionaries, such Christians had been neglected.
Br. Egidius and Br. Zacharias were two of a number of Trappists who, in the early years of this century had been based at Triashill. They had also founded St. Barbara’s, St. Benedict’s and Monte Cassino Missions, a network of which Triashill was the centre. Originally they had trekked north by ox wagon from a monastery at Mariannhill, Natal, South Africa, founded in 1882 by Fr. Franz Pfanner, who in 1885 became Abbot. They first worked among the Zulus in South Africa, training them in agriculture and other skills. Soon however it was realised that mission work such as that done by Egidius and Zacharias and Trappist monastic work could not be sustained. The Holy See separated the Mariannhill group from the Trappist Order, forming in 1909 the Congregation of Mariannhill Missionaries (CMM). It was said that the redoubtable Abbot Pfanner had pursued Cecil Rhodes into Zimbabwe after the suppression of a local rebellion and had obtained the concession of Triashill of which the British South Africa Company retained the mineral rights. So there I was, following part of the trail left by the brothers and meeting a small remnant of their apostolate.
I returned to Mount Melleray. Already there had been an addition to our staff. Dr. Jim Barnes and his wife had come to live with us and lend a hand. He was paid by the Government as an Assistant Medical Officer for Nyanga district and also received a stipend from the mission. They lived in a small house on the lower reaches of our land. Mother Peter, in our little hospital, was delighted and the Barnes fitted in very well. We were thankful indeed that our good fortune continued.
Soon I was ready for another sally into Katerere. Mindful of the law that permission of the Government for a new school would not be granted until the local chiefs assent had been secured, I had now to visit the paramount Chief, Katerere. I drove to a place not far from the Mozambique border where the chief had his extensive homestead. Though I spoke the language, we negotiated through a middleman, his eldest son, out of deference to his position and dignity. This was an interesting ploy, for besides preserving respect on both sides of the conversation, it served also to give time for thought during the exchange. I recall that we were surrounded by a conclave of men carrying bows and arrows and assegais (short spears). Outside them were gathered the old man’s many wives and numerous offspring. At one point in our hour-long conference, I offered him a gift of a pair of new leather sandals which he accepted with delight. Those Africans were very poor, so much so that the women wore only short skirts made of animal skins. One or two had dirty cotton frocks and some of the men were clad in khaki shirts and trousers, purchased no doubt at a local store ten miles away. It was to that emporium I had to betake myself as my conference was concluding. To my surprise, the chief suddenly asked if I carried any Coca Cola in my truck! I didn’t, but he insisted that I bring some before he came to a decision about the school site. Weary and sweaty in the hot afternoon I had to drive to the store and back again. Fortunately the storekeeper had half a dozen bottles left and when I presented them to Katerere, he grunted his appreciation and nodded his assent to my school site request. I was content. Strange to reflect that the fate of Avila Mission, as it is now called, depended on a few bottles of Coca Cola.