History with a Mission: Abraham Kawadza and Narratives of Agrarian Change in Zimbabwe

By Leedy, Todd H. | History In Africa, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

History with a Mission: Abraham Kawadza and Narratives of Agrarian Change in Zimbabwe


Leedy, Todd H., History In Africa


He was the first man who was clever enough to realize he could sell some green maize at the mine in Penhalonga. . . Even to build the good houses, you had to come and copy from Kawadza. To buy ploughshares, they had to come and copy from Kawadza. . . Even those who bought cars, they had to copy from Kawadza. . . Chief Gandanzara used to walk on foot whenever he wanted to meet anyone. But because of seeing Kawadza riding a horse, he himself decided to ride on a horse. . . We can say in Manicaland, or we can say in Zimbabwe, most of the good things were started with Kawadza.1

I

Histories of Africa produced during the colonial period generally begin with the premise that indigenous societies existed in a timeless, static condition. The sort of broad social changes that formed the very basis of history had seemingly never occurred within Africa. Therefore history in Africa began with early European contacts and colonial-era accounts proceeded to chronicle the variety of European activities in Africa. Even more than most Europeans in the colonies, missionaries viewed themselves as direct agents of change and therefore creators of history. Their personal accounts, usually written for public consumption back home, inevitably included both struggles and successes inherent to mission work. More specifically, in their accounts of agricultural change among African societies, missionaries frequently attempted to script for themselves the central role as protagonists driving a story of progress and civilization. In order to highlight the problematic nature of missionary accounts and their influence on other interpretations, I examine here a variety of historical sources relating to Abraham Kawadza. His life experiences support a self-peasantization approach to rural history that challenges any mission-centric interpretation of agrarian change in colonial Zimbabwe.

In Colin Bundy's discussion of relations between the Mfengu and Methodist missionaries in nineteenth-century Transkei, he points to one of the key issues facing historians who must confront mission sources. Methodist accounts of their early missionary efforts in the Cape Colony frequently revolved around demonstrating linkages between the missionary presence and subsequent transformations among local communities. Missionary authors sought to document a variety of 'firsts' among the African populations exposed to Wesleyan mission Christianity. Subsequent church histories maintained that "the first plough that turned up soil north of the Kei was guided by the hands of a British Wesleyan missionary. . .the first cotton grown in South Africa. . .the first waggon [sic]. . .the first European type of house. . .the first tilled lands and garden" were all attributed to an extended missionary influence.2 Most historians had accepted these sources at face value. Bundy, however, suggests a more complex scenario wherein the missionary factor remains only one of several crucial variables that shaped the growth of an African peasantry. The knowledge and outlook central to the expansion of peasant agriculture also moved within or among African communities through pre-existing social relations. Experiences in the employ of European landowners exposed some individuals to the ideas and skills so often claimed as a monopoly in mission sources.

John and Jean Comaroff encounter similar themes in examining London Missionary Society (LMS) accounts of mission influence among the southern Tswana. LMS evangelists hoped to reconstruct Tswana life primarily through the introduction of a plough-based agricultural system. Wherever ploughs eventually appeared in the region, missionary sources sought credit for their spread. In 1887 LMS missionary John Mackenzie wrote that "[u]nder the supervision of the missionaries, the natives learned a higher agriculture, and exchanged the hoe of their own ruder garden work for the plough and spade. What had been done at Kuruman was imitated by the natives elsewhere.

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