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From Harare to Hamilton

Once a high-ranking official in Zimbabwe, refugee Chris Mazhandu hopes to become a United Church minister and a force for change back home

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Christopher Mazhandu is serene, even a bit majestic looking, as he rests in a back pew at Stoney Creek (Ont.) United Church and reflects on the politics of his native Zimbabwe. His face is strangely elastic -- expressionless one minute, twisting into an oversized grin the next. He wears scuffed loafers, black dress slacks and a white T-shirt displaying "The Big Five" African land animals.

Born 58 years ago in central Zimbabwe near the capital, Harare, Mazhandu is the former deputy secretary of trade in charge of Zimbabwe's export promotion and one of the first indigenous Africans to be placed at the top of the country's civil service. In recent years, however, he has fallen from grace -- forced to start from scratch as a political refugee living in Canada. Now he's labouring to become a United Church minister, a dream almost cosmically intertwined with his desire to help rebuild his beleaguered homeland.

"I really don't know what happened to my life," Mazhandu says softly. "Over the past few years, it hasn't been easy for me inside and outside of Zimbabwe." Landlocked Zimbabwe was once an African breadbasket. Since 1980, its fortunes have been inextricably tied to President Robert Mugabe, the African liberationist who became the country's first black leader. Starting in the late 1990s, the forced seizure of white-owned commercial farms, ostensibly to benefit landless black Zimbabweans, precipitated a collapse of the country's agriculturally based economy. Anti-Western and suspicious of capitalism, Mugabe now presides over a nation where poverty and unemployment are widespread, along with civil, human and political rights abuses. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group recently warned that Zimbabwe is "closer than ever to complete collapse."

Christopher Mazhandu possessed a streak of stubborn idealism that did not sit well with Mugabe's government. Following the country's economic and political meltdown in 2001, Mazhandu and his wife, Margaret, and four of their five children joined an estimated 3.5 million Zimbabweans -- a quarter of the population -- who fled as refugees. The departure of the majority of the country's professionals, including doctors, nurses, teachers and lawyers, has sent the health, education, public service and transport sectors spiralling into crisis.

The Mazhandus lost their property and most of their life savings when they fled. As Mazhandu puts it, "Mugabe came around and took off all the zeros from my pension." Arriving in Canada, the family first settled in Toronto before moving into a subsidized apartment in Stoney Creek, a cluster of subdivisions and strip malls in the eastern part of Hamilton. Mazhandu grew to like the community's stability, its proletarian virtues and unassuming appearance. It was here, especially inside Stoney Creek United, that Mazhandu's long-dormant spiritual side (his father was a minister in the Methodist Church of Zimbabwe) resurfaced.

However, his professional qualifications and education aren't recognized in Ontario. He could only find employment in a meat-processing plant, first as a general labourer, gutting and cleaning hogs on the night shift, and later as the plant's head supervisor of sanitation. The hours and the money are better, but he and his family still struggle.

"I have been successful in that I've fit into the system, but not in terms of Bill Gates," Mazhandu says, making a cage of his fingers and twiddling his thumbs, which bear a few cuts and scrapes that refuse to heal. "God watches over me and my family. I am no longer a refugee; I am a permanent resident of Canada. And I'm building up a new pension. To be honest, I have no complaints. I am, in fact, grateful."

Margaret Mazhandu, formerly a teacher and entrepreneur -- at one time running the biggest flea market in Harare -- is now a part-time caterer and rehabilitation therapist at a private group home. Of her husband, she says, "Chris would never say it, but it was very difficult for him to come from a good position in society and work for subsistence in a meat factory. But we could no longer afford a lot of things for our three daughters and two sons, who are either in university or finding their way in Canada."

In 2006, Mazhandu and his wife returned to Zimbabwe to attend the funeral of his 85-year-old father, Rev. Enoch Muzondiwa Mazhandu. The last member of a large, traditional Shona family, he was a self-educated evangelist who later became an itinerant minister, one of a generation of "bicycle preachers" from the United Theological College of Harare, committed to building the Methodist Church in southern Africa.

In his eulogy for his father, Mazhandu said: "(Enoch Mazhandu) healed the brokenhearted who had lost hope in this life, preached deliverance to those who were captives to this ephemeral world and recovered the spiritual sight of the blind to set them free of superstition. . . . On that score, he was part and parcel of what one might call, `The Epworth Gang,' trained to civilize the black man and give him both the physical and spiritual tools to free himself from colonial bondage and sin respectively. They were true liberators of our country, as they were by default the mouthpiece, voice and conscience of the African."

In October 2005, Mazhandu and his siblings gathered in the U.S. to share Holy Communion with their father one last time before the patriarch returned to Zimbabwe. On that occasion, Enoch counselled his son to go to a seminary and do his part for "Jesus and the kingdom of God."

Last year, Christopher enrolled at the University of Toronto's Emmanuel College to complete a master of divinity degree in preparation for becoming a United Church minister. Due to financial problems and a work-related injury, he put his studies on hold this fall but plans to resume classes in January. "I still feel strongly about becoming a United Church minister," he says. "I don't know what plans God has for me, but I would like the chance to repay humanity and use the Bible as a weapon back home."

Rev. David Bish, who recently retired from Stoney Creek United, says: "Chris and Margaret are people of deep conviction, which I very quickly became aware of. It is actually their sense of social justice that is driving them to succeed in Canada. . . . Chris's future role as a United Church minister could provide a veneer of protection when speaking out in his homeland. It would be a terrific investment for the church to help him return to Zimbabwe by way of his skills and strengths and transform the country back to what he knew and loved."

What kind of Zimbabwe might await him?Mazhandu recalls his last homecoming. Roadsides were littered with "zombie-like persons in positions of total vulnerability." Fuel and electricity shortages were commonplace. Bakeries were also closed and supermarkets warned there would be no bread for the foreseeable future. A shortage of hard currency means the government can't pay for imported food to feed an increasingly hungry population.

Mugabe blames drought and outside interference for the country's straits. Despite its deepening unpopularity, Zimbabwe's parliament recently passed a bill that permits Mugabe to appoint his successor without holding a general election. Parliament is also expected to redraw constituency boundaries in favour of the ruling Zanu-PF party. Mazhandu says he doesn't want Mugabe overthrown, jailed or executed. He merely wants a second liberation: "As a Christian, I want to forgive Mugabe, as he was instrumental in an independent Zimbabwe and once called for the conversion of swords into ploughshares. I hope he lives as long as possible to see what is good governance."

For Mazhandu, a brief moment arouses a whole orchestra of rich emotions: pride, patriotism, nostalgia for the past, hope for a rejuvenated future. He says: "When I close my eyes, I see myself behind the pulpit of any United Church in Canada. I see myself working in the same capacity back home, too. In the future, I envision modern, electrified villages in Zimbabwe -- with running water and market gardening on a small, intensive scale and so forth. Only then can the spiritual deficits of people be dealt with. . . . Only then will my country be restored to its former glory."

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