The following is a talk presented by Rev Sandy Boyce, for World Day of Prayer, March 6th, 2020, at Noarlunga Uniting Church
I wish to add my acknowledgement of the Kaurna people, the traditional custodians on whose land this church was built and to continue to work alongside Aboriginal people for reconciliation and justice.
Thank you for having me speak at this World Day of Prayer service, prepared by a group of women in Zimbabwe. My memories of a visit to Zimbabwe in 2001 recall the faces of people that expressed love, compassion and kindness – and joy. I was in Zimbabwe to visit some of our Uniting Church Volunteers in Mission who were in placement with our partner church, the Methodist Church of Zimbabwe. Three were from SA. Rae, a social worker, who spent time as a volunteer with the AIDS Ministry team. Lisa and Murray, who spent their time at Matthew Rusike Children’s Home, established in 1950 to care for orphans and vulnerable children. Murray had an agricultural background, and along with the Lisa, helped with the productive garden and animal husbandry and the children with their school work. Another Australian volunteer was also at Matthew Rusike Children’s Home. Together we all went to a local wedding that the volunteers had been invited to – literally on a village street, with fantastic choreographed dancing featuring the bride and groom and their wedding party. At the reception, the guests sat outdoors at tables and chairs lined up along the dusty street. We were seated as guests of honour next to a PA system for the loud music. It was also used to announce all the gifts people had brought. This was not the time to have brought a Cheap as Chips present when we would have been shamed for all to hear over the PA system!
And behind these great experiences lay the shadows of grinding poverty, of runaway inflation, of stores with empty shelves, in a country where good agricultural land and gold mining might have led to a different outcome.
It was heartbreaking, and confronting to be a visitor who had ‘passport privilege’ and financial means and opportunity to leave at any time, unlike the people whose saw no signs of hope or change on the horizon. The enthusiastic joy we saw at the wedding was what people could do with the little they had.
Zimbabwe’s political and economic crises have resulted in high poverty rates, with 72% of the country’s population now lives in chronic poverty. In the space of a year, the number of people in extreme poverty in Zimbabwe rose by a million in 2019, to 34% of the people living on less than $1.90 a day. A recent UN study says poverty has reached unprecedented levels in Zimbabwe, with more than 70% of Zimbabwean children in rural areas living in abject poverty. An El Nino-influenced drought and Cyclone Idai has reduced agricultural production over several seasons, worsening the situation across many rural areas. The economic contraction has caused a sharp rise in prices of food and basic commodities and one tenth of rural households currently indicated they are going without food for a whole day. There is less than 100,000 tonnes of grain in reserve, after a poor harvest; Zimbabwe consumes 80,000 tonnes of maize every month. The World Food Programme says it needs a further $300m to meet hunger needs in the country. The unemployment rate has been estimated at 90%.
All of this has caused additional issues for the most vulnerable in Zimbabwe:
Human trafficking: Zimbabwe is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and sexual exploitation.
Child protection vulnerabilities including child marriage, where 32% of girls in Zimbabwe are married before the age of 18.
Gender-based violence (including sexual exploitation and abuse) – where 35% of women aged 15-49 years have experienced intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime
Disability discrimination: people with a disability have lower education and employment opportunities, are often unable to access health services, and are at greater risk of sexual exploitation and abuse
Despite these challenges, the Zimbabwean people are generous and resilient. They remain optimistic and are working to improve their nation. The Uniting Church partner church, the Methodist Church in Zimbabwe (MCZ) and its relief and development agency, the Methodist Development and Relief Agency (MeDRA), play a vital role in serving their communities and advocating for the people in national politics. UNICEF has called on the government of Zimbabwe to recognise child poverty as a national policy priority and protect children from its most devastating effects throughout its reform agenda
The Bethesda story (John 5:1-9a) reminds us of the way that social and economic and even religious systems meant to assist the needy often keep them in poverty. People often need to doubt and challenge the system, and to look for help outside of the ‘system’.
John’s Gospel tells us about a time when Jesus went to Jerusalem for a religious holiday. The setting was the Sheep Gate where there was a pool. In Hebrew it was called Bethesda. It had five porticoes, which were filled with many invalids – the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed. (John 5:2–3). Jesus bypasses all the centres of power of Jerusalem with religious leaders and the temple, and goes to a place where no-one has power, with conditions of absolute poverty. This hospital-like place around the pool would have been dank and smelly, and filled with people lying around, waiting for a miracle, hoping for wholeness and new life.The people lay in wait for an angel of the Lord to stir up the water; and it was believed that whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had. Before the days of medical science, people relied on conjuring up divine intervention. Those who were desperate and destitute, who had run out of options, and hope, gravitated to a place or to people who they thought could help. Bethesda was such a place. Would Jesus have heard the voices of many people crying out, or had they succumbed to hopelessness and simply learned to be silent in the face of despair. Jesus met a man who had been been sick for 38 years. The Greek word that describes him as a paralytic literally means, “dried out”. Jesus asks, “Do you want to get well?” Well, clearly that would be a good outcome, but perhaps the man had given up even seeking that solution. He had become dispirited, defeated, and dried out in his body and mind and soul.
