Beautiful Zimbabwe

livingston

Before 1965, Rhodesia was, for me, a pink land on a school atlas somewhere in Southern  Africa, but as a sixteen year old knowing little about very much, it all changed on the 11th of November of that year when Iain Smith the prime minister and leader of the ruling Rhodesian Front party declared Unilateral Independence (UDI) from the UK. This singular event stirred in me an interest in that nation and Southern Africa that has remained and grown over the years.

I was still at school at the time and didn’t know what UDI was, but I quickly understood that it was an attempt by the colonial whites who represented a mere 5% of the country to hold on to power indefinitely. I remember the front page story in the newspaper and I followed Harold Wilson’s hapless efforts on HMS Tiger. On my landlady’s TV I watched a news programme which bizarrely showed plans of the warship and the complicated allocation of rooms to avoid an embarrassing meeting of the two politicians, at night, in their pyjamas.  I also followed the role of sanctions to bring the Rhodesian Front to recognise universal suffrage and I was convinced then and now that had the UK government taken decisive military action at that point, then the whole history of the nation could have been so different.  The declaration could have been nipped in the bud and with the implementation of  universal suffrage, Zimbabwe could have become a shining beacon in a troubled continent. Sadly it was not to be, even a labour government, it seemed, albeit with a tiny majority, didn’t have the will or stomach to stand up to Iain Smith and his Rhodesian Front Party.  They were after all our “kith and kin” a blatantly racist phrase that was to haunt British relations with the continent for decades and, in my view, contribute in some way to the years of war, oppression, famine, terror and tyranny. To the mind of this sixteen year old, the situation was uncomplicated and clear cut – Britain had a moral duty to intervene and if that meant war planes and troops on the ground then so be it.

I think I got that moral certainty from my mother. She had a deep interest in the plight of the injustice in Africa. While travelling from The UK to Australia as a young girl leaning over the deck of the ocean liner docked in Cape Town she witnessed a drunk black man slip off the pier and struggle in the water. To her shock a crowd gathered and laughed at the pathetic flapping of the drowning man before a driver lept from his truck, dived in and saved the man. It left an indelible mark on her mind. Life was cheap if you were black.

Despite all the peace-making efforts, it seemed that both sides in the Rhodesian conflict were committed to war and convinced that this was the only way to achieve their ends. I read the fascinating biography of Abel Muzorewa and had great sympathy for his stance, but his compromise with the Smith regime was not tolerated and led to his demise. He just seemed to slip from the scene. At the same time I watched a TV documentary which took an inside look at the independence struggle and focused on Robert Mugabe and what was to become ZANU. It was a heartening story of loyalty between comrades and a genuine desire for freedom and their beloved Zimbabwe , then Rhodesia. It included a visit to the Zimbabwe ruins and songs around the camp fire. One which I recall at the time I can still remember:

Beautiful Zimbabwe/Beautiful Zimbabwe/Oh no, I’ll never forget/Beautiful Zimbabwe

 Long live comrade Mugabe/Long live comrade Mugabe/Oh No I’ll never forget/Long live comrade Mugabe

In 1968 with our young family, we visited close friends working in Zambia. It was astonishing trip. We visited Mosi-Oa-Tunya “The smoke that thunders” and saw the railway bridge across the ravine where the failed negotiations took place. We crossed the border on several occasions and were struck by the richness of Zimbabwe in contrast to Zambia’s relative poverty. On one occasion we visited a farm where the children in a white family had just come from acting as extras in a film. We were told that Richard Attenborough was making a film about Cecil Rhodes. It did seem strange to me at time. Later we realised the film was “Cry Freedom” and the story of Steve Biko.  Against this background it was easy to be caught up in the swelling optimism, the prospect of a new dawn for the whole continent. Unknown to us and most of the world, Mugabe, was at this time deploying the infamous fifth brigade, trained by North Korea, and carrying out systematics slaughter against their own people in Matebeland. The Gukurahundi genocide was happening not many miles away from where we sipped our cokes on the banks of the Zambezi.  The full scale of this horror was  inconveniently suppressed, downplayed and denied and not fully catalogued until The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace produced their report “Breaking the Silence”  in 1997.

