Inside Mai Chaza’s shrine

Tendai Chara
DRIVING along the dusty Zimunya-Vumba road which is just outside Mutare, one will easily notice two huge brightly coloured pillars that are erected some few metres away from the road. An inscription on the pillars reads: “GRJ: New Jerusalem, Guta raJehovah.” Through the pillars, one can see rows of white round huts and two-roomed houses with corrugatediron roofs.

Build in an orderly manner, the houses stretch as far as the eyes can see. Men and boys donning short-sleeved khaki shorts and shirts mill around the sprawling settlement. Going about their daily chores are women and girls, all clad in long, white-laced dresses. The compound, which is located in Piki Village, is a Guta raJehovah (GRJ) commune.

Since 1956, sick people from across the country and beyond the borders spend days, and even years on end at this place, seeking spiritual healing. Known as Guta raJehovah (City of God), the settlement was established by the late famous faith healer, Mai Chaza (real name Theresa Nyamushanga), way back in 1956.

Originally from Buhera, Mai Chaza was reputed for having the ability to pray for women to conceive. It was believed that she could also cure all known ailments and people of all races would come seeking divine intervention at her shrine. lt is said Mai Chaza was capable of healing more than 8 000 in a space of two hours.

“She didn’t lay hands. She simply used a cloth to make contact with a person. That person would be healed instantly,” said Mr Godwin Chiweni, the person in charge of the “city”. A charismatic faith healer, Mai Chaza, who began her healing work when she was a Methodist church member, broke away from the church and started what began as a small, fervent religious group.

A unique religious healing community, the sect has a strong following, not only in Zimbabwe but in other Southern African countries as well. But recently, the GRJ and a splinter sect, the Guta ra Mwari (GRM) have been in the news for wrong reasons. The groups have taken each other to court in issues regarding the use of the name GRM.

Although the GRJ is no longer as prominent as it used to be during Mai Chaza’s time, the sect has a fascinating history and often very weird beliefs. It has been a subject of study by those interested in gender and religion.

Last week, The Sunday Extra was granted the rare opportunity of spending time with the reclusive members of the sect, who are known for not allowing non-congregants into their jealously guarded compound.

Arriving at the main entrance, four elderly men, who were in charge of security, waived us down and signaled us to park our vehicle outside the gate. Non-congregants’ vehicles are strictly not allowed to enter the compound.

Since outsiders rarely visit the settlement, the security details were clearly suspicious of our intentions. After identifying ourselves and explaining our mission, Mr Isaac Gapara, the head of security at the compound, appeared relaxed.

“The founder of our church instructed us to treat Government officials well. The houses over there are guest houses and we host people like you in those houses,” the now visibly relaxed Mr Gapara said. But another hurdle lay ahead of us — non-congregants are not allowed to enter the complex before making confessions.

After consulting the sect’s leaders, we were finally given a waiver and allowed to enter the compound. Mr Chiweni took it upon himself to show us around and explain the sect’s beliefs.

“Although Mai Chaza had a human body, she was actually God,” began Mr Chiweni, who, throughout the interview, constantly referred to her as “Matenga” (The Heavens). Mr Chiweni claimed that the founder was often seen in the company of angels and other heavenly bodies. He even produced photographs in which he claimed angels appeared alongside the well-known faith healer.

In most of the pictures, Mai Chaza is always in the company of the said angels. The other people in one of the pictures are white. Mr Chiweni explained the phenomenon. “During Mai Chaza’s time, not a single black person had entered Heaven. Black people were evil then and could not therefore made the grade,” Mr Chiweni said without elaborating further.

Sect members are not allowed to eat meat at funerals and on a daily basis, they are compelled to conduct three church services. Political discussions are strictly prohibited at the shrine. Every day at 5am, the sect members make a colourful procession called Vhuserere in which congregants march around the compound before converging at the main entrance where sinners are required to confess.

In an afternoon service, demons are allegedly exorcised before the sect members conclude the day’s proceedings with another evening prayer session. Most of the sect’s teachings are based on the founder’s teachings which were compiled into a book called Bhuku Remweya. GRJ members believe that their uniforms can cure diseases and protect them from evil spirits.

For one to be admitted into the sect and be given a uniform, that person has to go through a rigorous exercise which includes confessions for “every” sin that the person might have committed.

Mr Chiweni said Mai Chaza foretold her own death. Following her death in 1960, the sect is yet to select her successor. Mr Chiweni clarified the sect’s position. “She is alive and is in the heavens. There is no need for a successor,” he said.

The Sunday Mail Extra was then taken on a tour of the complex. In the midst of the complex is an open space which Mr Chiweni referred to as the “holy ground.” We were forbidden from setting foot on that ground.

A large, beautiful houses is positioned directly across the open space and we later learnt that this was the house in which Mai Chaza lived before she relocated to Zvimba, shortly before her death in 1960.

Strangely, the house, which the sect members call “Ngarava”, in reference to the biblical Noah’s ark, has not been occupied since her death. Each morning, sect members diligently sweep and maintain order in this unoccupied house.

Sect members believe that Mai Chaza is alive and living in the large house — in spirit. The compound also houses a large beautiful church and a large hall that is used during the sect members’ weddings.

A double storey building, which Mr Chiweni said will be used to store holy water, is almost complete. Mr Fidhas Siduna, a member of the sect who has lived at the shrine since 1971, said his life is hinged on the shrine.

“When I came here, I was a mental patient. Although I still have a home in Mabee, Chipinge, I spend most of my time here meditating and doing God’s work,” Mr Siduna said.

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