Please change my cell!

Zimbabwe is a complex mosaic of thousands of small events each day. Together they make up the whole. What the whole looks like is different to each of us and trying, like this, in a weekly letter to describe events and the whole for others, is not easy.

Take for example the arrest of 7 pastors and others in Kadoma - a small town in central Zimbabwe. They were holding a meeting of the Christian Alliance attended by about 1000 people with the intention of forming a local branch of the Alliance. They had notified the Police as required under the Public Order and Security Act and several policemen were actually sitting in the hall.

At lunchtime a group of armed riot police arrived and the leaders of the meeting were taken into custody. The Christian Alliance comprises some 1500 churches so this was by no means an insignificant event. In fact it marks the first admission by the State that it is concerned about the activities of this grouping. It is the opening shot in what is going to be a drawn out struggle between the Church and the State over the way we are being governed.

One incident stands out for me. Pius Wakatama, a good friend for many years and one of Zimbabwe’s foremost thinkers and intellectuals as well as a writer, is one of the Christian leaders arrested. He was separated from the majority and taken to the central police station where he found himself locked up with 30 others in a cell designed for four. Standing room only. My wife was locked up under similar circumstances last year - she was with 23 others in a cell and said they could not all lie down at night at one time.

Pius led the entire cell population in prayers and in singing well-known hymns and after 24 hours in the cell, he asked to be moved to another cell. 'Why?' The police asked, 'All those in my present cell have become Christians and now support the Alliance. I need a new congregation to work with!' Pius responded. This time the Mugabe regime better sit up and take note, they are now dealing with a new type of dissident!

This past week we also remembered the two MDC staff workers who were burnt to death in the 2000 parliamentary campaign. I remember both young people well - Tichaona Chiminya and Talent Mabika. They were driving down a road in the Buhera district when they came to a roadblock. While stationary, their vehicle was set on fire using petrol and both young people were killed, the girl surviving long enough to identify her assailants at a nearby mission hospital where she was taken after the attack. She died soon after. The Central Intelligence Officer who led that attack was a man called Mwale and he has not only been protected for the past 7 years by the Mugabe regime - he was actually promoted and has been used in several other incidents. The High Court has examined the evidence on this case and called for the matter to be prosecuted - without effect or influence.

Both these incidents reflect two things - the willingness of this regime to use whatever force is required to protect its hold on power and its willingness to violate all the accepted norms of judicial standards and ethics. It also reflects the courage of ordinary people here - willing to give up their freedom and security and even their lives to defend democracy and good governance.

I met with a group of young activists who are leading the struggle against the regime recently. All well educated - some with university degrees, living on a pittance and working long and dangerous hours with the ever-present threat of a knock on the door followed by detention and perhaps a beating.

'Why do you do it?' I asked, they responded, 'We are doing community service.'

These are the building blocks of a new Zimbabwe. Principled, dedicated service for the country and its people above self. Pius could so easily have become a beneficiary of the Zanu PF patronage system. All he had to do was bow to the Zanu leadership and cow tow or remain silent and neutral - like so many have done. I can think of several of my old colleagues and friends who have done just that - sold their souls and the country down the Zanu PF toilet.

He is retired, has no money, large family responsibilities and a wonderful, long suffering wife, Winnie. He has suffered loss in the family and struggles to meet his own and his families needs. But he has never contemplated even once, conceding space to the regime here. He has retained his integrity and his commitment to principle. He was a thorn in the side of the old Smith regime, now he fights on against the very leadership he once supported because he feels they have abandoned their principles and failed their people.

I sat in a small house in one of the townships the other night. We were discussing the way forward with local leadership. An outstanding woman led the meeting - I looked around that room at the 50 or so people crowded into the area. All poor, no 'fat cats' here. Some had walked 10 kilometers to get here and would have to walk home at the end - and then face a 6-kilometer walk to work in the morning because they could not afford bus fare.

We opened in prayer, closed in prayer and sang some hymns as well as some songs about the regime and its leaders. Always much laughter and many jokes. Where would I rather be? This is where real life is found, not in the security and luxury of some developed country where these battles were fought a century ago and where people now live bored and corpulent, using up the spiritual capital that was created by earlier generations.

I now know what a well known Russian dissident was saying when he stated at a conference attended by thousands in Switzerland that he sometimes longed to be back in his prison cell in the Gulag where God was very real to him and he was forced, every day, to confront the fundamental realities of life itself.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 28th January 2007