A letter with teeth

During the height of Moi's dictatorship in Kenya in 1998, Reverend Timothy Njoya used to carry a diaper bag to his sermons to get rid of the teargas that was thrown in the church by the police. 'When the police throw the canisters into the Church,' he said, 'I pick them up and

put them in my diaper bag. It absorbs the gas and so I continue with my sermon. The police outside are left wondering why we do not run out.’ Usually, clergy are not confrontational against an oppressive regime, but Njoya’s approach was different; ‘I am fighting Moi because he feels he owns the country.’
Our visibly divided Churches have used pen and paper to confront our oppressive regime. We have heard of the largely ineffectual Zimbabwe we [don’t] Want document produced by the three Church umbrella bodies in 2006. The document has been praised for trying to promote dialogue towards building a new Zimbabwe, but it has been strongly criticised for smoothening our crisis. It has a hospital emphasis on our problems, and generalises our challenges as can be done by a street analyst. ‘We need to develop a culture of tolerance for all’, and ‘there is need for a home-grown democratic constitution’ are loose statements directed to no one in particular let alone the creators of our crisis.
The document advances a calculated approach to despotic elements such as AIPPA and POSA – the ‘Contentious Laws.’ It narrates that these instruments have inhibited peaceful assembly but at the same time justify their existence by calling us to ‘note the context within which these pieces of legislation came about.’ The document further narrates other challenges such as corruption, which it says has been denounced both by the President and the Reserve Bank Governor, and international isolation resulting from ‘some nations deciding to impose sanctions on us without the authority of UN Security Council.’ This is Zanu (PF) campaign rally language. If you did not read the first page or the back cover, you would think right wing politicians wrote it. Or were the real authors right wing clergy?
On 5 April 2007, the Catholic Bishops Conference produced a pastoral letter, God Hears the Cries of the Oppressed, which sets out the political and economic facts in a way a lot of people have been afraid to say or hear. It tells us that we are in crises of governance, leadership, spirituality and morality. This dilutes the utopian idea that Mugabe and his team are the only able leaders we will ever get in Zimbabwe, and more so, the wishful proposals by war veterans and the Zanu (PF) Women’s League to make Mugabe the life president of Zimbabwe. The late vice-president Simon Muzenda made an infelicitous joke about the country’s leadership; ‘Kana mukabvisa vaMugabe, ini ndinozoita vice-president waani’ meaning to say that there is no other person capable of ruling Zimbabwe except Mugabe.
The letter reminds the ruling party that they can denounce Ian Smith as much as they like, but they are no different. It tells us that ‘despite the rhetoric of glorious socialist revolution brought about by the armed struggle, the colonial structures and institutions of pre-independence Zimbabwe continue to persist in society.’ Moreover, the ‘power and wealth of the tiny white Rhodesian elite was appropriated by an equally exclusive black elite, some of whom have governed the country for the past 27 years through political patronage.’
The recent letter shook the government. The president, who was educated and supported in the liberation war by the authors of the letter’s predecessors called an emergency politburo meeting where he got the chance to denounce the letter as ‘political nonsense’, a ‘sorry letter’ written by ‘politically misguided clergymen.’ This was the first impact! The letter was read in masses in Catholic churches and people smiled hesitantly at the naked truth and wondered how the Bishops had managed to explain in a few brief sentences the crises and its makers. On Fridays, ‘Prayers for Our Country’ have become very popular and it has been quite touching as people narrate the problems they are facing. In fact, the Prayer sessions have become platforms were people offload their problems.
There has been a further impact as what appear to be government agents telling the Catholic Church to desist from political issues. Yet political issues are intrinsically linked to economic, social and even legal issues. The way the Catholic Church denounced the cruelty of the Rhodesian Front and supported the liberation struggle is the same way it is denouncing authoritarianism and voicing the concerns and pain of people today. This pastoral letter has teeth. It certainly bites and has potential to continue doing so. We just hope we won’t be forced to carry diaper bags to our Friday prayers.

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