New book sheds new light on Elim massacre

The Elim Mission Massacre was one of the worst atrocities of the Zimbabwe liberation struggle. Steve Griffiths survived only because a chain of remarkable “coincidences” caused his father Peter to take the family to the UK just before the mission was attacked.

1969 Emmanuel Secondary School crop

His first-hand story, told in graphic and moving detail, examines and honours the many diverse lives that crossed to weave this rich tapestry. The Zimbabwean has been given exclusive permission to publish four excerpts from this exceptional story over the next two weeks.

Chapter 1: The Dream

Chinokanganwa idemo, chitsiga hachikanganwe.

(What forgets is the axe, the wood does not forget.)

Startled awake, I stare into the cone of mosquito netting over my head. I am disorientated. My heart thumps in my ears. The bright square of the curtained window helps me to regain my bearings in the darkness. I creep to the end of my bed and cautiously raise one corner of the curtain, absurdly careful not to move it too much and draw unwanted attention.

The huge African moon pours silver light over the familiar scene, so bright that one can read by it and even discern colours. Shadows are drawn razor sharp and jet black. Anything, anyone standing quietly in the shadows would be invisible. I stare out and then scoot back down under my sheet – all I need in the heat of the lowveld of north-eastern Rhodesia.

I have a secret nightmare. I confess it to no one, afraid that it might come true. One night I shall look out into the still moonlight and they will be there. Holding their weapons at half port, they march in a ragged skirmish line. My heart closes in fear and I cannot shout.

Suddenly we are out of the house, running desperately into the night. Bushes whip my face as I run. Roots and thorns tug at my legs, leaving bloody beaded stripes. I trip and fall, scraping my knees and making my hands raw. My father is alongside me, scooping me up and hissing at me to run again. We rush on, our fear growing as we hear the shouts of angry men behind us. The thudding of booted feet and the sound of bodies crashing through the brush come closer.

We turn a corner round an enormous rock and throw ourselves desperately up its side. We climb higher and higher and fling ourselves down on its flat top, spent. My father locks eyes with each of us in turn, warning us to silence with a fierce glance. I creep closer to the edge, almost paralysed with terror yet fascinated by the source of my fear.

The rock is pointed and I stare down as if from the bow of a ship riding the moon-silvered waves of elephant grass. Capped heads force their way through the grass and then, as they meet the rock, slide down each side of it and are lost in the dark ocean of the night behind us.

I awake, shivering in the sunlight streaming through the windows.

It was a dry, clear day, the sun ablaze in a vault of blue. An ancient one-tonne Ford truck rattled a dusty trail down an escarpment road winding through the Ruwangwe mountain range in eastern Rhodesia. As the driver and his wife peered through the windscreen they saw below them a broad plain spreading across towards Portuguese East Africa, dotted with kopjes,[i] hilly rocky outcrops. At the foot of the mountain range, the road petered out. Undeterred, husband and wife picked up heavy-bladed knives and began to cut their way through brush so thick that Native Commissioners patrolling the area a generation before had to dismount their horses and proceed on foot. Local Hwesa people appeared and helped them cut open a path through the undergrowth. They threaded their way among trees, inching their vehicle along until they came to a stop by a perennial stream flowing down from the mountains behind them: the Manjanja, or the “Stream of the Lion Spirit”. It was August 1951.

Cecil Brien, a tall, angular, austere man worked alongside Mary, his vivacious wife, to pitch a tent just a few metres from the river. It was to be their home for the following eighteen months. Together they built a mud hut to serve as their kitchen and dining room. Long-drop toilets were dug a little way from the camp. They cooked on an open fire and went to bed with the sunset.

These elemental conditions didn’t hold them back from their medical work. The truck bed was turned into a medical storeroom, extended with a framework of poles covered with a tarpaulin: a rudimentary dispensary. An ironing board was set up for their microscope: their laboratory. Cecil and Mary cleared a space under a spreading flat-topped mupfuti tree. Beneath the feathered red spring leaves they shared their skills and the Word of God with those who came seeking medical help.

Their first operation was a hernia repair performed in the mud hut on their kitchen table. Mary Brien, a specialist anaesthetist, dropped ether onto a Schimmelbusch inhaler and held it to her patient’s face. Surgeon Cecil Brien performed the operation while an assistant held a hurricane lamp and knocked away the insects attracted by the light. That first patient lived to tell the tale.

The rains came, sweeping across the dry, parched land, and the Manjanja turned from a stream to a raging torrent. No common rainy season, these were the heaviest downpours in living memory. Foodstuffs had been kept in a “food safe” submerged in the river, the only way to keep them a little fresh. But as the river rose, so their supplies were all swept away. Hurrying off to the Eastern Highlands town of Umtali to replenish their stock, the Briens returned to find “white ants” – termites – laying heavy red tunnels of clay over their stored clothes and surgical linen, busily eating their way into and destroying them.

It wasn’t only the climate or the insects that made those early days difficult. Speculating over possible motives for the newcomers to live as they did, many local people were deeply suspicious of the Briens. Many believed that they were carrying out reconnaissance in the area before engaging in a major cattle-rustling operation. As cattle were the main measure of wealth among the Hwesa, there was great concern, especially given the history of contact with the outside world.

Text from The Axe and the Tree by Stephen Griffiths. Text copyright © 2017 Stephen Griffiths. This edition copyright © 2017 Lion Hudson. Used with permission of Lion Hudson.

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