Celts among the Shona
The First Year – 1946
Anselm Corbett, O.Carm. First appeared in 1991.
“Can I help you, sir?” The speaker was a young, white shop assistant, a pretty girl of about 19 years of age, blonde and smart looking, behind the counter. I was at the business centre of Harare City, the City of Flowers’, of which Europeans were immensely and deservedly proud and where commerce had already begun to burgeon, even so shortly after the end of World War II. The shops were plentifully filled with consumer goods in no little variety. Practically all establishments sold their wares to both black and white customers. Yet a good proportion of Europeans observed a strict kind of apartheid as then obtained in South Africa. In the main, most hotels and restaurants were reserved for whites only. Anyway, the non-whites could not have afforded their prices. As we learned, a handful of theatres and cinemas, generally called bioscopes, had partitioned areas where coloured people (mixed race) and Asians were accommodated. During intervals at shows black young men were employed in the sale of cool drinks and ices. Such niggling humiliations seemed to infect most contacts between blacks and whites and the Shona people were amazingly patient with their lot. So the ‘Irish’ in me rebelled, I’m afraid, when I found myself in this large pharmacy which I had entered in order to purchase a few rolls of film for my old-fashioned Kodak camera.
Standing in front of me was a short queue of half a dozen black men and women waiting to be served by this pert assistant. In reply to her polite query, I raised my sun-helmet with equal courtesy and said: “Thank you, Miss, but I am in no hurry. Anyhow, these people were here before me so I’ll wait until they have been served.” I smiled gently, but she flushed with quick annoyance. You see, I had transgressed one of the unwritten cardinal rules of the Colony; the white skin always enjoyed precedence over the black or coloured skin. Her eyes narrowed and she repeated her words, this time sharply. I smiled again and made no answer. The poor blacks, finding themselves caught in the white crossfire, shifted uneasily and cast covert glances at this crazy clergyman who was breaking the rules. However, I stared her out and she had to serve them and me, in the proper order, though with the worst possible grace. The incident afforded me the first of many insights into the colonial practice of racial discrimination, apart from that which I had already witnessed in the racially divided train on our way up from Cape Town.
That morning, in late October 1946, I had strolled along the crowded city streets from the Jesuit Fathers’ H.Q., Campion House, beside the Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. It was a hot humid day, typical of the rainy season and already dark clouds were piling up menacingly on the horizon. A storm was in the offing. Nevertheless, my business done, I chose to walk back to the Cathedral rather than board one of the municipal buses. The very sight of them put me off. To be sure, they were more than inviting in their cleanliness and apparent efficiency, but they were also models of apartheid. The front section of each bus was reserved for whites, while the rear compartment, equipped with plain wooden seats and a separate entrance, served black passengers. Even on the city footpaths, European supremacy had to be respected. African pedestrians had to give way to the whites and step on to the roadway. If there was any hesitation in complying with the unwritten law, the black person was frequently and roughly warned, particularly by Afrikaner citizens and by quite a number of English - and a few Irish ‘bosses’ too! - who snarled one expressive Afrikaans word, ‘voetsak’, which meant “get out of my way!” Mockingly, the Africans used the same word, ‘voetsak’, when calling to order their own unruly dogs!
An American journalist, Negley Farson, in a book, Behind God’s Back, first published in 1940 and now out of print, describes a long journey he made, just before the outbreak of World War II, accompanied by his wife in a small car, across southern Africa. When the ocean-going freighter, a German ship, brought them into Walvis Bay, the only port of Namibia, he remarked to a fellow passenger on the sullen looks they were receiving from the African dock workers who were busily unloading cargo from their fog-shrouded ship. Farson remarks: “If you talk with many thinking people down in the Union of South Africa, particularly those of English extraction, you will find that occasionally one will admit that the attitude of the white man towards the African is based upon fear. You may do anything you like to him, but he is still there, by the millions. His capacity for suffering, his vitality, his faith that one day things must come right for him, are indestructible. They shame you. What are you going to do with him? In Africa, the black man, by his very presence, has made the white man do mean things. Demean himself. And the white man hates him for it. It was a look such as this which passed between us as these doleful locals silently climbed up the gangway to enter our ship.” Farson’s companion, standing at the ship’s rail, was a young white mining engineer of Zimbabwe who scowled and replied: “It is absurd to think that the African has taken everything that has happened to him, and then forgot. You will find this look of resentment, however skillfully it may be veiled, throughout Africa.” The journalist quoted another Englishman who said: “One of these days, if we keep on the way we are, we’ll be having the Zulus sending missionaries to England, to teach us Christianity!”
