Language of Art
Spirituality of Abandonment
by Adam Boulter
I must confess to having been deeply nervous as we walked towards the airport official in Harare, our two-year old child's hand clenched in mine. We stood in front of the desk, and the official looked up, burst into a huge grin and announced 'Welcome to Zimbabwe'! That first surprise encounter heralded the friendly welcome we were to receive during the whole of our trip to Zimbabwe.
It was late spring 2010 and my family and I were visiting the Church in Manicaland. Situated in the high hill country to the east of Zimbabwe, Manicaland is stunningly beautiful. In fact a landscape painter's paradise, with clear strong light, deep colours and a spirituality which is almost tangible, both in the place and the people.
We travelled around Manicaland with Bishop Julius, in whose care this complicated diocese lies. It's complexity exists in the fact that there is a rival bishop in place, one who is supported financially by President Mugabe. He instructs the police to lock the church buildings and use violent means against those who try to worship in them. Amazingly, in spite of this dreadful situation, we found the Church there in good heart.
During our visit the official diocese won its case against the renegade Bishop in the High Court, but an appeal was immediately lodged which led to massive complications. The renegade bishop's party spread misinformation, claiming that they had won the case. As a result we were continually meeting members of the congregations who were confused and anxious. The situation on the ground is extremely difficult and dangerous for the congregations, and all were delighted and relieved to learn that they are not forgotten in the UK.
In the main the country appears peaceful, but there are many suggestions of stories of violence that lie hidden below the surface. The restrictions on travel, the press, and open discussion of the regime seem only to apply to the rural masses. We found dissenting voices among the middle classes, but only guarded comments in the countryside, hinting at dissatisfaction but never openly critical. It was quite clear that if you are poor then the police can force you to toe the official line, but if you have money or power you can speak more freely.
The atmosphere socially was probably the most surprising, the people we met were very positive yet realistic. They focussed on getting on with worshipping God and looking after each other. There was little bitterness towards the police, or the authorities, which persecute the Churches. Rather there is an inspiring joy in worship, and massive generosity from people who had almost nothing. The collection plates might have had little money in them but they always had food, sacks of grain, goats, chickens, and often their only dollar. They do not only give 10% of their income they give everything they can. It was humbling to be physically and spiritually fed so well by people who have so little. Everywhere you travel in Zimbabwe there is what looks like scrubland. But this land is actually made up of abandoned farms that are freshly over-grown with bushes and small trees. The land is peppered with older trees that would have provided vital shade to farm workers. These derelict farms, each with their own story to tell, had an eerie quality and many of my paintings convey that atmosphere. The land in the mountains is lush and fertile and the profusion of plants in so short a time serves as a humbling reminder of the fragility of civilisation. As we walked through over-grown farms with wild animals roaming through them, it was impossible not to be aware how precarious humanity's place is at the top of the food chain. How easily darkness can overwhelm us: how vital it is for us all to work for a sustainable and peaceful future. All other options risk survival of civilisation and even humanity.
Over all it was a wonderfully inspiring trip to a glorious country of friendly, able people, who have gone through a very difficult ten years. Hopefully now it is emerging out of the darkness, but the people of Zimbabwe need our daily prayers and our support.
Adam Boulter is an artist and an anglican priest. He currently lives and works in Battersea London, his work can be seen at: www.adamboulter.co.uk