The priest who defied the guns
Welcome home . . . Fr Eric Ruwona (right) receives Fr Prosser’s ashes urn at the airport from Mrs Janet Humpton while Mr Albert Kamunga the Chairman of the St Augustine’s Former Students Council looks on

The priest who defied the guns

Ambassador Thomas S Bvuma

It is rare that an Englishman who served in Rhodesia, retired to England and passed away there, has his remains repatriated to Zimbabwe for burial.

That rare honour is being bestowed on Father Keble Hugh Prosser, in recognition of the heroic work he did for the people of Zimbabwe as teacher, priest and principal par excellence at St Augustine’s Mission, Penhalonga.

The nationalist and co-founder of Cold Comfort Farm, Guy Clutton-Brock, was the first to receive that honour. His ashes were repatriated to Zimbabwe and buried at Heroes’ Acre in 1996.

The Anglican Mission of St Augustine’s, Tsambe or Santa, as students affectionately called it, was built on top of a hill, which is the source of the Tsambe River, near the border with Mozambique. The mission cast its lights near and far, attracting students from all corners of then Rhodesia.

Fr Keble Prosser was one of the people who kept the lights of education burning brightly at St Augustine’s Mission, even while a war raged around the school.

St Augustine’s Mission was a pioneer in offering education to Africans. The Rhodesian government had a deliberate policy of keeping education away from Africans.

In 1930, the government made education compulsory for all white children but only built a few token primary schools for African children. There were no secondary schools for Africans in Rhodesia until 1939, when St Augustine’s Mission established the first one.

The Rhodesians only established the first government African secondary school afterwards, in 1946. St Augustine’s was the first African secondary school to accept girls and the first to teach Cambridge A-Levels.

Fr Keble Hugh Prosser studied history at Cambridge University. He was ordained a priest in 1962 and joined the Community of the Resurrection (CR), also known as the Mirfield Fathers. In 1964, he was sent to Rhodesia to join fellow CR priests at St Augustine’s Mission.

Fr Prosser was tall, slim, energetic and handsome, with a disarming smile. Former students can still see him, in their memory, running around the mission, limping, to classrooms, dormitories, the priory and the church, to keep the mission running in an orderly manner.

As a priest, he led the daily morning prayers, evensong and the Sunday service. In addition, he taught English, history and divinity and was the choirmaster. He would, very often, be seen holding impromptu discussions with the Mission’s legendary cooks, Sahowera and Sakapu, sweating from stoking the wood stoves of the kitchen.

When he became principal in 1974, students thought he had walked into boots that were too heavy for him. His predecessor was Stanford-trained Fr Daniel Pearce from California, a priest with liberal ideas, very much loved by students.

Yet Fr Prosser went on to prove everyone wrong. He was a young and fearless strategist and tactician who possessed a progressive mind.

Some students used to sneak out of the mission to nearby Tsvingwe Bar or Magwere and Muchena villages, where they imbibed gallons of traditional brew. Many were caught, totally inebriated, but during his tenure as principal, Fr Prosser expelled very few students. He was a strict disciplinarian but had a kind heart.

He was not cut from the ancient mould of brutal school masters. He understood the value of education and giving a second chance to African students, the majority of whom came from poor families.

The students who attended St Augustine’s Mission in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s belonged to a rebellious generation. Many had been influenced by bits and pieces they picked from the rebel culture of hippies and rock music.

In 1975, Mozambique became independent after Frelimo guerrillas defeated the Portuguese colonial army. That made it possible for the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army to establish refugee and training bases in Mozambique, from where guerrillas infiltrated into Manicaland and beyond.

Students then found a closer-to-home and nobler cause towards which they could channel their sense of rebellion. Under cover of night, scores of students abandoned school. They crossed the border into Mozambique to join Zanla, train as guerrillas and return to fight for the liberation of Zimbabwe.

Most students who went to Mozambique only heard, when they came back to independent Zimbabwe, about the heroic deeds of Fr Keble Prosser.

A conscientious objector, Fr Prosser found himself caught between a rock and a hard place, between Zanla guerrillas who operated in the St Augustine’s area and the Rhodesian military forces. He supported the side which his students had chosen, the guerrillas.

Fr Prosser stood up boldly to the brutal Rhodesian army, protected and defended his students.

While his fellow CR Fathers left St Augustine’s and flew back to the safety of Britain, he stayed behind. With the support of his teachers, students and workers, he kept St Augustine’s open and the lights of education burning into independence.

One of the most touching incidents that involved Fr Prosser was when Rhodesian soldiers shot and killed, before the eyes of students, a young guerrilla in the Rotunda area of the Great Hall.

The guerrilla was a former student who had come back to recruit students. It is said that Fr Prosser personally cleaned the blood of the student from the floor of the Rotunda. The mere presence of guerrillas at the school was enough to get him arrested, incarcerated or deported for supporting and harbouring “terrorists”.

He survived that threat.

Another incident was the morning he woke up to find that, the previous night, tens of students had abandoned their education and crossed into Mozambique. He wept, lamenting that he had lost his brightest students. In all, 33 percent of his students joined the revolution.

The University of Rhodesia (now the University of Zimbabwe) was, in those days, the Holy Grail that African students hoped to find at the end of gruelling years of schooling. The select few who found that Grail were assured of a comfortable middle-class life.

Yet some of Fr Prosser’s students abandoned university for the liberation war.

The majority of students left St Augustine’s Mission to join the revolution before writing their O-Level exams. Some were even still doing Form 1 or Form 2. After independence, Fr Prosser invited his former students to go back to St Augustine’s to continue their education. Many took up the offer.

“Kana usina kuenda kwaTsambe, hauna kuenda kuskuru — If you did not go to St Augustine’s, you did not go to school”.

That is a popular boast by students who passed through St Augustine’s Mission. It resulted from the fact that St Augustine’s Mission enrolled and produced the brightest students in the country.

Fr Prosser dedicated his life to running a school that instilled a sense of academic perfection and pride in its students.

More than 3 000 students passed through Fr Proser’s hands. They have excelled in all fields as medical doctors, lecturers and professors, engineers, architects, politicians, civil servants, diplomats and commanders in the security services.

Fr Prosser passed away in England on November 4 2015. His ashes arrived at Harare International Airport on Thursday. After doing so much for the people of Zimbabwe, it is fitting that his remains be buried, not at a hero’s acre, but at the humble school he loved and helped make great. His ashes were laid to rest at St Augustine’s Mission yesterday.

Just as Fr Prosser wept when his brightest students abandoned school for the revolution, his soul is weeping, for a new cause.

St Augustine’s is dilapidated and now only exists in name and memory.

Fr Prosser’s return is shaking the lethargy of former students, inspiring them to revive their alma mater, Tsambe, and place it on a new level, above its old glory.

May Fr Keble Hugh Prosser’s soul rest in eternal peace.

 

Ambassador Thomas Sukutai Bvuma is a St Augustine’s alumni. He writes from Brazil where he is Zimbabwe’s Chief Diplomat

 

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  • Simbarashe Munemero

    Thanks Chihwa for the brilliant narrative about this humble priest. This man was a true servant of the people ie; administrator, teacher, war collaborator, humanitarian. May his soul rest in eternal peace.