By Ronnie Chisamba.
THE COLONIAL era was a dark and sombre phase for the beautiful but by then an untamed African continent.
Colonisation was borne out of the cupidity of certain greedy and power hungry individuals. In southern Africa the name Cecil John Rhodes would have unleashed fear during the late 19th century and early 20th century. In central Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) one Anglo-Catholic maverick missionary, Arthur Shearly Cripps, dared to challenge some of the fundamentals of the evil colonial system.
Unfortunately, little has been said about his immense contribution to the emancipation of the people of the southern African state.
Cripps was born in England on June 10, 1869.
The son of a solicitor, Cripps attended Trinity College where he studied history.
Intent on following his father’s footsteps, he attained a second class honours degree in1891 in his area of study.
Sources reveal that he then changed his mind to pursue a career in missionary work.
After being ordained Cripps then volunteered his services to the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel. In 1901 he travelled to Zimbabwe.
Cripps made the long and tiresome journey aboard a ship which was destined for Mozambique, later arriving at his posting near Enkeldon (now Chivhu) in the same year. It is in Chivhu where the then 32-year-old Cripps was to witness first hand some of the brutalities of colonialism.
Many sources on the life of Cripps concur that he did support witchcraft which was a part of the Shona people’s culture. He was also amazed by their faith and spiritual intelligence. As a result, he was deeply engrossed by the native people, including their culture and the land distribution system.
The unfolding years and future events would prove that the local people had also been attracted to him.
Cripps was always brave and fearless to stand for the rights of the natives. It is said that he would walk 100 miles to the nearest government office on thread bare shoes and torn clothes to voice his concerns over unjust practices. It is for this reason that he was often in conflict with government officials and the Anglican Church hierarchy.
In a bid to finance its activities, the colonial regime introduced taxation. Taxes were to be paid in cash. Natives, however, had for long lived in a cashless economy, depending mainly on barter trade for the many business transactions. One of these was the hut tax. Male adults, therefore, had no choice but to seek cash paying jobs in order to find money to pay the various taxes imposed on them by colonial authorities.
Cripps argued that the demand for cash was destroying the cultural and social fabric of the indigenous people. He pointed out that Africans’ way of life was supposed to be preserved.
In 1911 he wrote a book: The Brooding Earth. In the novel, Cripps writes of how he believes the earth would somehow seek revenge on those that deliberately caused harm on other people.
Cripps, in his literary works, further predicted the decimation by mysterious illnesses of white colonialists because of promiscuity with unwilling African women, perhaps even with unwilling fellow men.
His writings were a reflection of his inner desire for equality. Cripps wanted Africans to be allowed to purchase land anywhere in the colony. Realising that he was not being taken seriously, he purchased 7,700 acres of land a few kilometres north-east of Chivhu. The land was named Maronda Mashanu (five wounds). Maronda Mashanu has biblical connotations as the name depicts the five wounds of Jesus Christ. At Maronda Mashanu, Cripps’ tenants did not pay any rentals and would freely engage in agricultural activities of their choice.
Cripps built a church at Maronda Mashanu in 1915, and the church was dedicated in the same year.
In his appreciation of the Shona people’s way if life, Cripps established similarities between Christianity and African traditional beliefs. He highlighted Chisi (a Shona day of rest) and the reincarnation of the dead as spirit mediums (Mhondoro) as examples. Testimony of this is the poem he wrote in praise of the power of Tsuro Chaminuka:
He is not dust; he only sleeps
A length of time untold
He’ll wake, he’ll rise – his python’s coils
Wrapped around him fold on fold
And bring us back our rain, our lands
And happy homes of old
The word “our” in the poem suggests that Cripps had embraced the way of life of the local people, and he also considered himself as one of them.
Cripps befriended and accommodated black politicians of the time. In 1930 he officially cut off his links with the Anglican Church and became an ordinary “Christian missionary in Mashonaland”.
His cordial relationship with Africans did go down well with fellow Europeans and other clergymen. At one point a certain Mr Smith, then an interim priest went about burning Cripps’ churches. A Bishop Paget who had visited from Salisbury (now Harare) and had witnessed rubbles of destroyed church buildings was astonished to see Cripps calmly preaching to his congregation of Africans at one of the burnt church ruins. It is said that Cripps was composed and church members also seemed relaxed as they sung Shona hymns in praise of their Creator.
Although Cripps was blind for the last decade of his life, he continued to invest his efforts towards the achievement of equality and justice in a colonial epoch. He was able to carry out his work through the aid of an assistant. In August 1952 Cripps breathed his last. He was buried at Maronda Mashanu.
Â Since his demise (except in 2011), Christians and locals continue to visit his grave site every August to celebrate a life well lived. In 2011 excommunicated Anglican Bishop Nolbert Kunonga, then a strong Zanu PF and President Robert Mugabe supporter, seized all Anglican church properties including those bequeathed to the Anglican Church by Cripps. The seizure was later declared unlawful by Zimbabwe’s courts.
To visit the shrine one has to endure a few kilometres of a dusty gravel road to Maronda Mashanu.
The only modest honour that Cripps ever got in Chivhu is a street named after him. Indeed, he was a man who sacrificed more for far much less.
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