We passed between the marked graves of Rhodes and his companions in the Matopos on the left and the unmarked graves of the many whose bodies were thrown into abandoned mine shafts at Bhalagwe during the Gukurahundi on the right, as we exited the national park. We were on our way to celebrate the centenary of the founding of St Joseph’s Mission in Semokwe, 150 km south of Bulawayo.

On arrival, we found soldiers and police everywhere for there was a special guest coming to celebrate with us; the President of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa and he was joined by the Vice President, Constantino Chiwenga, and several ministers. Helicopters and innumerable buses and cars descended on the remote rural mission in one of the driest parts of the country.

The mood was exuberant and the Parish Priest, Fr Innocent Ndlovu, who had invited the president, conducted the whole visit with gracious enthusiasm. The adults and children sang and danced with all their hearts and Fr Ndlovu urged them on with his own gestures conducting them from the altar.

It was a heartfelt celebration as people recalled how the mission had grown since the time Jesuit Fr Gerard Pfaehler arrived with his oxen and wagons from Empandeni Mission in 1922 to start a school. The foundation of the mission dates from his finally taking up residence the following year. The beginnings were hazardous with storms, droughts and locusts but he pressed on until he had an accident in 1926 and broke his pelvis. Others took over and gradually the mission thrived.

All this was remembered in the Mass of Thanksgiving where the principal celebrant was the Archbishop of Bulawayo, Alex Thomas. Then there were speeches from the vice President and finally the President. He commended all the work and expressed his desire to work with the Church and showed this by giving various gifts.

It was a happy occasion but this observer wondered at the reason for this elaborate and expensive visit to a remote mission. It is an election year but I would like to think there was more to it than politics. It was a courageous gesture to land in an area of the country still grieving from the unresolved pain inflicted during the troubles in the area in the first years after independence[1].

Could the President’s visit be a gesture tentatively indicating an unspoken desire to begin some process of healing? Nothing was said at the event at Semokwe but perhaps there was a hint of a desire to reach out that cannot yet be put into words.

20 March 2023

[1] The experience of the people is vividly described in Christopher Mlalazi’s novel, Running with Mother.

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