Monday 3 August 2009

Today I leave for just over a week in Zimbabwe. On the phone last night my daughter asked me why I am going there again. Another friend asked me if I ever go anywhere normal. How rude of both of them!

A bit of history might be useful, starting with the recent political and economic situation and following on with the story of the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe in the last decade. Then the reason for my visit will make more sense. I will be brief and run the risk of giving an incomplete and subjective survey.

When Robert Mugabe became President of the new Republic of Zimbabwe in 1979 he was a hero. Even Ian Smith, the deposed white Prime Minister of Rhodesia, commented positively on the early days of Mugabe’s rule. As the decades went by, people became frustrated with the lack of progress in some areas of economic life and Mugabe resorted to a disastrous redistribution of land from white farmers to black indigenous ‘war veterans’. The violence and injustice of the methods used (even if the need for the redistribution was acknowledged) turned the world against Mugabe, who then became increasingly extreme in his opposition to the West that was now isolating him politically and economically. Apart from genocidal slaughter of the Ndebele, corrupt fiddling of elections, disastrous economic policies and a victim complex that allowed everybody in Zimbabwe to suffer other than himself and his cronies, he reduced his once thriving country to a ruin. Last year, having stolen the election, he oversaw starvation, cholera, rampant inflation (they stopped counting at 231,000,000%) and almost total unemployment.

Lozane 017The world watched in disgust as this breadbasket of Africa became a basket case. When I was here two years ago inflation was a mere 10,000% and we thought it couldn’t get worse. There were power cuts that went on for days, water stopped being pumped, schools couldn’t function and the economy packed up. Then Mugabe reluctantly acceded to a Unity Government, bringing in the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, as Prime Minister. This was a risky move and invited the suspicion of a worried ZanuPF elite and the charge of treachery from elements of the MDC. Yet this single move is probably responsible for the turn-around in Zimbabwe’s fortunes that is now evident.

The Zim Dollar is dead. Now the main currency is the US Dollar, but other currencies are also legitimate (Sterling, the South African Rand, the Euro). Allowances being paid to workers (instead of salaries) have allowed work to resume. Supermarkets are full of produce, transport is working again, life has re-started for many people. Yes, there are still massive health problems and serious questions about management of the economy; the rule of law has yet to be re-established and justice restored; the life expectancy of this HIV/Aids-devastated country is still in the mid-30s for both men and women; many ordinary people do not find it easy to get hold of US Dollars and food programmes are still needed. But the schools are open again, teachers are teaching, factories are beginning to open again and trade is resuming.

Within that politico-economic context the Anglican Church had a particular role to play. Opposition to Mugabe’s cruelties and insane economic policies was led by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, until he was compromised by the CIO (secret police). The Anglican Church had been rendered impotent by its own internal scandals – principally the election of Nolbert Kunonga as Bishop of Harare in (I think) 2002. Kunonga was a Mugabe henchman who was rewarded for his loyalty with a formerly white-owned farm. Kunonga was a disaster of epic proportions who regarded the Church (and its assets) as his personal property and managed to prevent the Anglican Church offering a coherent opposition voice to Mugabe. It was only in 2007 that Kunonga (and the newly-elected Bishop of Manicaland, Elson Jakazi) made a wrong move, was excommunicated from the Province of Central Africa and regarded as persona non grata by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion.

The Church is now re-building its effectiveness across the country, but it is far from out of the woods. Despite numerous court rulings, Kunonga still holds onto the assets of the Diocese of Harare and (although it looks as if this might be changing) is backed by the police.

So, why am I bothered? The Diocese of Southwark is divided into three Episcopal Areas: Kingston, Woolwich and Croydon. Each Episcopal Area is linked with one of the five dioceses in Zimbabwe (Harare being linked with Rochester in England and Masvingo with Southwark Cathedral). When I became Bishop of Croydon in 2003 I walked straight into the link with the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe and its bishop, Ishmael Mukuwanda. I visited Gweru with my wife in 2004, then took a group of 20 for a two-week visit in 2007 – a visit that was fraught with difficulties including constant harassment from the secret police and misrepresentation in the Zimbabwean media (and, subsequently, across the world via the Internet).

Zimbabwe mapThe Croydon-Zimbabwe Link Team does fantastic work partnering parishes in my Episcopal Area with parishes in Central Zimbabwe, raising funds for very practical projects in Central Zimbabwe aimed at securing long-term growth and financial self-sufficiency for the diocese. We pray for our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe daily and weekly in our churches and we know that we are prayed for, too. This is a relationship that has grown through testing times – one that has mutual benefits and is carefully trying to avoid being characterised as a donor-receiver relationship.

I am going out to Zimbabwe from 3-11 August to visit the bishop (who is now a very good friend), to catch up on projects and people, to see for myself what is happening in the country, to do whatever I am asked to do while I am there and to discuss future direction and priorities. Maybe the impressions gained during hard times will now be revised – or maybe not. But, at least I will see for myself and not have to rely on third-hand news reports.

I am not sure whether or not I will be able to blog from there or not. I am not sure about broadband internet availability. So, it is entirely possible that I will be publishing a large number of posts in one go when I return. We will see.