Earlier this year David Coltart a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer published his own account of the past 50 years in Zimbabwe’s history – “The Struggle Continues – 50 years of Tyranny in Zambabwe” . It is a massive volume, over 600 pages long, with a confusing and baffling barrage of names and acronyms. But it is a riveting story.  As any good lawyer would, the details are catalogued with uncompromising accuracy and there is a transparency, openness and fairness in all that he says. His integrity shines through every page and his honest reporting of the radical changes that occurred in his own thinking as well as in his own faith is quite remarkable. His own story is woven between the events with just enough detail for you to know that it is real and true. Reaching the conclusion, it has been the most encouraging, uplifting and hopeful things I have read about Africa. Coltart takes his title from Frelimo’s cry “A vitória é certa” which was adopted by ZANU PF and epitomises the hope for Beautiful Zimbabwe. “In the pursuit of democracy there is never a final victory because democracy is a process not an event. Even countries that have had democratic institutions  for over a century, experience the same evolution and, on occasions, reversal of democracy. Zimbabwe, as a young emerging democracy, is no different. The struggle continues – yes, it does indeed.”

Crawford Mackenzie

The Fishing Net

guitarist

When I arrived in Aberdeen in the autumn of 1967, to begin my studies at the School of Architecture, the first thing I did with my student grant, after paying my dig money, was to buy a guitar. It was nylon string bottom of the range Tatra classic from Bruce Millers in George Street.  At the same time I became involved in a Friday night coffee bar run from the basement of the Salvation Army Citadel at the west end of Castle street. You entered through a small door on a side street, where the North Sea wind hurled its way up into town, and down a flight of stairs to a brightly painted room with a small stage and mic and a counter at the other end serving hot milky coffee, Coke and Fanta. The café was called “The fishing net” a reference to Jesus’s commission to Peter “I will make you a fisher of men”. It was decorated with paintings of fish, seaweed, brightly colourer nets and fishing tackle. During the evening a small folk trio or solo artist would play and sing and someone would speak with a message. It was run by a number of churches in the city with the aim of making connections with young folk on the streets on a Friday evening. , They were invited in, befriended and engaged in conversation.  I had only been going for a few weeks when one of the leaders asked me to play and sing on the following Friday. With foolish naivety, I accepted, completely oblivious to the fact that I had no material and had never sung, far less played guitar, in public before.  Hastily I scratched a couple of songs together, one which had a remarkable and not unconscious resemblance to the Kinks “Sunny afternoon” and the other to the Beatles “a day in a life” The third was a spiritual. I practised hard but as the day grew nearer became more and more aware of my foolishness. I remember the night very clearly, walking across to the stage with guitar over shoulder shaking like a leaf, thinking “I can’t do this” and praying “lord if you really want me to do this, let it be you who does it”. It is a prayer I have found myself praying each time I have been asked to sing, since. The noisy room was suddenly stilled and as I ham fistedly clunked my way through the songs I had this strange experience as if standing outside myself looking on as someone else took over, carrying the message to the hearers.

Once finished and with the waves of relief pouring over me I relaxed at a table and fell into a discussion with a slightly inebriated leather clad rocker. He wasn’t interested in the songs but wanted to argue about the existence of God.  I was helpless and could offer no good explanation or original thought.  We were soon joined by two others, one clutching a battered bible. Suddenly there was clarity and rational in the discussion and I sat back with dropped jaw listening to the discussion amazed at the command of our new friend. (the one doing the talking) He had understanding and ability to communicate the cosmic realities of creation and redemption and the wonder of the gospel in spell bounding clarity. It was only after he left that I learned that he was already well known in student and church groups, the president of the Christian Union in the University and later a significant figure in Reformed Christian circles both in Scotland and the USA, highly regarded for his teaching, writing and editorial work.  So it was a surprise,  that our lives should cross again some 45+years later, when we both joined with our families, in our new church setting. It was an added and unexpected delight to hear him preach. While some preachers become old and tired and tread well-worn predicable paths and others have spoken for a specific time and place, his preaching carried refreshing  timeless authority, vitality and relevance.   Now endowed with the richness of truth distilled slowly through the years it was presented with crystal clarity, much as it was, around the table, in the basement café, all these years ago.

Crawford mackenzie

To the ends of the earth

world 2

Tomorrow morning I will be joining the long queue, shuffling through the cattle pens, waiting for inspection before committing myself to the belly of a giant silver bird on a long haul flight across the sea.  When I have travelled before, it has been to the east to Europe, Israel, Nepal and China, or south to Zambia. This time I am flying across the mighty Atlantic to the western edge of the “New world”, to Peru.  It was an idea half conceived more than 40 years ago and inspired by a friend who on completion of his studies began his life’s work of translating the bible into indigenous languages of the Andes, principally into Quechua the ancient language of the Incas.  It, of course, begs the question “Why would you devote your life to translating a book into a relatively obscure language?” But to ask the question, itself, misses the point, or rather two:

The first is that the bible is not a book but contains all that we need to know about God, ourselves and the cosmos, the starting point for all other explorations. It is the “Word of God”. It communicates what God has to say about who he is and who we are. It is not, in one sense, easy to understand, but like a giant picture with extremely fuzzy edges, (read some of what is said in Genesis and in Revelations for example) when you focus on the centre: moving from all the people to one people, to one person, to one life of 30 years, and specifically, to three days at the centre of history, then its cosmic relevance is revealed.

