Hildegarde The Arena
HE is the embodiment of Zimbabwe’s spiritual, social, cultural and political journey, tying together colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe since through his works. He has also been a voice of reason during these eras, making tremendous contributions to the Zimbabwe, that is and the Zimbabwean people dream of. Beyond the oceans, he has been Zimbabwe’s unofficial ambassador – taking the Zimbabwean narrative, thought pattern and even its politics. But he has never beat his own drum, although he is one of the personalities behind the introduction of Shona hymns and “traditional” musical instruments such as the cowhide drum, mbira and rattles in the Catholic Church.
Catholic music in Shona would not be where it is today, and when he talks about that journey, you can see the passion through his long pauses, a tear or two in his eyes and the wry smile.
The narrative on Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence would also be incomplete without the mention of the role he played – before and after: education system, design of the national flag, the national anthem, the National Dance Company and others. He played an important role.
We have all interfaced with him directly and indirectly, without realising it. The story of Zimbabwe’s political detainees has been told so many times, but intentionally or unknowingly, his name and that of his colleagues in the church have paled into insignificance.
We have also heard about how in 1975, President Mugabe and national hero Cde Edgar Tekere crossed into Mozambique, but most of these narratives are disjointed because they do not recognise that such operations required trustworthy and committed people to execute them, and Roman Catholic priest Fr Emmanuel F. Ribeiro (79) and his colleagues in the church was one such personality.
This is why the celebration of his Golden Jubilee as a priest on December 13 at St Peter’s Kubatana in Harare’s Highfield suburb was a semi-State occasion. That is also why Commander Zimbabwe Defence Forces General Constantine Guveya Chiwenga was among the many dignitaries that attended the celebration mass.
In his address, Gen Chiwenga put the Zimbabwean story into proper context, showing the role that Fr Ribeiro and the church in general played in the fight against settler colonialism. Thus the church and State honoured a man whose contributions will leave a lasting impression on the nation.
This writer has known the Chivhu-born Fr Ribeiro through his musical compositions, his Shona novels “Muchadura”, “Tonderai” and “Ndakaitei”. He was for three years my spiritual mentor while we were studying at Indiana University, Bloomington campus in the Unites States.
On the eve of the celebration mass for his 50 years service in the church, the writer had a wide-ranging interview with Fr Ribeiro and the first question was who Fr Ribeiro is, to which he responded philosophically: “This will produce a five-volume book, but the simplest answer is that I don’t know. Today, you’re here, but before that you were somewhere else. You speak to this one and that one. Sometimes you say or do things whose repercussions you don’t know of.
“When you think you’re done, you won’t know that what you said or did implicated or affected many people. Again you’re looking at consequences. What you did yesterday is not what you’ll do today because the future is important. You can’t repeat yesterday. It’s gone. All you can say in terms of yesterday is that you wish you could have done this or changed that, but that’s wishful thinking. What influenced you yesterday will not repeat itself the same way.”
What influenced him to become a priest and some of his memorable moments? Fr Ribeiro, who was trained at Chishawasha Mission from 1952 and was ordained on December 13, 1964, said: “It’s like you’re in a house with builders. The conversation will be around the building profession. The same when you’re around soccer players. Eventually, you’re influenced to want to play football.
“But, sometimes you might even take a negative approach, but people surrounding you would have influenced even that. Be that as it may, every situation has its own challenges and good points. Sometimes, you might be attracted by the problems.”
After his ordination in 1964, Fr Ribeiro worked in Mhondoro, Highfield in Harare and from 1968 to 1983, he was a Prison Chaplain for Harare Central Prison, then half the country and the whole country. It was during this period that Fr Ribeiro met the majority of Zimbabwe’s nationalists including President Mugabe. This was a difficult period where he encountered issues he had never received practical training on.
Said Fr Ribeiro: “When you’re a chaplain, you’re not there to convert anyone. Your duty is to care for the spiritual and social needs of every inmate regardless of their standing. All of them have needs – personal and family needs – so, when you are chaplain, you serve them ALL. And, every inmate is extremely important.”
He recounted one incident when the Rhodesian forces sent truckloads of political detainees from Gokwe: men, women, children and the elderly. It was a trying time for him because as chaplain, he had to ensure that their basic needs were met.
He also said the folly of the settler colonial regime was to think that by locking away people as political prisoners, they were dealing with the problem.
“What they did not realise was that they were in actual fact creating more problems because the conditions were very harsh. They did not realise that they were also creating ‘terrorists’ in these people, the very terrorists they were fighting. Oh, God forbid! … That’s why I left the prison system because it has never reformed anybody.”
He pointed out that these inhuman detentions were eventually the model used when the Rhodesians started protected villages or keeps.
I asked Fr Ribeiro: “You have seen so much, dealt with so many people, there are challenges, how should people deal with them?”
After a long pause, he answered, “This is where minds meet. If we lock up people, does it change them?”
He lamented the seeming lack of identity and allegiance to Zimbabwe and everything therein saying: “We don’t have a sense of value where we say, this is my country and I am prepared to die for it. We need to define and affirm that this (Zimbabwe) is my country and I will die for it.
“I’ve to protect her inherent assets because all that is in me is Zimbabwe, everything is mine: Life, Land and Liberty. There is a sacred covenant with my God, soaked and sealed in the blood of its gallant sons and daughters. This is why Zimbabwe is a nation among a community of nations today.”
Fr Ribeiro also spoke about those who say that they don’t like President Mugabe saying: “The issue is not about you disliking him, but that you never reject your own mother. She is your mother even when she is in hospital. She doesn’t cease to be a mother because she is old.”
After writing “Muchadura”, one of the most prominent Shona novels of the 20th century, Fr Ribeiro said his writing career never stopped: “I am now writing something different – composing music. ‘Ngoma ingadai ichirira muchechi here? Ko hosho?’”, he asked.
According to ZimCatholic magazine, “To many people, Fr Ribeiro has been outstanding as a priest especially in the area of church music where he is credited with composing the first Shona hymns in the late 50’s. He has composed many popular hymns to an extent he has lost count, although conservative figures put his lot at 30.
His first song, “Gamuchirai Mambo mupiro uyu” came in 1961 and continues to be sung today. His other popular compositions include “Alleluia munyika dzose”, “Tauya nezvipo zvemupiro”, “Mambo Mwari wamasimba”, “Hwayana yaMwari”, Mwari Ngaarumbidzwe” amongst others.
ZimCatholic also says Fr Ribeiro expressed gratitude to the Archdiocese leadership who saw it worthy to celebrate his Golden Jubilee through music which is an appreciation of his works. He challenged the Catholic University of Zimbabwe and Seminaries to have a department of music to help improve the quality of our music and the singing.
After 50 years of service to the church and nation, one would think that he will announce his retirement. It was folly to ask such a question considering the litany of programmes he said he was working on.