Instead of waiting with the man and helping him into the water so he could be healed, Jesus asks him to get up, pick up his mat, and walk. The story says that at once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. (John 5:8–9) And he walked away from those still waiting for their miracle.
The Bethesda account has an interesting political implication (1). The paralytic and the other invalids at Bethesda had been taught that “the system is the solution”, and so they were prepared to wait. The man in the story had waited for 38 years. The system, represented by the fickle Bethesda Pool, was a solution only for some, while the others had to wait their turn for as long as it took. By telling the paralytic to get up, pick up his mat and walk, Jesus taught him to bypass the system and to challenge it. To recognise that ‘reality’ in which people must learn to survive is a product of the system, and that there is life outside ‘the system’. As we make connections to our own world, the Bethesda story reminds us of the fact that social and economic systems meant to assist the needy often keep them in poverty. Those who live in poverty will need to doubt and challenge the system, and to look for help outside of it.
Income and wealth disparities have increased in the last decades, in Zimbabwe and in so many other countries, and in Australia where we have super rich and increasing numbers of very poor people. The structures that accentuate such inequality have been strengthened. The ‘have a go, get a go’ philosophy and trickle down economics are myths, as is the idea that if only one worked long and hard, one would overcome adversity because economic mobility is for everyone. Petrol in Zimbabwe is now the most expensive in the world so bus fares have shot up to $7 where it used to cost $1, so those going to work cannot afford the new prices. So there’s no income in the family.
I went to a particular church in Harare at the invitation of one of the Volunteers in Mission who had been going there with friends, but was concerned at what we would call prosperity theology. God blesses you and you get rich. Wealth is a sign of blessing. No, wealth is a sign that some people have benefitted from the system at the expense of other people.
The reasons for the continued high poverty in Zimbabwe include where people live. A recent World Bank report, Spatial Patterns of Settlement, Internal Migration and Welfare Inequality in Zimbabwe, suggests that entrenched poverty is a result of what are called deep rural spatial poverty traps. In 2017, extreme poverty was 13 times higher in rural than urban areas. During colonial times, communal areas were designated as locations where African farmers could live and farm; the most productive land was designated for white commercial farmers. A sizeable proportion of the rural population live in these communal lands that are densely populated and far away from the main road network. They are poorly connected to markets. These areas suffer from the highest poverty rates and the proportion of the extreme poor living in communal lands increased in 2017 from 2/3 in 2012 to 3/4 – and continues to escalate.
‘The system’ is controlled by power and privilege, and not for the benefit of the poor. Looking outside the system, at grassroots movements for change, and new start up companies, here’s a great example of what can be done.
The power outages in Zimbabwe are extensive, and many women deliver babies by candlelight and torches and the light of a mobile phone. Sophisticated equipment relies on electricity, compromising maternal and infant care. The United Nations Population Fund describes Zimbabwe’s maternal death rate as “unacceptably high”. Power generators are out of the question because of the cost of fuel, with a 300% inflation rate last year. In 2019, the state-owned Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa) introduced 18-hour load shedding after reducing electricity generation due to low water levels in Lake Kariba, its main source of power. That means the power is out most of the day and comes on overnight when people are sleeping. Well, not anymore – people have adjusted their routines to get up and do the household chores overnight when the people is on.
We Care Solar, a California-based NGO, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are working with the government to install solar power systems in clinics and hospitals nationwide. We Care Solar provide compact rugged solar electric systems called solar suitcases which provide bright lights and foetal heart monitoring. More than 4,000 health centres in Africa and Asia have been equipped with this technology. Since 2016, We Care Solar has supported 136 maternal health facilities with reliable lighting and electricity in Zimbabwe and aim to install the solar system at a total of 1,000 clinics, as part of the Light Every Birth campaign.
More grassroots movements for change and start up companies and NGOs may provide the change that is required, rather than waiting for systems – financial and political – to make the change for the benefit and well-being of all people.
‘Rise up, pick up your mat and walk’ invites us all to think about ways that empowerment comes to people in our time and place, and for people in Zimbabwe, so that all may flourish. May it be so.
Today, your understanding, prayerful and practical support and solidarity, will be welcomed by the men, women and children in Zimbabwe. Thank you.
(1) Fritz Wendt, Addressing Poverty when the System Fails