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REVIEW — Missionary Martyrs of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, 1976-1988

Missionary Martyrs of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, 1976-1988,  by Ted Rogers, SJ Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-620-77626-4; xiv + 215 pages

Conceptualised as an account of thirty Catholic missionaries who were brutally killed in Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) between 1976 and 1988, Fr Ted Rogers’ Missionary Martyrs turns out to be considerably autobiographical. The author lived in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe during the entire period that his account covers and actually knew a significant number of the “martyrs” he describes. The reader will find the opening chapter rather long and, to some extent, filled with historical details about events witnessed by the author, and might initially wonder what all that has to do with the “missionary martyrs”. Yet, the reader will quickly realise that even the use of the term “martyrs” in the book stretches the imagination, forcing one to make sense in faith of horrendous crimes committed in a period of an all-consuming political turmoil. That sense comes out only when the historical context is taken seriously.

The book could not have been timelier. The recent events that have seen former President Robert Mugabe reluctantly relinquish power expose us to the chequered and still highly contested history of Zimbabwe. Just who owns the country’s past? To the extent that claimants to the past arrogate to themselves the right to determine the future, war veterans, freedom fighters, and members of the Rhodesian security forces identify themselves with the honourable past. That remains the case until we are reminded that the past is dishonourable too. Missionary Martyrs succeeds in highlighting—albeit rudimentarily and somewhat repetitively—the honour and dishonour in in the history of Zimbabwe and in showing that the dishonour is yet to be accounted for, or claimed.

The period’s racial divide—or “apartheid of the mind” as the author calls it (p. 1)—blurs any attempt to read the history objectively. The country swarmed with otherness and, as Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) would have put it, everyone’s first finger was sore from pointing at others and calling them names. Even after reading  Rogers’ book, it remains hard to tell beyond mere conjecture who actually killed the “martyrs”. With openly practicing Christians like Mugabe leading the liberation forces and many of their rank-and-file products of missionary education, and with Ian Smith (1919-2007)—the Rhodesian premier at the helm of the security forces—proposing a “responsible Christian [meaning ‘white’] government” for another thousand years (p. 16), who gunned down largely impartial Christian missionaries that went about their business in the proverbial style of the rugged-trousered philanthropist? If Missionary Martyrs does not answer this question, it makes it glaring enough to stimulate curiosity.

That the martyred missionaries stood somewhere in the middle of the warring sides is a well-communicated message, however. The author makes the reader hear the missionaries speak and see them act with genuine love for humanity regardless of the colour of its skin. When the blurring effects of the time make it hard to distinguish love from hate, the book gently cautions that not everyone was sucked into the finger-pointing and name-calling spree. It is absolutely consoling to read from a letter of Sr Ferdinanda Ploner CPS (1925-77), one of the martyred missionaries, written from that political morass, telling her mother back in Europe: “Black and white people are suffering together” (p. 93). It is in this sense that the lives of the thirty men and women described in Missionary Martyrs bear witness to the power of Christian love to overcome hatred and to conquer all, including deep-rooted personal frailty.

By choosing Missionary Martyrs for title, the author causes the reader to reconsider the meaning martyrdom. Unlike the 2016 film Silence in which heroes and heroines of the faith opt for death rather than step on a manufactured image of Jesus, Missionary Martyrs simply chronicles ordinary lives of flesh-and-blood mortals who were deeply scared of the environment in which they operated. It may as well be that, given a chance, those who died might have preferred to escape. Yet, that they chose to stay on because of their faith-inspired love for the people they served remains beyond dispute. “The mission stations were facing a critical situation,” says the author, “but they did not want to let their flocks down” (p. 59). A few days before she was killed, Sr Magdala Lewandowski OP (1933-77) was heard insisting: “Sisters, we cannot desert the people at this point in time” (p. 80). When the superior of the Jesuits in Germany gave his missionaries freedom to leave or to stay, the men opted to stay (p. 101). “They stayed on”—a title of an earlier book about the Jesuit set of the “martyrs”—is the central and recurrent theme of Missionary Martyrs. Dare to love, the reader is eventually challenged, and surprise yourself with what you can do. SA.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.