‘The Axe And The Tree’

by Hannes Wessels

I was relieved to finish this because the reading was an emotional and often painful roller-coaster of a ride that left me somewhat enlightened but still searching for answers.

Stephen Griffiths writes eruditely with captivating passion about the events before during and after the ghastly killing of the missionaries and their children at Elim Mission (formerly Eagle School) in the Eastern Highlands of then Rhodesia in June of 1978.Axe_Tree

As someone who served as a Rhodesian soldier, this account forced me to revisit the troublesome quandary I found myself in as a combatant in a complicated war. As a thoughtful teenager I was initially exercised by the questions surrounding the righteousness of the stand we took, but exposure to the terror visited upon innocent civilians by the enemy quickly disabused me of my doubts. I soon, like most of my colleagues, became contemptuous of the missionaries in our midst who appeared to be siding with the enemy. As a Christian, I was perplexed to observe fellow Christians providing succour to people who seemed to be violently anti-Christian.

The author struggles manfully to address this issue but, as expected, advises the reader of the perceived racial imbalances that led to conflict in an effort to apportion at least some of the blame to the usual suspects; the European settlers.

We are reminded the Congo genocide was a result of the colony being ‘grossly underdeveloped’ and ‘minimal preparation’ being provided the future leaders. No mention is made of the fact that the Belgians were trying to build a better country in an enormous expanse of hostile territory when they were abruptly forced to depart. Far as I know, the infrastructure they left behind has been destroyed and little done to replace it. And the missionaries he mentions who survived and were evacuated probably owe their lives to the Southern Rhodesian troops of the Central African Federation who went to their rescue as they escaped the slaughter.

We are also told the Rhodesian government ‘invested little in education for black citizens’. This jarred because it’s simply not true. While more was indeed spent on European children, the government of the day expended enough on African education to provide for arguably the finest school system in Africa aimed at providing all black children with access to free primary education. That was, until it was partially destroyed by the erstwhile ‘Liberators’ who decided education was a racist conspiracy designed to subjugate the ‘masses’.

That said, I did read carefully while trying to empathise better with the missionaries; like the author’s father who toiled courageously in the face of horrifying danger to provide health, education and religious renewal to the people they embraced on their remote stations. Swathed in their spiritual armour they refused to be cowed by violence and hardship and it is difficult not to admire this; but one cannot help but ask, ‘to what end?’ The author’s answer to that question is this was all done in the service of God, that forgiving your enemy is central to the Christian way and all events that follow are God’s will.

With this message on my mind I read the graphic and ghastly account of the butchery of the eight adults and four children on that fateful night and was sickened. Bludgeoned, stabbed and hacked to death, we are told these poor people died gruesomely in the service of their God.  So it is left to the author to try and explain how such evil can be converted to good.

He does this in part by telling how some of the killers later recanted and converted to Christianity because they were subsequently traumatised by their own brutality. Of great interest is the path followed by a man with the nom de guerre of ‘Devil Hondo’ who is one of the gang-leaders who later finds he has to shed his guilt and does so through a process of confession and conversion. ‘Hondo’s’ spiritual transformation is produced as proof that the dead did not die in vain. We are told the dying pleas of the deceased that their killers be forgiven their dreadful deeds had been met. God’s will had indeed been done.

This raises some unsettling issues. One is the fact that the children paid with their lives for the decision their parents made on their behalf. Surely parents are there to protect and nurture their progeny and allow them the chance in life to make hard choices such as the ones that lead to martyrdom.

Second, is the unwavering commitment to forgive, rather than fight the enemy.  This is the seminal point of their entire raison d’être and the one I have the greatest problem with. This, because it is an issue that haunts us today on a global scale. In the face of militant Islam, Christians under siege throughout the Middle-East and elsewhere, and Europe reeling from terrorist attacks, we have our political and religious leaders calling on the victims to be restrained and compassionate with regard to those who seek to destroy them. The Pope has called on his flock to ‘love’ the Islamic purveyors of hate and violence more and in this way they will be overwhelmed by kindness and relent. We hear little from him about what he plans to do for the Christians who are crying out for help.

Well the Pope and those who follow this line of thought should perhaps look at what happened to Zimbabwe when men of violence were embraced rather than confronted and ask himself why he thinks the present circumstances differ.

The author does history a service by giving a detailed account of how the killers were later flushed, engaged and identified. For this, we should be very grateful because he has comprehensively cleared the Rhodesian security forces of any involvement in these murders.

This seed of doubt was planted by former British Foreign Secretary David Owen, who at the time this happened, was busy singing Robert Mugabe’s praises in an effort to expedite his path to power.

In an effort to protect his protégé we read of the despicable deceitfulness of the British government in the immediate aftermath of the slaying of their citizens. Owen took personal control of the manipulation of information and events while all avenues were followed to make sure no meaningful action would be taken against the perpetrators or their leader Robert Mugabe. Sadly they succeeded.

I commend the author for researching and recording a tragic but important chapter in the history of Zimbabwe and laying to rest many of the doubts surrounding this tragedy. For anyone interested in the history of the country and the conflict this work is highly recommended.  But I remain far from convinced that ‘forgiveness’ is the way God wants us to confront and defeat evil.


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