Mississippi takes lead in helping Zimbabwe communication woes


By Kathy L. Gilbert

United Methodist News Service

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Gladman Makwenya is a young, enthusiastic communicator, ready to take on the challenges of spreading the news about the church in Zimbabwe with a pen and some loose recycled newsprint pages.


Pen and paper are about the only tools he has right now; he is not even assured he will always have a table to write on or a chair to sit in.


Barbara Nissen and Tafadzwa Mudambanuki, members of United Methodist Communications’ Communications Resourcing Team, met with church leaders in Zimbabwe in 2005 to hear the stories of their challenges.


The meeting was part of the Central Conference Communications Initiative approved by the 2004 General Conference. The United Methodist Church’s legislative assembly approved the initiative to develop communications capabilities in the denomination’s conferences in Africa, Europe and Asia.


Working in partnership with central conference church leaders, United Methodist Communications is helping those areas not only meet their own needs but also the needs of the larger church “for hearing, embracing and sharing life-transforming stories,” said Nissen.


“The leaders of the church in Africa have told us their ministry is hindered by the inability of church leaders and members to communicate with each other in a timely and accessible way,” said the Rev. Larry Hollon, top executive of the communications agency.


Covenant of mutual help

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications is working to raise funding for establishing communication centers in each conference. The Mississippi Annual Conference has pledged $14,000 to establish a center in Zimbabwe.

Teams of Mississippians have traveled to Zimbabwe, visiting Africa University, Mutare, Victoria Falls and Harare. The teams have explored ways to link human and material resources in offering care for people impacted by the AIDS pandemic.


After Hurricane Katrina, Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa, resident bishop of Zimbabwe, directed that a gift from his salary be designated for relief in Mississippi and wrote a letter to United Methodists in that state expressing his grief that the church in Zimbabwe could not be physically present on the Gulf Coast in this time of great challenge.


Nhiwatiwa preached and led a workshop at the 2006 Annual Conference Session in Jackson, Miss. At the conference, the Chabadza Covenant was celebrated. “Chabadza” is a Shona word that describes a partnership in which one observes another at work in a field and joins in the work.


The bishop will serve as honored theologian in residence in Mississippi, engaging laity and clergy in study and dialogue. Teams of youth and adults are preparing to visit Zimbabwe. The communications initiative is a priority of the Chabadza Covenant.


“Nothing can supersede communications in spreading the gospel,” Nhiwatiwa said. “Communication is the hallmark of doing ministry in all its various facets.”

Struggling to survive


Zimbabwe is a country struggling with many economic problems, including hyperinflation, which makes it very hard to budget and plan well, the bishop said. Currently, $1 in U.S. currency equals Z$101,000.


Zimbabwe is also a country with 120,000 United Methodists in two annual conferences and 12 districts. The United Methodist Church was established in 1897 at Old Mutare Mission through the efforts of Bishop Crane Joseph Hartzell and other pioneers including missionaries.


“On Sunday, everyone goes to church - it is the center of communication,” said Betty Spiwe Katiyo, lay leader of the Zimbabwe West annual conference and a member of the communications board.


However, the bishop’s office in Harare does not have even the most basic communication needs, she added. Katiyo said some businesses have modern equipment, but the church is far behind in having adequate communication tools.

“There are only two phone lines, and the switchboard does not have enough extensions for the conference staff,” she said. The office lacks computers and Internet service is almost always “down.”


“We need telephones, faxes and other vehicles as a means of communication. When you see what we have, you will not think it is normal because of what you are used to,” she told Nissen and Mudambanuki.


Communication outside the urban areas of Harare and Mutare is much more difficult, the team learned.


The Rev. Elijah Kabungaidze, superintendent of the Murange District, has a phone in his house that doesn’t ring and a cell phone that can only be used if he climbs a high hill several kilometers away.


Because of the severe fuel shortage in the country, he uses a bicycle or walks when he needs to visit his 14 circuits and 65 churches.


“I used to be able to get fuel once a week, but now I am lucky to get it once a month,” he said. He is working to get a computer in his office, a small room behind his garage, but he has to wait for electricity in his area. He has two old typewriters but often has trouble getting paper.


When he wants to send a letter, he waits on the side of the road for a bus to come by and gives the letter to a passenger, who promises to get it to the person he is trying to reach.


Schoolchildren often become the means of communication, said the Rev. Joseph Zinhanga, pastor for Nyakatsapa primary school. Mavhu Chishakwe, teacher in charge, demonstrated how frustrating it is to try to get through on the school’s party line.


“Most phone calls don’t go through,” she said. “We have to wait for other conversations to end. The code for school’s calls is three short rings and one long ring.”


Most of the 438 children enrolled in the primary school are orphans. Zinhanga calls the children together and selects the “head boy” to hand out mail to students to take to family, friends and neighbors.


Jack Chipfiko, head master of Nyakatsapa secondary school, sends students to collect the mail about 5 kilometers away. Children take mail home about 5 to 8 kilometers away.


“The roads are very bad and haven’t been attended to in the last six or seven years,” he said. There is no phone line in his office, and he mostly uses a cell phone. “But it’s hard to get a connection.”


Working on solutions

“One size will not fit all,” Nissen said. “Through the initiative, we have begun to work with conference leaders in each episcopal area to identify needs and approaches to building and enhancing communication infrastructure in the church.”


“From what we’re hearing in Africa, we hope to help equip each area with the tools and training needed to run a viable communications center or workstation,” Mudambanuki said. “At the same time, we’re looking at how community radio or ham radios could strengthen the outreach of the church.”


A two-week course of study will be held at Africa University June 15-30. Classes will include basic computer, Internet and email training, journalism, photography, videography, video editing, newsletter design and a special session on writing about social issues such as HIV/AIDS and malaria.


“It is exciting to hear about the possibilities of having communication offices in all our Episcopal areas,” said Makwenya. “It is my prayer that God will continue to open possibilities.”