31 Mar, 2024 - 00:03 0 Views

The Sunday Mail

Veronica Gwaze

EASTER is generally a time when Christians commemorate the selfless sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who gave his life for humanity to be free and have eternal life.

A whole religion grew from his sacred act, which has become a hallmark of Christianity.

Ever since the country received its first Christian mission in December 1859, when Ndebele King Mzilikazi gave Reverend Robert Moffat of the London Missionary Society permission to set up a mission station at Inyati (60 kilometres north-east of Bulawayo), the life of the Church has been intricately woven to the life of ordinary Zimbabweans.

While some missionaries supported colonialism ostensibly as a phenomenon that would pave the way for spreading the gospel, others increasingly came to support the local population, especially during the Second Chimurenga/Umvukela (1966-1979), in their quest for freedom.

There are many men and women of the cloth who put their lives on the line and sacrificed for Zimbabwe to be free.

Leading lights

Sister Redempta

Sister Redempta Gondo of the Roman Catholic Church smiles whenever she reminisces about the country’s first independence celebrations that took place on April 18, 1980.

The 80-year-old forever cherishes the moment the last Governor of Rhodesia, Lord Soames, and Britain’s Prince Charles (now King Charles III) pulled down the Union Jack and hoisted the Zimbabwean flag.

Sr Gondo was among the thousands that witnessed the historic event.

But the festivities were so dear to her, as she at one time taught Vice President Constantino Chiwenga and the late former Air Chief Marshal Perrance Shiri — some of the commanders of the liberation struggle — at Mount St Mary’s High School in Hwedza, Mashonaland East province.

In fact, she was one of the last people to see them before they absconded to join the liberation struggle.

“I became a Catholic sister in 1961 and during that time our mentors were of German origin,” Sr Gondo said, as she went down memory lane.

“There was a huge difference in the manner we were treated; blacks became resigned to the fact that we were always deployed to the fringe areas of Zimbabwe.

“It was only in 1975 when blacks could now attend services at the Harare Cathedral and other urban assemblies, so these are some of the injustices that pushed us as the clergy to want to play a part in the liberation of Zimbabwe, and Independence Day will always be a time to remember.”

She also took time to talk about her encounters with VP Chiwenga and the late Air Chief Marshal Shiri, who were then young learners.

“It was a tough time emotionally and the learners were also becoming agitated by the day to the extent that they would sometimes refuse to sing English hymns,” she recalls.

“As teachers, we agreed not to pursue them if they had expressed disinterest, so, one day, I was teaching them a new song which we were supposed to sing at a school function days later.

“VP (Chiwenga) and the late Shiri, leading a group of about 30 learners, refused to learn the English song, hence I asked them to go to the library, and that is the last time I saw them at school.”


The learners’ daring act caught the attention of the Rhodesian security forces, who travelled to the school the following morning to interrogate Sr Gondo.

The cavalcade of four police vehicles stormed the school yard, before she was summoned to principal Father Pascal’s office.

One of the vehicles had police dogs, while the other had whips.

Police officers were crammed in the remaining two vehicles.

Sr Gondo was accused of facilitating passage for her learners to join the struggle.

So intense was the interrogation that she broke down and cried profusely.

“They felt sorry for me and left, but since that day, I became worried as I feared for their (learners) safety.

“It was only after some years that the VP contacted me; I had already left Mount St Mary’s but for the first time in years, I could sleep peacefully,” she added.

“If any of your learners joined the struggle, you would be in trouble with the colonial government.

“So often, our learners would not even inform us that they were going and as a church, we suffered immensely because most schools were church-founded.”

Towering and influential

Fr Ribeiro

Father Emmanuel Ribeiro, who died in 2021, was another towering figure who also sacrificed his life to help the cause of freedom and independence.

In recognition of his sacrifice, he became the first priest to be buried at the National Heroes Acre.

Before the late President Robert Mugabe, who had just been released by Rhodesians after 11 years of incarceration, crossed into Mozambique on April 4, 1975 to take charge of the war effort in the wake of the death of ZANU chairperson Cde Herbert Chitepo, he was at one time harboured by Fr Ribeiro.

The Rhodesian security forces were then actively looking for him, together with Cde Edgar Tekere and Cde Enos Nkala.

In addition, it was a Roman Catholic sister, Aquina, who organised for Cde Mugabe to be secretly ferried from the then-Salisbury (now Harare) to a place called Nyafaru in Nyanga.

In an interview in April 2015, Cephas Muropa (60), who participated in the scheme to ensure Cde Mugabe’s safe passage to Mozambique, told of the critical role played by Sr Aquina.

“After some days, we received a phone call from a Roman Catholic sister, Aquina, who told us that Cde Mugabe was in trouble and the whole state security apparatus was looking for three men, namely Cdes Mugabe, Enos Nkala and Edgar Tekere,” he recounted.

