- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2009


The imposing cross atop the brick church looms out of the bush like a beacon. The bells sing out with impatience, urging the faithful to hurry along, and one small bell-ringer is swept right off his feet. A peremptory roll from a handmade wooden drum topped with goat skin is followed by a call from a cow horn. The choir breaks into an a capella hymn. It’s a far cry from the stately Gregorian chant of my youth, all in Latin, which I could recite from memory with no idea what it meant. Everyone stands as a dozen altar boys, one carrying a large cross, escort the Rev. Johannes Maseko and two seminarians up the aisle.

It’s the first time I’ve seen altar boys in robes of brilliant African fabric - orange and green. Those in the congregation tap their feet, clap their hands and sway to the music. My face is wet with tears.

And I tear up again at the end, when the priest introduces me to the congregation as “baby Michelle” who was born here and is coming back after nearly five decades away.

“You have returned to your home,” he says. “We are your family. We are happy to have you with us.”

On closer inspection, many collars in the pews are frayed, jerseys darned, Sunday-best shoes worn down at the heels. And at the offertory, only coins are placed in the basket along with offerings of tea biscuits, a packet of sugar, some tea leaves. These are precious commodities: Someone is doing without to make this gift.

Embakwe Mission once was an example of progress and success. But now it is suffering along with the rest of the country, and in particular the province of Matabeleland - land of the Ndebele people.

Many people here are worn down by back-to-back wars and crises that keep this southwestern corner, on the brink of the Kalahari Desert, the poorest in a deprived nation. I find a place where no textbooks have been purchased in nearly a decade, where children come to school faint from hunger, where life savings have been wiped out.

Embakwe Mission was founded in 1902 by the spirit medium Njemhlophe, who converted to Christianity. He came at the behest of Catholic missionaries who soon followed, a Jesuit priest on horseback and three intrepid nuns fresh from England in an ox wagon loaded with provisions, including a hen, a cock and a cat.

Outside the mission, the air has a homely whiff of wood fire and cattle dung. The bush is thinned out because trees are used for fuel; the grass appears shaved from overgrazing.

There’s no running water, no electricity, no telephones. And we’re out of reach of cell-phone service unless you climb a certain tree on the mission.

Villages are also strangely bereft of young people.

James Mapegani Macebo Ncube, 78, taught at Embakwe for 45 years. His elder son went to neighboring South Africa and has not been heard from in 15 years. But his younger son graduated from Embakwe two years ago, got a job working with computers in South Africa and hopes to visit at Christmas.

“Because of this government, I cannot enjoy my children around me. They could not tolerate staying, like all the young people: There are no jobs, nothing for them.”

Mr. Macebo is caring for a 13-year-old orphan, the son of his wife’s sister, who died in 2004 followed by her husband in 2006, presumably of AIDS.

Like all aging Zimbabweans, his pension was wiped out by dizzying inflation as the government recklessly printed money to mask the collapse of the economy. Zimbabwe’s dollar was on a par with the U.S. dollar at independence in 1980. The government abandoned the local currency in January, shortly after printing a 100 trillion-dollar note.

In their old age, Mr. Macebo and his wife, Lilliam, are forced to survive off the land, much as the missionaries found their great-grandparents. They have two cows, a handful of goats and some chickens, and they grow corn, sorghum, millet and a variety of other crops.

They live in a brick home topped by a grass thatched roof. If they need the toilet at night, they walk outside to a small brick building. Bedtime is when it gets dark, because there is no money to buy paraffin for the lamp gathering dust in a corner.

Most people in rural areas, with no access to any kind of currency, have turned to primitive barter. A friend told me about an elderly woman who offered a bus driver at Lion’s Den her live, trussed-up chicken for a four-hour ride. The driver agreed, but passengers argued the woman was owed change - at least three eggs.

I remember Embakwe as a land of plenty, providing for more than 1,000 students, missionaries and lay teachers. The mission became near self-sufficient after 1953, when the biggest private dam in the country was built. Canals channeled water to a vegetable farm and orchard. Wildlife was plentiful, and we ate so much venison I can’t stomach it today.

But now most mission fields are overgrown by knee-high grass. There is bush where I remember hundreds of orange, nectarine and banana trees.

Mr. Maseko, the youthful mission director at 29 years old, says he hired an experienced farm manager in 2006. But the crops failed, tomatoes rotted in the fields, a lot of money was lost.

There apparently was corruption, greed and mismanagement - the same evils that have helped destroy the entire country. The headmaster was fired for theft and took off with one of the two tractors.

Land was once the bedrock of my country. About 5,000 white farmers owned two-thirds of Zimbabwe’s richest land at independence, employed the largest work force and produced enough food to feed the country and export. Zimbabwean beef was famous, its steak considered on a par with Argentina’s.

But millions of black peasant farmers were crowded onto overworked marginal land. So Britain, the former colonial ruler, funded a land resettlement program at independence and made annual payments for President Robert Mugabe’s government to buy white farms. It only stopped in 1997 when it became clear that the land was being given to Mr. Mugabe’s generals and cronies.

After Mr. Mugabe lost a referendum to entrench his powers, he ordered violent seizures of commercial farms in 2000, accusing the farmers of ordering their black workers to vote against him. Banks suffered since many of their assets were in farm mortgages. The land itself became worthless.

At a village near Embakwe, Mtabisi George Ndlovu wonders why he ever bothered to fight for independence.

“Look at us,” he orders, pointing to a wife with one baby in her lap and two others hiding in her skirts while other children chase fowl around the dusty compound.

“We eat poorly, once a day,” he complains. “When we were in the struggle, they promised us land, good houses with water and electricity, free education for our children, free health care. What did I get? Nothing.”

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