Witnessing healing and reconciliation in Zimbabwe

In the summer of 2008 Kokayi, a 35-year-old Methodist pastor in western Zimbabwe, was sitting in his home when a group of men gathered outside his door and began chanting political slogans. When he stepped outside, a group of 20 young men accused him of supporting the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), the party opposing president Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party in the upcoming elections. Kokayi explained that, as a pastor, he was politically neutral and did not publicly support either party. The men ordered him to chant the political slogans of the Zanu-PF. He refused. They began to beat and threaten him, yet still he refused. They then dragged him to the town's slaughterhouse and beat him again.

As Kokayi began to crawl back to his home, people in the village turned their heads, closed their doors, and hurried past the wounded pastor — afraid that empathy would attract the attention of the Mugabe thugs. Halfway to his home, a second group of Mugabe men recognized Kokayi. One man picked up a rock and hit Kokayi's head over and over again. As Kokayi began to lose consciousness, he heard the man exclaim to his cheering companions, "I've killed him!"

It was after dark when a group of women quietly placed him in a wheelbarrow and took him to a nearby hospital. There he was kept hidden from the vigilantes until he recovered from his wounds. Months later, Kokayi returned home and found his house burned to the ground, his food stock and animals stolen, and his farm and garden torn up. His wife and children had fled to a nearby country.

This is a summary of the story that Kokayi told to a gathering of 85 Christian pastors representing more than 20 denominations, community leaders, heads of various non-governmental agencies, police, and government representatives. The National Healing and Reconciliation workshop sponsored by the Pastoral Care and Counseling Center in Mutare, Zimbabwe was held during the first week of November.

Mazvita Machinga, a Zimbabwe doctoral student at Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, Calif., had organized the gathering in direct response to the initiative by the newly formed "Unity" government (a tenuous partnership between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC) calling for healing and reconciliation.

The workshop was the first event of its kind in Zimbabwe that sought to build practical skills as well as design processes that individuals and communities could use for nurturing healing and reconciliation. My colleagues Frank Rogers, Andrew Dreitcer, and I, as founding members of Triptykos, were asked by Mazvita to help document and facilitate the workshop. Triptykos is a public action organization of the Center for Engaged Compassion at CST.

Zimbabwe, once a stable and prosperous country, has experienced economic collapse, due to the destructive policies of the Mugabe government. Beginning around 1999, and escalating during the election of 2008, villages across Zimbabwe suffered a rampage of organized violence and intimidation. Since the formation of a unity government in January, the violence has diminished, military "torture" camps have been dismantled, but communities continue to be traumatized. Victims are afraid to seek healing, perpetrators remain unpunished, and communities remain stuck in fear and alienation.

The first task of the four-day workshop was to encourage victims to tell their stories — this was a difficult request given that Mugabe and the Zanu-PF still control the military, and most victims still encounter their perpetrators within their communities and even within their own churches. For most victims at the workshop it was only when they met with other victims that they were willing to talk, and yet slowly, as the first day evolved, Kokayi and others felt emboldened to make their experience known.

At the end of Kokayi's story he was asked what happened to the men who beat him. "I see them every day — including the man who eagerly tried to kill me. I see him every day." He paused, then said, "I am a Christian pastor. I am supposed to forgive. But I am also filled with anger and bitterness. They have taken my humanity."

The shame, guilt, anger isn't limited to victims and perpetrators, as one pastor explained, "All of us are victims and all of us are perpetrators. Many of us saw our neighbors being harmed. We heard their cries for help, but we did nothing. The victims in our communities know we heard them and did nothing, and so we are also victims and also silent perpetrators of the violence that occurred."

How does healing happen for Kokayi and his community? How does reconciliation occur in a community that harbors victims, perpetrators, and so many silent witnesses to senseless violence? We gathered in Zimbabwe to find a way through these questions.

Next week: Part 2 — Healing victims and perpetrators in Zimbabwe.

Mark Yaconelli is the Co-Director of Triptykos and the author of "Wonder, Fear, and Longing: A Book of Prayers." Read about his experience in Zimbabwe at www.triptykos.com.

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