This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show:

You know what it's like when you keep telling people some story about when you were younger, but after a while you begin to wonder if it every really happened? I have to admit that as I get older this does happen a bit.

One of my abiding memories of secondary school – a big comprehensive in Liverpool – was an English teacher called Mr Burrows passing a school exercise book around the class one day when I was about fourteen or fifteen. We just glanced at it, flipped the pages and passed it on. Old Mr Burrows kept telling us to keep scribbling, keep writing things down, keep doodling, keep being creative. I think we were just bored teenagers.

The reason it has stuck in my memory is that the book he passed round had belonged to John Lennon and was full of his scribblings. Mr Burrows had taught him English.

Now, I think I started to doubt whether this ever happened simply because nobody really believed me. But, then I read an epic biography of John Lennon and there it was in black and white. All true.

Of course, now I wish I'd paid more attention. Or, at least, nicked the book. But, Mr Burrows' point was well made and I never forgot it. Being creative is something some of us have to practise – it sort of doesn't come naturally.

And yet, we are born to be creative. This is partly what is meant way back in the book of Genesis in the Bible when, in that great poetic account of what made human beings be human, it says that we are “made in the image of God” – who can't help creating and to loving what is created.

This actually lies at the heart of a Christian response to things like the disappearance of the Malaysian aircraft and the human tragedy of it all. Every person matters because they are made this way and loved infinitely for no other reason.

So, I am with John Lennon and Mr Burrows. Keep on doodling. We're made for it.


School signI had lunch today with the head teacher of a secondary school in Croydon. Among other things we were musing about how the debate about so-called ‘faith schools’ is being handled in the media. This was partly set off by an article in yesterday’s Guardian by Martin Wainwright about parental displeasure with a Portsmouth school’s decision to insist on a new school uniform for its students. The article, which seems to me to be entirely fair, begins as follows:

A comprehensive school has introduced a compulsory new uniform costing up to £97 a child, prompting fears that children from low-income households may be deterred from applying for a place.

Parents are protesting at a compulsory new uniform introduced by a comprehensive school which can cost £97 per child. The uniform for Oaklands Catholic school in Waterlooville, near Portsmouth, Hampshire, is available only from the school or one local retailer, giving parents no real opportunity to shop around. Government guidance on the issue is for schools to arrange a range of suppliers.

This is headed in the online version by:

Comprehensive defends new school uniform costing nearly £100.

The school is simply described in the article itself as a ‘comprehensive school’. However, the newspaper version had a different headline:

Parents angry over faith school’s compulsory £100 uniform.

Now, that tells a very different story. The nature of this school is actually irrelevant to the story being reported. The writer has done a good job at telling us the story, letting us hear the voices in the discussion and setting it in a wider financial, social and educational context. So, what was the agenda of the sub-editor who added that headline to the newspaper copy?

I will be writing more about so-called ‘faith schools’ in due course as this debate needs a new direction. For example, simply lumping Church of England schools in with Roman Catholic schools or Islamic academies (whatever view you take of their desirability) is just lazy, ignorant and misleading. They are different beasts and it is not good enough simply to stick them together under one convenient catch-all category as if the differences didn’t matter and the unique ethos of each was irrelevant.

In what other sphere of life would such treatment be deemed acceptable?

The Guardian might well have a ‘line’ to push on these matters, but we should at the very least be able to expect more care and accuracy with its headlines.

Friday 7 August 2009

Hilary Clinton announced in Pretoria today that the US will not be ending their sanctions against the leaders of Zimbabwe. I should hope not, too. Britain and the European Union maintain the same stance and it is to be hoped that this will continue until the rule of law is properly and fully re-established, elections are free and fair, there is an end to intimidation and violence and the political institutions have regained their integrity. Contrary to Zimbabwean propaganda, the sanctions do not inflict suffering on ordinary Zimbabweans or their economy; they stop Zanu PF leaders from travelling abroad, freeze their foreign-held assets and boycott arms sales. Imagine what could be done if the foreign assets (including Mugabe’s stashed millions) could be appropriated and spent on rebuilding the schools in Zimbabwe?

Well, having read in previous posts about renewed optimism in Zimbabwe, you might well wonder how this sits with the paragraph above. It is quite simple. Mugabe has been brought to the point where he could not govern and could not save the economy – hence, he had no option but to accept a Unity Government and the compromises that would come with it. The country is not out of the woods, but that does not and should not stop us from recognising the good that is now coming. The optimism is real, despite the realism about the long way still to go.

St Patrick's 001St Patrick's 006Today I saw real signs of progress and hope. Two years ago we stayed at St Patrick’s Mission, just outside Gweru, and asked questions about how little progress had been made on just about every project there: school, church, pigs, agriculture, clinic/hospital, water, etc. Nothing seemed to be happening. Yet, as I have been constantly told this week, 2007 and 2008 were lost years. The situation was so bad that almost nothing could be done anywhere about anything.