“She asked if we could organise the escape of these men from Salisbury to Nyanga, a place called Nyafaru . . . We phoned Nyafaru and talked to (Moven) Mahachi (manager of the original Cold Comfort Farm at Nyafaru), who was our boss . . .”

Fr Ribeiro, who was a chaplain of the Rhodesia Prison Service, also had the opportunity to interact with President Mnangagwa when he was on death row at Khami Prison for bombing a locomotive in Fort Victoria (now Masvingo).

It was probably a difficult time for President Mnangagwa, as he would reportedly spend 23 hours inside his cell and only get one hour for recess per day.

He, therefore, vicariously suffered from his interactions with the condemned and distressed nationalists and freedom fighters.

In his condolence message after the death of the clergyman, the President said: “His religious chores as a prison chaplain thus brought him in direct contact with souls in acute distress. Indeed, it exposed him to horrid scenes of settler penal cruelty, scenes which haunted him to his last day in this life.”

Secretly moving letters

Another Roman Catholic priest, Fr Fidelis Mukonori, who became a member of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in 1974, also took advantage of the exercises they were doing to review political prisoners’ welfare to relay messages and transport letters between nationalists across prisons.

“Being a priest, they trusted our movements and did not mind going through our consignment, so I took advantage of that to relay messages and transport letters across prisons,” he told The Sunday Mail Society in an earlier interview.

It is through these writings that the former President Robert Mugabe got to know about the name Fr Mukonori.

“Before Robert knew me, he knew my name from the messages and notes that I would smuggle to him and others. I was surprised at how much he knew about me just from my writings,” he added.

Ian Smith’s wrath

Some priests courted the wrath of Ian Smith’s government for actively supporting freedom fighters.

They were mostly Irish priests, the majority of whom were anti-British because of their own historical experiences.

The late historian, Terence Ranger, who was also a Professor of History at St Antony’s College, Oxford, the United Kingdom, made this point in one of his write-ups.

“But during the guerrilla war of the 1970s, each mission station had to make its own terms with the insurgents (freedom fighters), and most of the Irish priests came to sympathise with them rather than with the Rhodesian forces,” he wrote.

“In turn, the Rhodesians watched the Irish Catholic missionaries very closely. They arrested and deported some of them, and famously put Bishop Donal Lamont of Umtali (now Mutare) on trial for assisting terrorism . . .

“During the 1950s and 1960s these Irish priests had tried to keep their flocks away from (African) nationalism, stressing the evils of godless communism. By the 1970s, however, the repressive nature of Rhodesia Front rule and the overwhelming hostility of African Christians towards it had made a deep impression on the white clergy.”

Former Cabinet Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who is currently ZANU PF Treasurer-General, made similar revelations on X recently.

“. . . The Irish missionaries, we as young boys and girls interacted with, had, to a man or woman, a strong anti-British imperialism and colonialism DNA,” he wrote in a thread on March 17.

“Given this Irish historical background, it was no wonder that when the armed liberation struggle took root in Manicaland led by ZANLA combatants, the Irish Catholic missionaries under Bishop Donald Lamont were not found wanting in their support for the cause of the liberation of Zimbabwe . . .

“They gave moral and valuable material support including food and clothing to the freedom fighters. Often, freedom fighters retreating under heavy Rhodesian military attack would hide and take refuge in mission monasteries and churches (I recall one incident when a group of guerrillas was sheltered in late Fr Vernon Neville’s priest’s residence at St Kilian’s Mission for a whole week (May Fr Vernon’s soul rest in eternal peace).

“Catholic mission hospitals supplied medicines to ZANLA guerrillas. When the Smith regime could take it no more and after a period of house arrest it stripped of his citizenship and deported Bishop Lamont to Ireland in 1977. But by then, the total liberation of Zimbabwe was inevitable and unstoppable.”

Not Catholics only

But it was not only the Catholic Church that stood by the freedom fighters.

Zion Christian Church (ZCC), among other churches, also played a critical role in the struggle.

In an earlier interview with The Sunday Mail Society, Bishop Nehemiah Mutenda, son of the late Bishop Samuel Mutendi who founded ZCC, told of how his father suffered at the hands of Rhodesians.

For years, his father futilely tried to establish the church.

Bishop Mutendi

“It is only a decade after trying countless times that baba was finally granted a peace order from colonial authorities as they were against the Zion church establishment,” he said.

“One would think my birth was symbolic; the war situation was tense, many a times baba set up a church, but everything would be burnt down by the colonialists . . .

“I remember him telling us how at some point they would be beaten and forced to close church, but he had to be there for the black majority, so he remained resolute.”

But the list of many men and women who gave it for God and for country in Zimbabwe’s arduous and painful journey to independence is endless.

Their sacrifices were not in vain.

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