It has been good to spend part of this Advent in Zimbabwe. It is the rainy season, though the rains have only just started and are not particularly prolific – they normally start in October. Despite some rain, there is also a lot of hot sun. In many ways Zimbabwe offers an impression of colour and life, but there are also many indications of its difficult circumstances. Small stalls, often an upturned crate or box, with not much more than a handful of fruit or vegetables for sale are common. Aside from that, there are no chain stores here, but plenty of buying and selling as the informal economy attempts to help people to survive. Travel seems to be heading for improvement with lots of work on the roads, though currently causing the inevitable delays, which are increased by the abundance of police checkpoints.
Zimbabwe strikes me as a country of faith with lots of churches and Sundays see large numbers of people, often in uniforms in the women’s case, and not infrequently wearing robes of one sort of another, making their way to the wide variety of churches on offer. A number of these churches simply meet in open spaces in the countryside.
We visited a number of schools. Lots of good work is being done, but often against the odds. Education is not free in Zimbabwe, but the churches try to offer it at an affordable price. However, as a result, some have only broken-down furniture and a few books. We visited one such school, set in the countryside, serving local villages and farms. The teachers are clearly doing their best and have even voluntarily started offering secondary education to a few youngsters who otherwise would not have that opportunity – but facilities are very limited. Another school struggles to keep good quality teachers as many of its parents default on the fees of $US30 (£20) a term. This means that the school cannot pay teachers’ incentives as other establishments do. Even the best of church schools, like the boarding school we visited that always tops the results table for the three Presbyterian secondary schools struggles with the lack of facilities, and cannot offer science to ‘A’ level because there are no labs.
I preached on the two Sundays that I was in Zimbabwe. On my first (the second Sunday in Advent) I first went to St. Andrew’s Uniting Presbyterian Church, Bulawayo. There the service is in English and the congregation almost equally split between black and white. From St. Andrew’s I went on to Njube Uniting Presbyterian Church which was packed for a united service with lots of lively music.
On my second Sunday I preached at Kuwadzana Uniting Presbyterian Church, my third visit to that congregation. Kuwadzana is a high density township on the outskirts of Harare. My sermons are not often applauded but it was good to be affirmed in that way and to join in worship in a church where I recognised a good number of people. The lively service included a good deal of music and, as we left in the typical Zimbabwean style of everyone shaking hands in a chain so that you end up shaking hands with everyone, I was particularly struck by the number of young people.
After the service I met with the leadership of the church and had the opportunity to address them on some of the challenges of Advent. We closed our time by singing ‘God be with you till we meet again’ – in Shona!