Eating lunch at Campion House, I looked around at my table companions. Besides us three Carmelites, there were some twenty Jesuit priests and one brother, as well as Bishop Chichester, S.J. They were about equally divided between very old, retired missionaries and middle-aged, still active men. Among the latter was a tall, spare, cheerful priest, by name Fr. Henry Swift. As well as assisting in the ordinary, pastoral duties of the Cathedral parish, Fr. Swift was also Catholic Chaplain to Harare Gaol. I recall how amused I was when this delightfully simple man showed me his little notebook of jokes. It was quite a collection of innocent funny stories which the dear man told to household and sick European parishioners, to whom he frequently brought the Sacraments. However, the stories he told us about his ministry to the black and white prisoners in the gaol were far from amusing. Often he had to stand by the gallows, comforting Africans who had been condemned to death. Even at that time, long after the heady days of the revered white Pioneers, the white Government of the colony still kept faith with the wish of Cecil Rhodes that no white person should ever be executed on the gallows. Such a death was reserved for any black found guilty of murder, or of the attempted rape of a white woman. Henry Swift’s work among such prisoners was often a grim and heartrending apostolate. He declared that he was convinced that many of the condemned were, in fact, innocent of crime.
At the time of our arrival in Zimbabwe, the Catholic Church was experiencing a distinct post-war resurgence and a renewed vitality, especially among Africans. The population of this vast country of 150,000 square miles, bigger than France, consisted of an estimated three and a half million Africans, 150,000 whites and 20,000 coloureds and Asians. The latter were, in large part, Indian ‘untouchables,’ who, were they residing in their native subcontinent, could scarcely have hoped to be permitted by higher caste Indians to amass wealth, or to achieve social eminence among their own. Actually they formed business ‘ghettos’ in Zimbabwean cities and large towns where many of them became very rich indeed, their main customers being Africans and other Asians. The blacks were tightly controlled in ‘locations’ (later called townships), situated on the periphery of the city or town. If they were employed as building labourers, or garage men, or street cleaners or at any other menial job in the European quarter, daily after sundown they had to be back in their location. Unless, that is, they were the fortunate possessors of a special police pass, or if they were employed as ‘live-in’ servants, cooks or gardeners in a white household. They were provided with flimsy huts somewhere out of sight on their master’s property. To add to their humiliation, they were addressed by many Europeans, not by their African family names, but by a degrading nickname, such as ‘Sixpence’ or ‘Shilling’. Apart from the Afrikaners, few other whites took the bother of learning the African language, Shona. Even if the servants had a knowledge, however limited, of English, they were spoken to in a hotch-potch pidgin mixture of English and basic Shona words, known as ‘Chilapalapa’. Of course, Afrikaners had the advantage of having been born in South Africa, and, having grown up in fairly close relationships with African servants and black children, spoke the Shona language fluently. One could easily imagine, on entering this bizarre culture, what life must have been like in the southern States of the USA before the American Civil War, except that there was no public lynching of the ‘inferior’ race!
Zimbabwe became a self-governing colony in 1924, when the first general election took place. The only candidates for Parliament were white; any black person who was over twenty-one years of age and possessed premises valued at £500, or income not less than £240 per annum, was permitted to vote. Obviously, at that time and under these conditions, very few Africans’ names were found on the voters’ list. The first Prime Minister was Sir Charles Coughlan, a Roman Catholic. The British retained control of the African Affairs Department, but, in effect, Whitehall was largely ignored., The new Parliament, in order to attract more European settlers to the country, passed some iniquitous Land Acts, the chief purpose of which was to deprive the Africans of vast arable areas of rich, productive soil. Tribal enclaves, called ‘reservations,’ were set up on inferior land and the Africans were dispossessed of their ancestral holdings and transported, lock stock and barrel, by Government decree to those places. One result of these unjust ordinances was to foment an ever deepening resentment among the African people and, by reducing their way of life to mere subsistence level, to send them crowding into the towns in search of employment.
To meet this unlooked-for threat, another law was designed and passed in order to monitor the movement of Africans. It was decreed that every African male had to be registered and carry a certificate, called a ‘chitupa’, bearing his number on the register, his African name, tribe and reservation, as well as his right hand thumb print. If he got a job in any town, or on a white ranch or tobacco farm, or mine or in the public services, the fact had to be inscribed in the chitupa by the employer. All of this put a brake on black movement in the country and especially on those Africans who became impoverished after being banished to the new areas. Any African, found outside his reservation, could be challenged by a policeman and, if he failed to carry the chitupa on his person, was put in gaol and made appear before a white magistrate or Commissioner as he was called, on a charge of vagrancy, for which he’d be given a short term of imprisonment. In any case he was ordered out of town and back to his reserve in the Tribal Land. This chitupa system of control was not confined to Zimbabwe. It was to be found in many other British African colonies at the time.
