I was born in Zimbabwe in 1982, back then we were all Catholics — because the President was Catholic. It was that time in the early eighties when we had just achieved our hard-won independence. Part of the new objective then was to get hold of the economy and to consolidate the country’s first black middle classes. If you like, to behave like the middle classes we saw on TV from the western world. Back then, the most influential person in Zimbabwe was Comrade Mugabe who wore Savile Row suits and spoke with a colonial English accent. The formerly colonised Zimbabweans claimed their freedom by taking on the cultural mores of the white people who had held power over them.
However, even back then, if something terrible where to happen in our lives –for example, if someone died – there would be a much-respected visit to the witch doctor to understand why the family had been afflicted. There was a wide belief in this way of thinking. We referred to this as our “customs” rather than a religious rite— which I found out it was, many years later in a London lecture room.
Those families from rural Zimbabwe seemed more steeped in the ways of what the western world would call paganism. The Shona religion focusing on the central figure of Mwari and the ancestors is intricately linked to the fate of those on earth — hence the visit to the witch doctor in troubled times. Those in the suburbs, the middle classes, aimed more for western religions partly because of education and also, I suspect, social mobility. For example, making sure your children went to the right schools meant shifting what you believe in.
Migrating to London in the mid-nighties made me claim very clearly that I was Catholic, because I was at a Catholic boys’ high school to augment my already Catholic missionary education at boarding school back home.
I remember my very first experience of a different kind of religious experience back home. Walking down the street in the townships and encountering a makeshift church that had been set up on the side of the road. I was amazed at the energy in the room upon entering. An actual energy that I could feel. The preacher stood up on the podium and spoke with great passion. This was rare to see in the early nineties. He seemed to lack the politeness and education of the Catholic priests who I had grown up with and a departure from the almost silent Shona rituals I knew of. Yet, the people in this church were spellbound by it. A transformative energy that changed them right in front of my eyes. Then the strangest part…the healing would begin. Those willing would line up and head to the podium. The pastor’s hands would be duly laid on foreheads, resulting in possessions, fits and screams. It was transfixing. Yes, money had to be given to the pastor. And he did make promises to everyone — his congregants will get the job they want, they will make more money and, more importantly, those who were fervent enough would enter into the kingdom of heaven presided by a God who witnessed their suffering.
In London, at my Catholic boys’ school, I became even more Catholic. A harbour for me during an intense adolescence. Not only had I migrated to a foreign and strange place, I also was coming to terms with my sexuality. The new environment felt grey, dark and far removed from what I knew. I had no sense of belonging. I longed to be back at my missionary boarding school where being Catholic was a style, the ceremony felt like theatre a sense of dignity and scholarship that was rooted in being a post-colonial. There was something profoundly enticing about the ritual and drama and beauty with these priests in their robes and the incense.
Several years later I was at university studying Theology at Kings College London. They say those who study Theology lose their faith. I came to know religion more deeply — I studied the philosophy of it, the psychology of it, the sociology of it and discrepancies in the bible and in doctrine. I also gained knowledge of other religions, particularly the eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Besides this, I came into myself – as one does at university –discovering and nurturing my interest in performance and writing. Taking full advantage of London with so much diversity, not just in religion but also in lifestyle. To paraphrase Ellen DeGeneres, yep I am gay!
Now I am seeking to find faith from a more personal point of view as opposed to allowing the forces around me to drive me towards one way of thinking. It’s interesting to look at religion now. How it has influenced my friends, mostly in South London where faith followers are increasing against a general declining trend in England and Wales — the majority churches have had a 100% increase in some cases*. I think a lot about what religion to follow. Being a gay man leaves me very few avenues that are whole heartedly open —the Rainbow Church being one.
On my recent visits back to Zimbabwe I have seen American inspired Pentecostal churches become popular. Not as rare a sight as it was twenty or so years ago. I see my cousins staying up all night at these churches. The Catholicism and Anglicanism which involved a very polite ritual of church every Sunday, the women dressed in uniforms — brown for Catholics and blue and white for the Anglicans — has now be replaced by typical western clothes in the manner of the American Baptists who “dress for church.” On TV, I see a lot of pastors. Making those assurances yet again — after all, people’s needs never change. In a way, religion has become ever more personal, perhaps reflecting the way of the world — an increase in the focus of how one self actualises (individual ego), how we deal with fractured families scattered around the world and, for some of us here in England, grappling with everything from racism to disenfranchisement.. Religion provides comfort. I think the poorer you are the more likely you will seek “the promised land” and the idea of the collective becomes redeeming.
In Zimbabwe people are no longer as tightly held in ritual and ceremony—those traditional rites are no longer practiced, they are time intensive and expensive. The economy has been broken down irrevocably. For example, the amount that might be involved in feeding and entertaining a group of mourners for days as in the old custom is no longer accessible. The family unit has become narrower, no one wants to be responsible for more than their nearest kin. God has become more personal.
In my university days, when partying and performance had taken over my focus, my studies began to unravel a briskly as my faith. On a cloudy day I turned up hungover and disinterested to one of my compulsory modules: African Religions only to find us studying “the Shona tribe and the religion of Mwari.” It was there I learnt about my culture and begun to understand the hundreds of years of history of my own people. This was hugely impactful. On reflection makes me appreciate the myriad histories and complexities of religion and human beings find spiritual ways to respond to the demands of the world. More importantly it made me see how the effects of colonisation will take generations to unravel.
*British Social Attitudes Survey (1983-2014)
tonderai munyevu is an actor, writer and director for theatre and screen. Born in Zimbabwe and raised in England.