Balancing Christian behaviour and our cultural practices

Breastfeeding is best, our medical practitioners always tell us, but NOT in church, according to the white missionaries of old

Breastfeeding is best, our medical practitioners always tell us, but NOT in church, according to the white missionaries of old

Dr Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday

If the young English missionary who came to our village many years ago was to come back to our village today, he would praise the Lord because there are so many Christians now. We will look at each other and acknowledge how much we have departed from who we were, to become who we are today — a people struggling daily to balance cultural practices with new waves of Christianity.

The first English missionary who came to our village failed to handle the sight of women breastfeeding in church. He said bare breasts with suckling babies was abominable in the house of the Lord. He left and opted to preach among the already converted and civilised in town.

I first heard this story about the young missionary from my father. After all, my father was responsible for bringing the young zealous missionary to our village in 1948. At that time, my father was building the school he named Mufudzi Wanaka School. It was the first school in our area, built on a hill overlooking the scenic Save River Valley along the Hwedza Mountains.

The year was 1947, when my father graduated as a teacher from Kwenda Mission. He wanted to bring education and Christianity to his people. But this was an uphill battle, because ancestor libations and rituals dominated spiritual worship. My grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa, was at the forefront of resisting Christianity, even though her own father, Chief Kwenda, had allowed the Methodist missionaries to open Kwenda Mission, which still stands today, in Chikomba District. Mbuya said Christianity threatened our culture and the way we worshipped Mwari or God.

According to the story told by my mother, the young English missionary had arrived in Africa from England after the Second World War. He was based at Kwenda Mission and made outreach visits to remote new churches. He arrived at the grass thatched church accompanied by my father. People gathered to see a white man for the first time and also to listen to the sermon. Mbuya VaMandirowesa joined the congregation.

Among the congregation were a few men and mostly young women with babies. The women sat, listened to the sermon quietly and breast fed their babies. On the second or third day, the English missionary stopped preaching in the middle of a sermon. My father was the translator. He looked at the missionary and waited patiently for more divine words. Instead of preaching, the missionary pointed to the young mothers suckling their babies.

“There will be no naked breasts in the house of the Lord,” he declared. “This is primitive. David, tell them to stop breastfeeding and cover up or to take the children back home.” My father went around and explained the missionary’s orders to the women. The women were surprised. They looked to Mbuya for advice. Mbuya said nothing. Instead, she rose with some dignity and walked away from the gathering. One by one, the breastfeeding women followed her. Then the sermon continued, because the preacher was no longer distracted by the naked breasts.

The following Sunday, the church was almost empty, with only a few boys and girls. The missionary paced up and down looking at his watch. My father sent a messenger to the village reminding the women to hurry for the service. But word came back to say Mbuya VaMandirowesa had advised the women to stay behind until such time that children were no longer being breastfed in the village. Then the men stopped coming to church, too.

Deprived of a congregation, the missionary left our village in despair. After the missionary’s departure, my father ignored the bare breasts and kept on preaching the Word. I was born many years after this breast feeding incident that drove away the young English missionary. By the time I went to the Methodist boarding school at Kwenda Mission, I was determined not to be like Mbuya. I wanted to know more about Jesus and salvation.

After four years, I was a seriously born-again Christian. The missionaries said I was fit to be a leader and they made me the head girl of the boarding school.

As head girl, there was no time for jokes or laughter in my presence. My role was to lead by example. I led Bible studies in the morning, at lunchtime and before bed time. Those who went to school with me, would remember that I was a favourite student of Miss Hutchinson, the Methodist missionary from Sheffield, England.

At night, I moved around the dormitories with Miss Hutchinson’s torch checking for girls who were making noise. I wrote the names of the offending ones down. In the morning, I took the names to Miss Hutchinson and she gave me permission to punish the girls. I presided over the punishment by making sure the girls cut all the grass in the school yard.

I was also responsible for punishing the girls who showed unrestrained sexual type desires. At night, these girls jumped through the windows to meet their boyfriends in the bush just outside the school gate. When caught, the girls were sent home and could only be admitted to the school if they came back to ask for forgiveness accompanied by their parents.

Once they were readmitted to school, Miss Hutchinson advised that I should introduce them to Jesus. I gave them counselling on sin and forgiveness. To prove that they had repented, I used to ask them to sing “What a friend we have in Jesus” without looking at the hymn book.