At this point it has to be said that not all white folk treated the Africans so harshly, at least in their day to day contacts. A majority of Christian Europeans, though not above chiwying their servants on with a few swear words, treated them with respect and, indeed, with affection. Even with that, there was always the temptation to adopt a purely paternalistic attitude. The largest Christian denomination at that time was the Anglican; the Methodist came next, while the Dutch Reformed Church included most of the Boer (Africaaner) population. There were about 200,000 Catholics, of whom 24,000 were of European origin, as well as a number of smaller sects, European and African. It was estimated that eighty per cent of Africans were non-Christian.
Zimbabwe’s geographical position in central Africa inhibited early attempts to penetrate as far as its interior. The only way of comparatively easy access was by boat up the Zambezi river as far as the Victoria Falls. Portuguese adventurers and Arab slave-traders had made sporadic forays, but had never settled there. So cut off was the interior of what we now know as Zimbabwe, that the inhabitants never discovered the use of the wheel and therefore built no roads. In the decade following our arrival there in 1946 the Africans were still using sand-sleighs, that is, roughly hewn forks of small trees with a V-shaped platform composed of animal skins, or small tree branches, and drawn by a single ox. The first attempt by the Catholic Church to evangelise the Zambezi area was made by a Portuguese Jesuit missionary based in Mozambique on the Indian Ocean. He was the Venerable Gonzalo Silveira, a former Provincial of the Society in India. In 1559 he sailed up the Zambezi as far as the African kingdom of Monomotapa, where he established a mission station. However, his presence there aroused the hatred and opposition of the Muslim Arab slavers who, in 1561, strangled him to death. He was only 38 years old. Some Portuguese Dominican missionaries followed in his footsteps and penetrated a good distance south of the river also. In 1951, when I was making investigative treks on the northern part of our diocese of Mutare, an African pointed across a lovely little lake called Dziva remvuu - the hippo pool - to a fairly open space in the bushveld, where I saw neat rows of ancient orange trees, gone wild. There, he declared, the missionaries had lived and worked in the long-ago. Fr. Silveira’s mission at Monomotapa was abandoned in 1759 and it wasn’t until 1879 that a new Zambezi foundation was successful. French, English and Portuguese Jesuits sacrificed themselves, enduring untold suffering and untimely deaths, so that the Gospel of Christ should be heard in Central Africa. Their mission territory encompassed all of modern Zimbabwe, much of Zambia and part of Mozambique. They were fortunate in that the crafty, though ill-fated, King of Bulawayo received them well in his domain. At the time of his defeat and death in 1893, their Mission in Zimbabwe was firmly established.
I had to wait until 1965 to gaze for the first time upon the bigger-than-life-size, bronze statue of the Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, which stands on the northern bank of the great river Zambezi. It is close by the town named after him. The name he gave the Falls, which he saw for the first time in 1855, in honour of the reigning British monarch, Victoria, sounds somewhat prosaic when compared with that given to this natural wonder by the Africans - ‘Utsi Unotinhira’ - The Smoke that Thunders -referring to the dense mist that rises in the sky above those roaring waters. Apart from his missionary zeal on behalf of the Protestant London Missionary Society, Livingstone opened up Central Africa to European influence. He was a firm believer that Christianity, British commerce and the whiteman’s civilisation would transform the Continent. They certainly did, and the questionable consequences are part of Africa’s sad history. Livingstone died in Africa in 1873. His body lies in Westminster Abbey. To his credit it must be added that he called the attention of the world to the open sore’ of the East African slave trade.
In 1890, with the connivance of the ambitious Cecil Rhodes, a ‘Pioneer Column’, consisting of 200 settlers, mostly British and 800 paramilitary police, invaded Lobengula’s kingdom and after a long march, planted the Union Jack at a fertile spot on a vast plain called after a local chief, Harare. The white invaders gave it a new name, Fort Salisbury, in honour of the British Prime Minister at that time. Among the settlers who followed that ox wagon trail was a group of German Dominican nuns from Natal, whose superior, however, was a young Irish woman, Mother Patrick Cosgrave. While still in her thirties, she died at Harare; her grave in Harare cemetery is marked by a tall, granite Celtic cross. She and her companions nursed sick and wounded on both sides of the ensuing conflict. When peace came, the sisters established a school for the daughters of settlers. Today, at the same place, they continue to teach in a first class school of predominantly African pupils. Mother Patrick’s grave quickly became the focus of an annual pilgrimage of expatriate Irish folk living in or near Harare, every 17th March. When Raymond, Luke and I came to Harare in 1946, two of that first brave band of pioneer Sisters were still alive in the convent. Both were over ninety years old, steady on their feet, with minds fully alert. They could recount stories of those early days with great accuracy and good humour. God reward them!