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Are donors, NGOs the new missionaries?


The first missionaries who were to eventually have great influence in the expansion of Christianity in Zimbabwe arrived with the 1890 Pioneer column.

They also went on to serve in some instances as chaplains to the military detachments that eventually suppressed the indigenous people’s rebellions in 1893 and 1896.

Academics of the history of the church in Zimbabwe have largely argued that the missionaries did this ostensibly to ensure the safety and security of their evangelical missions in the newly occupied colony.

In the aftermath of the wars, the missionaries sought to convert as many as possible to the Christian faith, and therein lies the complexity.

In order to garner numbers to their newly built rondavel church huts, the missionaries did not think they were doing anything particularly wrong.

They are credited by most historians with introducing formal education, advanced agricultural practices, vocational training such as sewing/carpentry as well as the introduction of Western medicinal treatment.

From then on, the missionaries never looked back and never once acknowledged the ambiguities of their role in the initial subjugation of the “natives”.

And to this day perhaps no one really holds them at fault let alone considers them out rightly complicit in the colonial project.

By the time the second liberation struggle commenced in earnest, the missionaries had managed to firmly entrench themselves as the most progressive component of the settler state through their much more sympathetic disposition toward the indigenous majority.

They had become the primary source of knowledge and via their international support networks, material support for the majority Africans .

If one fast forwards to contemporary Zimbabwe, we have within our midst a potential mimicry of the same attitudes of the missionary of yesteryear.

Or at least traits of the same.

Particularly so in the aftermath of the now universal WikiLeaks cables where one of America’s former ambassadors described what he viewed as the characteristics of Zimbabwe’s political leaders in the inclusive government. Indeed as argued elsewhere, one cannot take nihilistic issue with the former ambassador’s opinion as it is his right to have one.

That however does not stop us from expressing our own opinion on the same said subject matter.

Like the pioneer missionaries of old, Ambassador Christopher Dell gave a full report on the characteristics of the current crop of Zimbabwean leaders in so far as it related to his own as well as his country’s political preferences as to what should be done in order for his own country to act on behalf of, or at least in direct support of the majority here.

The good ambassador may not have intended it to appear so, but we do have a right to be informed by our own country’s historical experiences. And the story however does not end there.

The complex interactions of contemporary donors and non-governmental-organisations (NGOs) from the governance, economics, health or other social service frameworks with the Zimbabwean people has been laced with a particular missionary streak in a number of ways. These are both positive and negative.

Like the missionaries that set foot on Zimbabwean soil at the turn of the century, contemporary NGOs and donors (be they from the East or West or even from North Africa) have been of immense assistance to the citizens of this country.

They have expanded local knowledge of health issues, assisted greatly in the expansion of infrastructure and increased access to knowledge on issues concerning either business, social services or in issues related to good governance and democracy.

The motivation of this sort of assistance is in some instances found in the truth that it is actively asked for by the leaders of Zimbabwe.

In other instances the motivation is however because of an assumed superior knowledge production system in their country of origin that has greater experience in dealing with issues concerning development, government or democracy amongst other issues.

This process includes arm twisting various components of Zimbabwean society into accepting pre-determined development models and programmes that may not suit the political or economic context of the time (examples include Esap, newfound state capitalisms, privatisation of social services and predetermined constitutional reform frameworks).

The Chinese donors will seek to inculcate their vision of a state capitalist framework while at the same time benefiting immensely from whatever raw materials Zanu PF allows them to take out of the country.

The Americans on the other hand will seek to ensure they build friendships that not only lead to the acceptance of their view of the world but also the embracing of free-market policies that will probably never work to make Zimbabwe a self-sustaining society as is theirs.

All of this is done with the primary intention of making Zimbabweans essentially mimic their ways of existence, a strategy all too similar to the early missionaries in the then settler colony of Southern Rhodesia.

So as it is, donors and NGOs must also understand the historicity of their actions in Zimbabwe. Indeed their assistance is very much required in all facets of Zimbabwean social and economic life.

It however must not be viewed as an opportunity to seek the re-engineering of the Zimbabwean from making his or her own history and most certainly the assistance will be accepted without the “evangelising” pretext of the first missionaries.

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