I also monitored the way girls dressed at weekends when they were not in school uniform. I advised them not to show any flesh above the knee, no bare shoulders and nothing to suggest cleavage. I told them quite often that a good woman always covered herself up and kept her virginity only for her future husband. And that husband was going to be provided by God.

Because my English was so good, I was the official translator for Miss Hutchinson. At weekends, I accompanied Miss Hutchinson to the nearby villages to translate her sermons to village women. Our Methodist Mission was surrounded by many villages full of people who did not know about Jesus.

I recall one Sunday afternoon when we crossed the Rwoomba River to Nyamuramba village. We followed the narrow path winding through the tall grass with Miss Hutchinson leading the way. I followed right behind her in my Sunday girls’ Methodist uniform. Miss Hutchinson wore a long, plain blue skirt, a white long sleeved blouse buttoned up to her neck. A silver cross was pinned to the last button just below her chin. She had a white hat, flat cream sandals and white gloves. She shielded herself from the sun with a white umbrella.

I carried my Living Bible, a present from her. I followed Miss Hutchinson’s footsteps, placing my foot where hers had been. We always sang little hymns and choruses once we got past the school gate and entered the thick bushes leading to the river. I admired her and often told myself that when I finished high school, I would become a lady and dress just like her, though I would not want to remain single into old age like she had done.

I recall that one day, after we crossed the river, she stopped and turned to speak to me. With her blue eyes penetrating right into me, she addressed me by my English name and said, “One day, you must go back to your people to preach the Good News. I must encourage you to go deep into the calling and serve the Lord. I pray and exhort that you will never abandon that evangelistic conviction that your people need Jesus. Find your own true joy in Jesus and Jesus alone, so that your people may see Jesus in you.”

“Thank you, Miss Hutchinson.” I said and gave a little curtsy. In my not so fluent English, I told her that I had a grandmother who needed plenty of prayers so she could be saved from her sins. “My grandmother’s heart is like a stone,” I said, thinking of Mbuya VaMandirowesa, who was probably guzzling village beer from a gourd and pushing deep brown ground tobacco up her nostrils.

Many years later, I was in Gutu last weekend, visiting my aunt, Tete Winnie. She is the youngest child of Mbuya VaMandirowesa. Most of the elders from our village are dead now, including Mbuya herself, my father, my mother and many others who were alive when the English first missionary came to our village.

I am no longer as religious as I was in boarding school. In fact, I do not even try to be holy, despite my earlier preaching habits. But my aunt, Tete Winnie, has become a serious Apostolic Church follower of the Johane Masowe we Chishanu sect. She dresses in white all the time. Accompanied by members of her sect, they sing and pray every three hours beginning at 6am until 6pm the next day. There is a regular solemn gathering of people at her house. The people are always covered up in white. They sing softly and beautifully, repeating over and over again, “Halleluiah Hosanna” or “Mai Maria Emmanuel”.

Once when I stayed the night with her in Gutu, I could hear Tete and the widowed young lady who lives with her wake up at midnight, at 3am and at 6am to sing and pray. At 6am, she woke me up to say Mweya, meaning the Spirit, had asked me to join them in prayer. Before I could kneel next to the women, they said I should take off all jewellery, remove my pyjamas and wear a plain below knee-length dress, cover my hair and remove shoes.

Tete does not participate in any village ceremonies at all. She will not allow young women to breastfeed babies in public.

If the young English missionary who came to our village many years ago was to come back to our village today, he would praise the Lord because there are so many Christians now. We will look at each other and acknowledge how much we have departed from who we were, to become who we are today — a people struggling daily to balance cultural practices with new waves of Christianity.

 Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.

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  • Idiot

    ko kunyora bhuku chairo?

  • Tarwiraushe

    The story is not complete without mentioning your cousin ###who is in Australia. I wonder what ## thinks about mapositori? On a different note,why are you no longer as religious aunt? Why do you go to bed with your jewelry on? Munotya kubirwa here nevanhu vekumaruwa while you’re asleep? When are you going to write about encounters of rural folks with ghosts,i have heard so many stories about ghosts in Gutu where you were. I remember being scared of going outside late at night because i didn’t want to have an encounter with chipoko. Keep up the good work auntie.

  • jt

    which year Mungurau school was built?