IN southern Africa, the first Christian missionaries sent from the London Missionary Society arrived in Namaqualand (now Namibia), in 1805, headed by brothers Abraham and Christian Albrecht.
The London Missionary Society also sent missionary Robert Moffat who arrived in Africa in 1816; 24 years later, in 1840, missionary David Livingstone, famed for ‘discovering’ the Victoria Falls, arrived in present-day Malawi.
In Zimbabwe, the first attempts in the field of Christian evangelisation of the Ndebele and the Shona peoples were made from 1859 to 1890, prior to the arrival of the Pioneer Column, when the first mission station in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), was opened in Inyati, close to Bulawayo in 1859, by Reverend Robert Moffat and his wife Mary, sponsored by the London Missionary Society.
In 1870, Moffat established Hope Fountain, in Bulawayo.
The London Missionary Society, a Protestant society, was launched in 1799, helped by Johannes Van der Kemp.
One of Moffat’s greatest accomplishments for missions in Zimbabwe was his friendship with Mzilikazi.
Mzilikazi’s friendship with Robert Moffat was a most significant influence in the fate of his Kingdom after his reign.
Mzilikazi had very little time for Christianity, but because of his respect for and trust of Moffat he allowed himself to be persuaded to admit the mission in his settlement.
Once established, he and his successor Lobengula, gave protection to the missionaries.
After the white settlers’ occupation of Mashonaland in the 1890s, the Anglican Church also established missions in Zimbabwe as did the Methodists and a number of other denominations.
Was it a desire to make Christ known or expansionist dynamism that drove these missionaries to face all kinds of unknown dangers and sacrifices in what they termed ‘Darkest Africa’?
Lobengula, entertained the settlers sparingly and had not permitted missionaries to teach religion, nor reading or writing.
He nevertheless, skillfully supported their presence.
Missionaries were convinced that under Lobengula’s rule it would be impossible to evangelise, and consequently they welcomed the fall of Lobengula in the mid-1890’s.
Lobengula’s sympathies and soft spot for the missionaries which he had inherited from his father, Mzilikazi, eventually led to the downfall of Lobengula and the Matabele kingdom.
It was the arrival of Cecil John Rhodes, the English born South African businessman and strong believer in British expansionism, that witnessed the colonial period of Zimbabwe begin.
Encouraging colonisation, Cecil Rhodes and his British counterparts encouraged the arrival of more missionaries.
Thus, Jesuit Catholic missionaries and the Anglican Canon Belfour entered the territory with the Pioneer Column in 1890.
After the Anglo-Ndebele war of 1893, which put an end to Ndebele power, missionaries approved and urged the dismantling of the so-called Ndebele kingdom.
They were pleased that the people, either Ndebele or Shona, could no longer use Lobengula’s political power as an excuse not to convert to Christianity.
With all the facilities offered by Cecil Rhodes and his British South Africa Company, missions increased in the territory.
The Ndebele and Shona ‘uprisings’ of 1896-1897, the Shona rising in particular, took the entire white settler community by surprise. For example, the Chishawasha missionaries thought that “… a Shona rebellion was the last thing the ‘cowardly’ Shona would dream of attempting”.
They were, of course, completely mistaken in their understanding and appreciation of Shona people, because they, in their unwavering belief that all things African was inferior and evil, had not known the history of their brave past as conquerors.
Missionaries played a role in suppressing the two uprisings because they were, they believed, a ‘war of heathenism against Christianity’.
Some missionaries were also convinced that the two rebellions destroyed all the religious work that they had accomplished up to that time.
Others, with a more positive point of view, believed in a ‘spring time’ for the Mashonaland Mission with ‘… its joyous promises of good things to come…’.
In reality, Christianity was not so deep-rooted.
After the defeat of the Ndebele and Shona in 1897, There was a real spring and a very flourishing time for Christianity in Zimbabwe, but at the same time, there were many difficulties.
After the suppression of the Uprisings by the British, Catholics and various other Western Christian denominations established missions far and wide throughout the country, attracted by geographical resemblances to their homelands.
Missionaries found ‘the Natives’ very difficult to convert.
Sometimes they felt that Africans did not believe in their hard, voluntary work, but believed instead that missionaries merely wanted to divorce known customs and traditions from the people.
But the greatest hindrance to Christianity from the missionaries’ point of view, was the institution of polygamy and its concomitant roora/lobola system.
The missionaries’ opinion about African adults was generally very negative. ‘We are too old to change our ways…’ was the answer used by some Africans.
The great majority of the missionaries from abroad had an uncompromising position on the matter of the roora/lobola system.
About polygamy missionary opinion was more or less unanimous, but they failed to get the colonial government to forbid it.
The issue of roora/lobola was much debated.
Studies were made by different churches.
However, the widespread opinion among the African people was that missionaries did not want to understand the system.
Thus, all missionary efforts to limit lobola through legislation during the period between 1924-1939, were unsuccessful.
Issues and the impact of missions and missionaries have often brought criticism to missionary activity.
This included concerns that missionaries have a perceived lack of respect for other cultures, and the potential destruction of social structure among the converts.
As a result, many traditional values have been lost as a consequence of these conversions.
In spite of the initial opposition to Christianity from the older generation, the Christian community in the country increased considerably.
Dr. Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian Researcher, Industrial Design Consultant and is a published author in her field. For Comments E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org