Sketching the Scene

John O’Sharkey, O.Carm. First published – 1956.

When one reads or hears of things and people in distant countries, one finds a need to picture on one’s mind the environment, the physical setting, in which they exist. More than one reader of the Terenure College Annual, finding pleasure and interest in its successive articles on the Carmelite Missions, has said, in effect, “tell us something about the countryside”, the field of action of those missions, of so many priests formerly associated with Terenure College. To see a country and to read of it are two very different matters; but these impressions, if imagination amend them, may help you to visualise the mission territory to some extent.
Most of the eastern part of Zimbabwe is mountainous. These are not such mountains as one sees in Ireland; they are much higher, more sharply cut, more rugged. Their outline against the sky has an alien shape, a pattern unknown here. Certain forms are characteristic; above all, that of a cliff-walled block of stone which rises out of slopes of great boulders. For contrast, there is the smooth dome of granite, bulking here and there among the jagged pinnacles and spikes of rock which form fantastic sky-lines, like theatrical cutouts. From any high point in the hills there are unreal vistas of sawtooth ridges, deeply carved valleys, slopes of massive rocks with trees growing between them like moss in the crevices of a wall; in successive and receding planes, each paler in colour, more blue, more ethereal, still faintly to be seen perhaps a hundred miles away. The intensely bright sunlight, no doubt, and the clearness of the air cause this great degree of visibility, and the sense of great spaces. Only now and then, when rain or smoke of grass fires obscure the air, does one lose a little of this consciousness of distance.
It is not, however, the ruggedness of the land which makes it so essentially different from our Irish countryside. Here, even in the most deserted parts of the country, one has always some visible reminder of people and their works: a road, a telegraph line, a distant roof. In the eastern Zimbabwean mountains, one may cast one’s eye over fifty miles of country and see only rocks, trees and mountains, as though on the day after Creation. There are roads indeed, though few, and there are innumerable footpaths netted over the land; but these soon merge into the background and are lost in the tall grass and the bush. One may see the conical grass roofs of a native village on a hillside, but their colour is almost that of the rocks; they do not assert their presence, and look almost as though they had grown there. The only evidence of human activity that occasionally attracts the eye is the dull pink colour of newly ploughed soil, in small patches where the slope of the land is most gradual, or the rich green of young maize or millet. And even these are transient, and are soon replaced by the pervasive grey and green and tan of the wild country. There are people living in these mountains, many of them; but twelve feet of bush hides most signs of their presence from the passer-by. The bush which clothes so much of the mountain country is not the dense tropical forest that books about Africa lead us to expect. Only here and there, chiefly on the river banks, are there tall trees, creepers, and thick undergrowth. Most of the hillsides are covered with trees ten or fifteen feet in height, gnarled and spreading and flat-crowned, casting only a thin and grudging shade on the stones and red soil from which they rise. Most of them have a certain sameness in foliage and in habit of growth. Under them the soil is almost bare; there are sparse shrubby plants and coarse grass in tufts, but no thick undergrowth, so that one can look to some distance between the trunks of the trees.
Their flowers are in some ways disappointing. There are comparatively few brilliantly coloured flowers, or conspicuous displays of bloom; scarcely anything, for instance, to equal in appearance an old apple tree at the beginning of May, or a laburnum in a Dublin garden. But for a few weeks in spring, before the rains come, most of the mountain slopes are clothed in glowing amber and wine red, the colour of the young leaves of the msasa, which is the most common of all the trees. And to compensate for lack of colour at other times of the year, there is perfume; almost all the trees bear scented flowers, and many of the humbler plants have aromatic leaves. The smell of the bush is a complex one, and its chief part is the smell of the pungent leaves of shrubs, some like mint or thyme, some like verbena, some bitter like nasturtium. With these there is the smell of dead leaves, slightly musty, and the smell of hot earth and rock, and wood smoke. The scent of the bush changes a little at night, or after rain, and a little from season to season and from place to place; but it is always unmistakable, for there is nothing else quite like it.
The bush country itself is not uniform in pattern, of course. At the lower levels, and in the dry sandy soil, there are sometimes tracts of ‘thorn bush’: small trees tangled into impassable thickets, leafless and dry for much of the year, and set every way with white needles. In such country, too, there is the baobab, a massive and grotesque monster; its trunk may be ten or twelve feet thick, smooth-barked, grey and bloated, with dwindling boughs and little leafage; there is something elephantine about it. On some high plateaux are wildernesses of wattle, a sort of mimosa which keeps a dusting of pale yellow flowers for most of the year. Higher still, there are ghost forests swathed in grey moss with a smell of iodoform. But all these are, as it were, accidental variations on the theme.
That is the bush; and the missionary on his journeys is rarely far from it. He may travel now and then by truck, on ‘dirt’ roads scraped from the surface of the soil; he will not often meet a bridge, but will drive through rivers, unless they are ‘up’, in which case he may have to leave his truck and walk, or wade. But the greater part of the places which he must reach are not accessible by road, so that very much of his time is spent merely in walking from one place to another. Only when one has walked in the narrow paths through trees, and in the open country with grasses meeting overhead; skirting the fields of maize, and panting for breath on the uphill reaches of the tablelands and the downs watching for one’s landmarks, two peaks in line, a tall tree, a fork in the path; making one’s best speed, perhaps for a sick call, perhaps only to reach a sleeping place before the sudden fall of night; wading streams, or leaving a little comet’s tail of dust on the pathway; sitting down at last, at the end of the journey, too thirsty to talk and too tired to care; only when one has touched the country at all these points does one begin to know it a little, in a way that those who drive through it on the main roads cannot do. The pace of a man on foot, especially when he is a little tired, is conducive to a certain intimacy with the countryside. One appreciates the little things, the minute flowers, the tracks of wild creatures across the path, the ants in the hot dust, and innumerable sticking seeds, and the sparkling crystals of quartz in the rock, with a certain affection and an observation that one scarcely realises until afterwards.
One can have a great love of this country; and no doubt it comes from different depths in the nature of different persons. One loves the countryside not for itself in reality, of course, but for what it means to one. What does it mean to the missionary? It is, above all, the scene of his work, the environment of those whose salvation he seeks. I have scarcely mentioned the people of the countryside, you will have noticed; it seemed better to describe first the place in which they live, for to tell of them would require another article, or perhaps many. But it is necessary to remember that for the missionary, this rugged and beautiful and turgid land takes its chief significance from the existence in it of these people. It is in a real sense a part of them, so that those who know them only in the towns or in the farm compounds cannot know them as he does the man who sees them from day to day in what is, to some extent at least, their traditional way of life. No doubt this tradition is disappearing; no doubt, too, it would be presumption to expect to know much of any other person’s mind or life, even of those of our own race and people; nevertheless, the life of the countryside, of the small villages and the cattle and the fields won from the bush, is the true background of all the people, and some knowledge of it assists one’s work with them greatly. It is the village, the cluster of little houses on the hillside, with its grain bins, its cattle kraal, its small fenced vegetable gardens, which is home to them, and few have been so long in town that they do not fall easily into the placid daily round of village life, when once they return to it. It is a way of life which is conditioned by the country in which they live; they have come to terms, as it were, with the land and the elements, and contrive to live by their own efforts and by the traditional knowledge and skills they have inherited, and what is more, to find happiness in doing so. They have troubles, often grave; but they have an extraordinary facility in making the best of things and being cheerful. This way of life must change, is changing now; but it is to be hoped that the change will be a gradual one.
Such then is the country where the Carmelite missionaries work. Much more could be written of it, but even this brief description may help to fill in the background to the picture of missionaries at work in Zimbabwe.