Missionaries and Murder in the Struggle for Zimbabwe

By Southall, Roger | Strategic Review for Southern Africa, November 2017 | Go to article overview

Missionaries and Murder in the Struggle for Zimbabwe


Southall, Roger, Strategic Review for Southern Africa


Griffiths, S (2017), The Axe and the Tree: How bloody persecution sowed the seeds of new life in Zimbabwe. Oxford UK and Grand Rapids, Michigan: Monarch Books, 288 pp. ISBN 978 0 85721 789 9; e-ISBN 978 0 85721 5

The literature on missions and missionaries in colonial Zimbabwe is uneven, interlaced as it is with the broader question of church and state. There are studies of the arrival and development of missions, these linked to the role of individual denominations, and how they interacted with settler governments (for example, Madhiba 2010; Simmons 2000; Welch 2008; Zvogbo 1988); there is analytical treatment of the impact of missions upon African communities, notably how this clashed with local cultures and shaped new identities (for example, Kapenzi 1979; Mhike 2013) and there are studies of how missions and their denominations were indigenised (Mwandayi 2013). Additionally, there has been considerable interest in the role of the missions in providing education (for example, Zvogbo 1980), with much of this linked to the role of Garfield and Grace Todd: their pioneering work in promoting African schooling at their mission at Dadaya, Grace's work in creating what became a national curriculum for African schools and promoting teacher training, and the significant expansion of African education driven by Garfield during his feted (and fated) tenure as Prime Minister in the 1950s (for example, Weiss 1999). In turn, the interest in Todd leads on to attempts to wrestle with the intertwining of Christianity with colonial liberalism--how it both inspired missionaries, or those they had trained, to challenge successive white minority governments, but rendered many cautious about political involvements in colonial society (Peaden 1979; Moyo 2015). Above all, however, there has been very substantial interest in how missionaries, the churches to which they adhere and African Christians acted during the liberation war against Ian Smith's government and how many missions were caught in the crossfire (for example Bourdillon and Gundani 1988; Lapsley 1988; Bhebe 1988). This was an unenviable situation, and missions responded variously. Although disposed against violence, many were unable (or unwilling) to unambiguously declare against the war (for fear of losing their African congregations) and some provided covert assistance to guerrillas. In quite a few instances, missionaries felt they had little option but to close their missions in areas where staff and congregants were seriously endangered.

The last theme remains highly contentious, not least regarding the brutal murder of nine Pentecostal missionaries and their four children at the Elim Mission, high up in the Vumba mountains, by nationalist guerrillas in June 1978. This was seized upon by the Smith regime to provoke sympathy for the settlers' cause. It continues to do so in right-wing circles to this day. Yet the story is much more complicated than the trope of 'terrorist atrocity' allows.

For this reason, a warm welcome should be extended to The Axe and the Tree. Authored by the son of the patriarch of the Elim mission (who happened to be back in Britain with his father and family at the time), it is not only an eloquent testament of remembrance to those who died, but one of the first 'insider' studies of the challenges faced by missions during the war, and how they responded to them. While the tale is deeply disturbing, it is simultaneously inspiring in that it seeks to overcome moral condemnation of the killers not only with understanding of their motivations, but by offering a message of reconciliation which all those concerned with a remaking of Zimbabwe will be eager to endorse, even if they do not share the author's Pentecostal faith in Christian redemption.

One of the book's endorsements refers to the text, correctly, as "by turns memoir, biography, crime investigation and political history". Engagingly written, it is not an academic text. …

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