Early African resistance to Christian missionaries


IF the early missionaries who came here to preach the gospel were to arrive in Zimbabwe on a Sunday afternoon, they would see masses of people worshipping in the valleys, on mountains and in church buildings.
They would move around Zimbabwe from one church to the other and find the buildings totally packed with ‘believers’.
They would see all kinds of singing, dancing or just silence.
The missionaries would kneel down and tell God how much their early work has paid off.
It would also appear as if the Gospel was accepted when the missionaries first came here and has continued to spread ever since.
Yet this is not the case.
There was plenty of resistance to missionary activities and conversion in the early days.
The Roman Catholic missionaries were the first to arrive in Southern Africa.
They penetrated deeper inland and came to Zimbabwe.
They were led by Father Gonzalo da Silveira, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary who arrived at the court of the Munhumutapa as early as 1543.
Father Gonzalo da Silveira was from a Portuguese noble family.
He felt that God was calling him.
He joined the Society of Jesus in 1543.
The church posted him to Goa in 1556 where he quickly became known as a successful preacher and converter of the non-Christians.
In 1560 he went to Mozambique, armed with a strong zeal to reach the kingdom of Munhumutapa and convert the Shona people.
Around Christmas time of 1556, Father Gonzalo da Silveira arrived at court of Munhumutapa and met Negomo ‘who received him warmly’.
The Shona liked Gonzalo da Silveira’s humility and respect of them.
He appeared to show a certain ‘hunhu’ similar to the people at Munhumutapa’s royal court.
It took only 25 days for Gonzalo da Silveira to baptise Negomo, Negomo’s mother and many others.
This infuriated the Muslim traders who feared the spread of Portuguese commercial influence.
They told Negomo that Gonzalo da Silveira was a spy and baptism was a kind of ‘witchcraft’ to endear him to them.
Negomo believed the Muslim traders’ story.
He ordered the killing of Gonzalo da Silveira.
But, another story says that Gonzalo da Silveira fell in love with a woman at Munhumutapa’s court.
The woman was already married to the King or to one member of the royal family. As punishment, Negomo ordered the killing of Gonzalo da Silveira.
Some years later, Silveira was canonised as a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church.
The truth of what actually happened is still to be fully researched.
What we know is that, despite the baptism, Negomo later resisted the Christian influence of Gonzalo da Silveira.
Although at least a dozen Catholic churches were planted after Gonzalo da Silveira’s death, they all disappeared by 1667.
There was ‘no discernible trace of Christianity’ until the wave of Protestant missions arrived in the 19th century.
Because there was so much resistance to Christian influence, it took two centuries for the missionaries to return to this country.
Later on the missionaries who arrived in Matabeleland had a hidden agenda to help prepare the ground for the signing of colonial treaties in Southern Rhodesia.
In 1879, three Jesuit priests arrived to evangelise Matabeleland. 
King Lobengula received them well and “granted them a free passage through his dominions and allowed them to train his subjects in habits of industry but not to preach the Gospel of Christ which, as he well  knew would lead to drastic changes, not only in the domestic life of his people, but in his whole system of government”.
The missionaries therefore stayed for a whole 14 years without converting anyone.
In a book titled Memories of Mashonaland by B. G. W. H. Knight-Bruce, Bishop of Mashonaland, published in 1895, we get a view of the missionary perception of Africans.
He wrote: “When, some nine years ago, I was looking about for some untouched country, Mashonaland, as I wandered in imagination over the country to the north, presented itself… But here in Mashonaland was a field on which no one could object to our entering.
“And, besides this, it was the piece of unoccupied ground between the South African and Central African Missions, and the occupation of it would join these groups of missions together.”
He observed the strength of the Matabele.
Knight Bruce wrote that: “The Matabele were then in the heyday of their power; magnificently, one might say almost painfully, arrogant, believing, I think, honestly that there were no people like them in the world.
“There was something about a pure Matabele which was outwardly very attractive.
“Their placid brute courage was very perfect.”
He tells the story of meeting King Lobengula and the conversation that follows.
The King said to the group of missionaries:
“Where are your wives?”
The missionaries answered that they had no wives.
“Then where are your mothers?” the king asked again.
“We don’t believe in having anything to do with mothers or wives,” answered the missionaries.
“Then you can go,” said the King;
“I don’t want anyone to teach my people who does not believe in mothers and wives.”
The above conversation between King Lobengula and the missionaries clearly shows the pride of the Matabele and their respect and love for women.
It should be noted that at the time that these Europeans were venturing into Africa, there were stories about their relationships with each other as men.
Such stories are beginning to gain momentum.
You only need to read the diaries written about Baden Powel, leader of the Boy Scouts Movement and also the close relationship between Cecil Rhodes and Dr Starr Jameson.
While the missionaries were busy paving way for the colonialists to take over, there was a hidden male-kind of friendship going on.
We know very little of the hypocrisy of missionaries at the time.
A lot of research work still needs to be done, especially in the diaries of missionaries, explorers and their families.
Over the years, the original Methodist Church has changed in the way they sing, dance and worship.
They have incorporated an African way to dance and use instruments like drums, hosho or the horn in the church.
Among some followers of Johane Marange, using these musical instruments takes one away from God.
In this regard, there is a similarity to the early European way of worship that they tried to resist.
As Christianity continues to spread in Zimbabwe, we are witnessing little resistance or questioning of what it means to traditionally worship and how this affects our history and identity as a people.
Looking back to the time of resistance to early missionaries might be the first step to understand how we continue to be colonised spiritually without showing the resistance shown by our ancestors.


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