New book sheds new light on Elim massacre

This is the second excerpt from The Axe and the Tree by Stephen Griffiths. 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. 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 6 Rushing Wind

Like giant beaks, the whirling picks pecked neat holes in the baked red soil. Clouds of dust eddied up beneath shuffling feet and punching steel tools. The evening sun was beginning to sink behind the mountain range to our west. A pool of shadow crept forward, stealthily swallowing up the valley in the twilight. The toiling, grunting workmen were powdered with bronze that clung to sweaty faces, thickening eyelashes, and clogging noses. Beneath their flailing arms, the ground began to open, splitting into sharp-edged trenches into which they jumped, steadily cutting deeper into the earth.

There was a sudden yell. The steady, rhythmic beat of the digging dissolved into a scuffling scramble as the trenches magically cleared of diggers. Circling cautiously along the edge, I looked down. One wall of neatly dug trench had suddenly crumbled, unleashing a shower of leathery white eggs the colour of dirty cream onto the feet of the worker. One of the eggs had split, and a tiny serpent writhed in the ruins of an underground nest. One brave soul jumped back down and crushed the head of the snake under his heel. He piled the eggs together at the edge of the trench and began to pack the nest with soil, steadily rebuilding the wall of the trench that was being dug for the foundation of a new building. The pile of wrinkled, rubbery eggs shifted and trembled with the slow coiling of the young snakes within.

As a young boy, it was a matter of amazement to me how a space in the bush would be cleared, lines would be marked out with string, and then, almost before I knew it, a classroom or a dormitory would rise from the ground. I tolerated boarding school, doing my duty, obeying the rules, surviving the strangeness. But I lived to go home for the holidays, to feel the dirt between my toes, back in a familiar integrated world, basking in the warmth and love of my parents and the endlessly interesting life at Katerere. Delighted to be included, I roamed the Mission station, gravely walking alongside my father as he oversaw the building work. The staff team of missionaries and national teachers was growing.  The achievements of the students meant an increasing demand for limited places. So the school had to expand.


In 1967, my father took over as the Principal of the tiny, new Emmanuel Secondary School in the north-eastern mission station at Katerere. He taught maths and Scripture, the ever-dependable Cath Picken took on English, and my mother undertook music and the extraordinary subject of French. Initially, the school only covered two years, preparing the students for the government Junior Certificate public exam.

With half the student body gone home for the Easter holidays,  the remainder of the students were so few they could all squeeze into two Land Rovers for an outing to the Nyangombe River on Easter Monday that year. Crashing and bouncing down a gravel road battered by torrential rains brought even the Land Rovers to a standstill. The students piled out, willing hands lugging stones to repair the road so that the journey could be completed. Enthusiastically, my father led the larking and the games on the sandy banks of the roiling, brown, rain-swollen river. In the Mission church the day before, he had preached on the resurrection of Christ. In response, four of the students had made a profession of faith. The care of mind, body, and spirit were all in view.

During the mid-year school holidays, in June 1967, seminars in Umtali had been led by two Brethren Church leaders, South African Denis Clark and Scot Campbell McAlpine, who did much to pioneer charismatic renewal in the English-speaking world with an emphasis on prayer, deepening relationship with Jesus, and simple church structures. My parents attended and my father then took Mufundisi Chiwara, his dear friend, mentor, and colleague, from Penhalonga to hear the two men speak.

Chiwara was encouraged by the teaching and also had a fresh experience of the Holy Spirit, and spoke in tongues. Travelling up to Katerere for a visit, Chiwara preached with fervour, and five students stayed behind to make professions of faith. The Headmaster of one of Elim’s Primary Schools had hidden the fact that he had two wives. His polygamy came to light at the same time. Polygamy was a reality that the nascent church in the area was wrestling with. It was not the fact that he had two wives as such but his hypocrisy that was seen as wrong. My father saw these all as part of the move of the Holy Spirit: a new depth of experience of God, a renewed warmth of relationship among believers, the conviction of wrongdoing, and people coming to saving faith for the first time.

Energetic, passionate, and full of life, my parents crammed their days with hard work, giving themselves unstintingly to the people of their adopted country. Their working week focused on the school: teaching, administrating, building, marking. Despite long hours at school each day, their time after hours and at weekends saw them busy working at Bhande and Chifambe churches, this time not among the young elite but with the rural poor.

Year by year they saw a trickle of Hwesa people come to faith. Two teenage boys walked from Bhande and asked to see my father because they wanted to become Christians. At Chifambe, some girls just eleven years old or so wanted to repent. This took considerable courage, because the area around Chifambe Village was strongly influenced by the mhondoro spirit medium Diki Rukadza who was implacably opposed to Elim Mission and all its activities. A few weeks after their conversion they were full of questions after the Sunday service. Of particular concern was what they as Christians were free to eat in their village. “It seems they mean to be real,” wrote my mother.[i]

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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