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.


2 thoughts on “‘The Axe And The Tree’”
  1. Well said— the best bit is exoneration of the Scouts– another blow for post liberation convenient history !

  2. For those who still live their lives by, and teach, a particular religion, any religion, they will always be in conflict with the reasons ‘why’ others do what they do. It is absolutely necessary that we live and teach our children ‘the right way’, but in my opinion that is not a God unless you believe that your God is the spirit within yourself.

    Living by (eg.,) the ten commandments will give you a good enough guide line in life without brain washing yourself (or your children), that your purpose in life is to serve a God. Again, any God.
    We need to look to the family unit, make this as strong as is possible and to build or move to, a society where our values and beliefs balance and blend in with the others. Easier said than done, but no different to what we have always had.

    Our purpose in life should be to become a better person, to be more aware of our surrounds and environment, to flourish on our interests and talents and to believe that we can achieve what we believe on a planet that needs looking after. Balance and harmony and being a people person, with our priorities being focused on the ‘good of our society’, all of us within that society, irrespective of colour and creed, but not allowing ourselves to be hoodwinked and confused by individual parties who claim to be more righteous for the good of a God.

    Religion was started by man for the right reasons during a time of innocent ignorance and it served the planets people well. Our various tribes in our own separated environments grew on the stories of the elders. These stories gave answers to the unfathomable and kept our various societies calm and secure with a belief that ‘things were as they should be’. The will of God.
    Easy as, but as our societies grew and as we wandered further we began meeting up with other societies with different belief systems. We should have been less blinded by a commercialised belief system (who’s so called ‘sole purpose’ was spreading the word), and realised how and why we believed what we believed. If we had we would have then seen why our belief system was different to others and although we may not have understood evolution and human traits as well as we should have, surely it’s about time we did!

    Blood shedding, violence, abusing the rights of others finds it’s ‘reasons’ put squarely on the back of different belief systems. In whoever’s God that party believe they belong to. We continue to allow ourselves to be hoodwinked and confused by other peoples reasons for the bullshit they get up to.
    Children are born innocent into this world, it is our ignorance and self importance as the parents and elders of our society that gets them fighting for a different survival.

    We need to learn to think. We need to understand our own human traits and why people do what they do. We are creatures of habit and we tend to follow a line of least resistance and we do what we get rewarded for. We allow our minds and society to become corrupt with shit we know clearly is not good for our society. We allow systems to be put in place by authorities which clearly favour the ‘cash cow’ they feed off, but leave us sucking the hind tit.

    We build prisons for those who have abused their rights within our society and then allow them all the rights, and more, whilst being pampered and mother coddled with our hard earned clean money taxes.

    So. What did I think of the book and Wessels’ comments! Good.

    I think that our world is a better place for our authors and story tellers and so we should encourage them, but we should also be on a path of ‘self enlightenment’ and continue to educate ourselves, and question everything we read or think we believe. The truth is what we believe and the truth continues to change as we question, research and learn more. All of the information in this world comes in facts and opinions. Facts can be proven and repeated.

    Most of our short comings are do to ignorance. Most of our ignorance comes from believing in something we haven’t really thought about.

    People generally are doing the best they can to live a better life. It gets harder as our societies grow, become over populated and nutritious food is harder to come by ‘without having to make a plan’ in life. The problem is that ‘the making of the plan’ generally involves other innocent/ ignorant people and so another scheme gets born with people relying on it for their livelihood and survival.

    As we learn that our thinking has been wrong, so we should change it. Be responsible to our children and next generation. Africa is in turmoil and will continue to be whilst leaders are being supported for the wrong reasons. We don’t need to spread the word of God, nor do we need to spread the money for more weapons. We need to spread the love for all the innocent children we have brought into this world who will not stay innocent for long. We need to consider the environment they are growing up in, our homes, their homes, the parenting, what we believe in.

    Stop living in the past. We don’t need heroes of war. We need the quiet spoken doers of change for the better. Stop living your story of ‘why’ and start living your life for the better.

    You may believe that this ‘comment’ is way out of place, way too long and way off track, but somewhere in it all is a related story to the questions asked.

Comments are closed.