But, today I visited St Patrick’s again and found:

  • St Patrick's 011The new hospital walls are up to roof level and should be there by the end of August. Door and window frames are gradually going in.
  • The mortuary was being roofed while I watched. The fridges have already been ordered.
  • The clinic has just received a large order of equipment (syringes, gloves, sterile packs, sharps boxes, etc).
  • There are now 13 pigs and plans to get another ten sows for breeding (which, apparently, could give up to 70 piglets each year).
  • Chickens are being reared and I saw the runs being built above ground to protect them from snakes.
  • Plans are being made to site and install generators to allow electricity in different sectors of the site by order of priority.
  • St Patrick's 012Plans are now in hand to establish a new water tank to supply the lower part of this huge site: nurses houses, school dormitories and the hospital.
  • The agricultural gardens that were derelict are now fully planted and being carefully cultivated for sale and feeding the 700+ children at the school.
  • The grinding mill bought by the Croydon Episcopal Area is working and the ground maize is being sold locally at profit for the school and clinic.

St Patrick's 019The ambulance and the lorry are both now in full working order.

This is remarkable. Add to this the fact that this school stayed open when most other schools were shut for months on end and you see the achievement. The key to this has been leadership from the bishop (both visionary and practical – he used to be a mining engineer), the appointment of a very good young priest to oversee all the projects run by the diocese and a renewed sense of possibility now that money means something again and thought can be given to feeding animals and not just people.

This turn-around is very impressive. There is a huge amount to do and a long way to go. But it all now looks possible and achievable again. Today saw the first power cut in a week – which might sound rubbish to the rest of us, but is a cause of both surprise and celebration here in Gweru.

Tomorrow we leave at 6am to drive to Gokwe for the first day of a diocesan youth conference – with nearly 500 young people. I can’t wait for the singing and dancing. Given that a West Indian mate of mine says that if he wants a laugh, he watches a white man ‘dance’, I’ll just watch and take the pictures…

Thursday 6 August 2009

I have heard a great deal about St Mark’s, Lozane, but never seen it or been there. In 2003 we sent over by container a load of desks and benches to re-equip the primary school there and during a visit in 2007 a couple of our group stayed out there. But, this morning we set out on the rocky road to Lozane – about 80km from Gweru.

The road was tarmaced for about 15km and then reduced to a ragged single-track road before turning into a dirt-track for the last 20km. We passed hundreds of children by the sides of the road, mostly on their way to or from school. Unremarkable? Maybe. But less than a year ago this would have been a rare sight as teachers could not be paid and schools closed all over the country.

Lozane 005Lozane 004Lozane 001Lozane 002It is hard to explain the situation at St Mark’s. The church is cracked, decrepit and falling down. The school buildings are in a similar state and some cannot be used. The priest’s house (which he shares with his wife and four children) is decrepit and small with cracks down walls throughout. In England no one would be allowed anywhere near these buildings – especially not children – because of serious health and safety concerns. Yet this primary school has 302 children from a very poor rural area.

A number of years ago this school (and many others) were taken away from the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe – which had built and run them for decades – by the Government. A year or two ago the Government decided to hide its failure and give the schools back to the Church. However, before doing so, they got rid of all the school furniture, fittings, books and other goods. How’s that for investing in your country’s future? Despite the destruction, the Church took them back and has begun to start again with very few resources at a time of national disaster economically.

Lozane 010What is most remarkable is the commitment of the priest and the new head teacher – a young Roman Catholic. The priest, Robson, came here six years ago, has no means of transport, yet walks long distances every week (up to 15km) to attend to his parishioners. He has few resources and raises chickens and grows crops to feed his family. The head teacher described him as an ‘excellent evangelist’, so I asked what he meant by that. He said that he is there for his people, always keeps his word and his appointments, provides leadership and draws people to the church by his (very costly) faithfulness. Equally, the head teacher opted to lead this school after years of no one being willing to do it. He is an enthusiast, is practically-minded and visionary in building for the future.

Lozane 009The project at Lozane is to grow crops to feed the children properly at the school. They have already sunk a bore hole and now have access to clean water. Yet, as a visitor, I could not but help look at the buildings and see the urgent need for those to be demolished and rebuilt properly. I have no idea how these people stick at such unglamorous work in such difficult circumstances and at such cost to themselves and their families. Their faith in God is not fantasy, nor is it some emotional crutch to get them through life (as some atheist cynics would have it); rather, it is precisely what motivates them to give their lives in order that the lives of others might be improved both now and for the future.

It is deeply impressive and both challenging and humbling.