The second is that, while it is bedded in the culture and language of the period, in which it was written, it transcends these. While it is rooted in real time in history, it speaks to all time. While it begins in the specific geography of the Mediterranean lands, its impact reaches across the globe. While it was inscribed in Hebrew and Greek, it is read and understood in thousands of languages. It is not difficult to see the significance for a Quechua speaker in the high Andes, being able to read the bible for the first time in his own language rather than in the language of the foreigner or possible oppressor, in the same way that native Gaelic speakers were able to do the same in the early ninety century in Scotland. The pragmatist would say “why bother? If you want to read the bible, learn English or Spanish or Latin or Greek”, but that of courses misses the point.  God speaks in words and pictures we can understand. God is speaking and he speaks to me, right into my situation, now, in my mother tongue.

But I have other reasons for travelling. My early fascination with the Incas made me scour the library for every book I could find on the subject and I poured over John Hemming’s “The Conquest of the Incas” I even had a strong feeling to travel and work in Peru and made pathetic attempts to learn Spanish, through a linguaphone course, which had to be donated to the library after a few months. Years later a young Peruvian man from the barrios in Lima came to stay in our home. He had volunteered a year of his life to help in the local church and community and it was not long before everyone, young, old and in between, took him to their hearts and thought the world of him. He brought and gave so much it would be hard to put into words what we learned from him. When he left he was sorely missed and he still is. As we parted at the airport on a grey Edinburgh day, I expressed the hope that sometime soon I would be able to come over and visit. Now several years later that hope is being fulfilled.

As I make my final preparations: thinking about the ancient Incas, their incredible story and anticipating seeing the amazing sites at Arequipa, Titicaca  Cuzco, Ayacucho and Machu Picchu, thinking about the look awaited reunion with my friend, meeting his family and church and seeing something of his life in Lima and thinking of the stories we will share, I can’t help feeling that the story which will eclipse them all will be the one about bringing Gods word to all peoples.

Crawford Mackenzie

An Enduring Memory

snow on the trees (2)

We arrived in Aberdeen in mid-November in the late fifties.  To children brought up on a tiny Scottish island with a tinier population, it was an experience to shake the senses. Save for a twice weekly ferry bringing already stale bread and margarine, an out of date “daily” newspaper bound into a weeks’ edition, a hit and miss wireless set and limited telephone lines, we were isolated from  the rest of the world.  Now we were in a city with thousands of people. There were cars and busses, street lights, TV’s with moving pictures, restaurants and shops of all kinds stacked with toys and sweets that made our eyes jump from their sockets.  There was the constant noise of the trains in the nearby marshalling yard and the hum of traffic and people walking and cycling, moving to and from work. Amongst it all was an enduring memory: the Christmas Eve watch night service.

It was magical experience. Being allowed up so late was exciting in itself. Our normal journey to church would be the mile and half on foot, but on this occasion we were carried in a taxi and dropped off at the church with both doors swung open pouring golden light into the dark street and casting shadows from the great piles of snow at the side of the pavement. We slipped into the high polished pews squeezed close between the men in heavy winter coats and women in furs and hats and gazed in wonder at the twinkling lights in the enormous Christmas tree. As the service began, We were led in rousing carols by the minister directing, dancing and urging us on to greater strains from the bold and joyful  “O come all ye faithful” through the ballads of the shepherds and the wise men to the sweet and lyrical Scottish and Irish carols. From time to time a figure would appear from behind the tree to read from the timeless story and a soprano would sing in unaccompanied solo “In the bleak midwinter” with the startling our “God …heaven cannot hold thee” and then as it came close to the hour, the lights were switched off, one by one, and we were left in the soft light of the Christmas tree. Without words to look at we sang from memory: “Still the night”. It was when we came to repeating the final line of the second verse “Christ the Redeemer is here” it came to me in a way that is hard to describe or explain, but I knew it was true. He was.  Christ the Redeemer was here. To a young mind overwhelmed with the magic and beauty of it all and, as yet, ignorant of the twists and turns that life would so quickly throw our way, it was a moment when I truly believed. 50 plus years later, I still do. It was true then and it is true now.

We didn’t notice the less than subtle hand that reached out from behind the tree to press the Grundic tape recorder and allow the Christmas morning to be announced with the chimes from Big Ben. But it didn’t matter. We were singing our hearts out and, with our loudest voices, rising in crescendo on “Hark the herald …Glory to the new born King”

Crawford Mackenzie