Before coming to Zimbabwe my novice master gave me an extract from a letter by Father-General Kolvenbach on the purpose of experiments in the noviciate. At one point Fr Kolvenbach writes of the novice’s experience:
The feeling of helplessness in the face of pain and suffering, their own and that of others, should lead them to seek the deepest meaning of human existence in Jesus and his Paschal Mystery.
During Holy Week it was impossible not to reflect on those words in light of the current situation in Zimbabwe. The crisis is long-standing and well-documented. Back in 2007 the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ZCBC) issued the Pastoral Letter ‘God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed’ showing how the crisis was “not only political and economic, but first and foremost a spiritual and moral crisis”, the roots of which stretch from colonial times to the present day. Reading that letter in 2016 it seems little has changed. Hyper-inflation, a serious problem in 2007, was only brought under control by abandoning the Zimbabwean dollar and adopting the US dollar. To the list of crises outlined by the bishops almost a decade ago there is now the environmental crisis brought by another year of drought, causing the maize crop to fail and livestock prices to tumble. Zimbabwe, once known as ‘The Bread Basket of Africa’, is importing maize from its neighbours.
Travelling the road out of Harare towards Makumbi you can see once productive agricultural land that is underutilized and slowly reverting to scrubland as a result of the chaotic land reform programme in the early 2000s. The collapse of commercial farming has further contributed to the decline in manufacturing, which began during the 1990s when Zimbabwe implemented its Economic Structural Adjustment Programme in return for an International Monetary Fund loan, since agricultural equipment was a mainstay of manufacturing. Although government data puts unemployment at 11% some sources go as high as 95%, highlighting the fact many people have only casual employment in the informal sector. Furthermore, these figures make no mention of the people who have left the country to find work. In 2014 it was recorded that 72% of the country’s population were living below the poverty line and 16.7% of the country’s adult population had HIV/Aids, the fifth highest adult rate in the world.
Evidence of the plight is everywhere, but beyond the statistics is the fact that suffering has a human face. During my experiment I have met a number of parents whose children have gone to South Africa, Zambia, Britain, the United States, China and elsewhere to find work, and equally as many children who have one parent working outside the country. One woman I met, the mother of four children, explained how her husband entered Europe illegally eight years ago and is now working there and sends money back. As he has no residency status he cannot make a return visit to Zimbabwe. The youngest children have no memories of their father and know him only from videos and photographs. A religious sister who is a social worker gave an eyewitness account of how unemployment and food shortages are contributing to rising levels of drug abuse, gambling and prostitution as people look to drugs, betting and sex as alternative ways of earning a living and putting food on the table.
The same sister also observed “we have become a nation of vendors”, and it is impossible not to notice the proliferation of street traders, roadside kiosks and stalls scratching a living by selling brooms, sliced bread, cooking oil, fruit and vegetables. Falling incomes mean children, particularly girls, are being withdrawn from school because their parents cannot afford the fees. Some children in the area around Makumbi only go to primary school because the mission pays their fees at the state primary school. Meanwhile the food shortages mean increasing numbers of children go to school hungry because they must survive on only one meal per day. In the past month Makumbi Mission, assisted by the Jesuit Relief Fund, has distributed food aid to 300 local families affected by shortages and crop failure.
Faced with the daily plight of many Zimbabweans, talking about God’s love for us can sound glib and facile. But God’s love is not something frothy; instead, it challenges us. When we reflect on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we see one who entered into the brokenness of our world and who continues to be a part of it. As Jerome Nadal, one of the first Jesuits, commented:
Christ having risen from the dead, and dying now no more (Romans 6:9), still suffers in his members, and constantly carries his Cross so that he said to Paul ‘Why do you persecute me?’ (Acts 9:4)
By his teaching and actions Jesus proclaimed the nearness of the Kingdom of God, showing repeatedly the role of personal conversion to remove the damaging effects of sin and allow the justice and mercy of the Kingdom to shine forth. God’s love is most visible in the weakness and vulnerability of the Crucified Jesus as he demonstrates the ultimate love and charity of the Suffering Servant. In the events of Good Friday we see that suffering has a face both human and divine, for as the Gospel reminds us “they will look on the one whom they have pierced.” (John 19:37, citing Zechariah 12:10). In Nadal’s example, the way Paul went from persecutor to apostle is a sign of how in Christ’s saving work the wounds of sin and division are healed by a single thread of grace running through the whole restored creation.
Witnessing to God’s love in our own lives involves our own conversion as well. We need to embrace the prophetic challenge to find Christ still suffering in the poor and outcast in our broken world and, like Simon of Cyrene, help him carry his cross once more. In doing this we cannot settle, even in the darkest moments, for something less than faith, less than hope or less than love. Sharing a vision of faith, hope and love has been an essential part of my experiment at Makumbi, whether it has been joining training sessions at the Bakhita Centre, helping with schoolwork in the Children’s Home, or meeting parishioners at Makumbi and the Mass centres, including one place where the parishioners want to build a primary school and save local children an exhausting, daily 5 mile walk to the next village. In my last post I wrote about what it meant to be Men for Others and Men with Others; I would add that sharing faith, hope and love are an essential part of it.
Certainly there is no economic, social, political or spiritual panacea to fix Zimbabwe’s problems overnight. But when children talk about their aspirations we must not lapse into despondent pessimism and think we are only educating the next generation of vendors and emigrants. If Christ “still suffers in his members, and constantly carries his cross”, can we not also live in the hope of witnessing his resurrection in the lives of our brothers and sisters? Even when we confront the darkness of the tomb on Good Friday we must remember the words: ‘chiedza chinovhenekera murima, asi rima harina kuchikunda’, or, ‘a light shines in the darkness, and darkness could not overcome it’ (John 1:5).