My dad, Emson Mbewe came to Ameva in 1970, two years after I was born. He had been “given” to JJ Swanepoel by the latter’s father because my dad knew a lot about growing tobacco, cotton and maize. Young JJ Swanepoel knew little about the actual process of growing tobacco. My dad had been taught in Malawi in his teens, so was Swanepoel’s foreman on the farm.
At Ameva, in those early days he used to sleep under a big tree by a rock near the pump just outside the workshop. Later he moved to the long terrace building on the compound once it had been cleaned up.
The rest of the family joined him later. I was a toddler when the family moved to Ameva.
Many of us on the compound knew nothing about God, or Jesus or Christianity. My dad had a Chewa Bible which he had brought with him when he tracked from Malawi partly on foot and partly on the train through Mozambique looking for greener pastures in the then Southern Rhodesia. At Easter and Christmas he would read passages he had learnt in Malawi. The area he grew up in Malawi had been evangelised by Presbyterian missionaries.
The passages of Scripture read to me by my dad about the birth of Jesus or his death meant very little to us children. I certainly did not understand what they meant. Growing up in those says, I was surrounded by fear and witchcraft. My dad was not only the foreman on the farm, but he was also the head of the Nyau dancers (a very secretive Malawian traditional African society). He had joined this society when he came to southern Rhodesia because he was lonely. All men of Malawian decent on the farms were members of this society and my dad felt isolated when at the weekends the dances would start and all the men would get together to call on the spirits of their ancestors to protect them and give them success in a strange land. He succumbed to the pressure from others and joined with his cousin. When I was a kid at Ameva, Nyau was big and I was terrified of them, so was everyone else who was not a member.
Occasionally, lone preachers or groups of Christians came to Ameva from the nearest town of Chegutu to preach and evangelise. As kids, we followed them around and sang with them. But it was the Nyau that really had a hold on us. We were terrified of them. The fact that they were so secretive and mysterious also drew us to them. They were powerful. Deep down we wanted to be part of them, but we were scared as well.
In the late 70s, the farm was sold. JJ didn’t want to live in a country run by blacks. He had fought in the war for the Rhodesian Front, and it was clear that the whites were losing the war. Many were terrified of living under communist rule and left for South Africa or Australia.
Each time JJ Swanepoel was called up to the frontline, my dad ran the farm - and each call up lasted for about 3-6 months every year. My dad virtually held the farm together while his boss fought in the war.
JJ Swanepoel sold the farm to a certain G.R. Frikker. Frikker ran the farm for about a year. In 1980, he also left abruptly. He didn’t even sell it to anyone. He joined the myriad of white farmers running away from black majority rule. For years, Rhodesia had been ruled by a white minority. For many of them, a black majority rule was synonymous with communism. Many were not prepared to live under such a rule. So they just abandoned the farms and left.
When this happened, many farm workers where left stranded. My dad who had worked for these farmers was left empty. He was not even given a pension. He went back to his old boss, Swanepoel Senior. Things didn’t work out. Swanepoel Senior wasn’t farming much because he was getting old and pretty much retired. He liked my dad and tried hard to be nice to him, even giving him a really nice house which in the past had been for his white farm manager.
It was around this time, 81/82 that a man known to us came and told us that some people were buying Ameva, and that they were “church” people and were looking for someone who knew the boundaries of Ameva well. Someone had mentioned my dad’s name. It was suggested that if he went back, he may help these people reconcile what was on the map and what was on the ground to determine Ameva’s boundaries.
My dad went and when he came back, he said the story was true - some really “nice” people were in the process of buying Ameva and we should go back. The whole family was excited about the news of going back. Ameva was the place we had come to know as home. Life at Lucastes farm with Old Swanepoel had been miserable. We lived in a house that was infested with bedbugs. The year we moved it had rained like never seen before in Zimbabwe. Many people called the rains Gukurahundi - “the rains that washes away all the chaff.” People were saying because of the bloodshed during the war, God was using the rains to clean up the land. It was too much rain that turned maize fields into swamps, meaning our crops failed and we stared hunger in the face. The ground right in front of the house we lived in turned into a bog, as one stepped out of the house into the yard. We were pulling each other from mud knee deep, right in front of the main door to the house! Even for us kids the joke wore thin very quickly. So the chance to go back to Ameva was greeted with so much joy.
Swanepoel Senior gave my dad his lorry to transport our things from Lucastes farm back to Ameva (he had sent it to collet us when we left Ameva the year before).
We came back to Ameva when it was very quiet. Mr. Sweetman Luhanga from the CMC had moved into the main house at the farm. We were told he was from a Church called CMC and that he was preparing for the coming of the white missionaries from the UK.
Mr. Luhanga was a fervent preacher, a serious evangelist and very hard working. In those early days he used to come to the compound and he would literally march on his own round the compound before stopping at the hall on the compound. The kids and some young people loved it and would follow him as he marched, taking turns playing the drum for him. Later, one of my friends Watson played the drum for him on a regular basis. For me and many others, this was entertaining and very different to Nyau. Already, the influence of Nyau had faded greatly. Mr. Luhanga preached the gospel with all his heart. But to many of us it didn’t make sense. We were just not interested. Later, Mr. Luhanga’s visits to the compound include some white faces. Two notable faces around that time were Eric Taylor and Mickey Wright. Again, kids and young people and a few curios adults would come to the meetings. This was fascinating for me because I had grown up in a Rhodesia were white people didn’t mingle with Africans the way these were doing on the compound in the meetings.
For me personally this was a difficult time. I had become acutely aware of the racism I had grown up with in Rhodesia. At independence in 1980, our history books at school had changed. Instead of glorifying Cecil John Rhodes and others as founders and pioneers of Rhodesia, I was learning of how these early pioneers also took land from the Africans, and how some Africans had resisted and how that resistance had been met with brute force. I had witnessed the Rhodesian army beating up people on the streets. In the town of Chegutu were I went to school at David Whitehead, I knew there was a section of the town which was for whites only. I had grown up with night raids led by Rhodesian forces in which every family on the farm was woken up in the dead of the night and had to account for who was there in the household that night. Any extra person not on the list was taken away. Food was checked to make sure we didn’t have extra. Extra food meant we were feeding the guerrillas or terrorists as the Rhodesian army liked to call them. We used to dig a pit in the bush and bury extra food.
All this meant that although I was fascinated with the white missionaries coming to the compound every night, I was very suspicious of white people and their motives. I was in my teens and I began to find reasons from my reading of history for resisting the gospel. One of them was that when Zimbabwe was colonised, it was white missionaries who had learnt the local languages who had then gone ahead and translated for the colonisers so our ancestors signed treaties they didn’t fully understand - thanks to some missionaries. I was becoming an angry young man. I began to resist the gospel with a passion. I was deeply hurt and felt let down when some of my friends became Christians. I felt that they were being deceived.
David Latham gave an opportunity to my friends from the compound Peter (his dad was Mr. Paul the builder) and Stephen (whose dad was the wood turner from Marromeu, a place I would later go and serve as a missionary with YWAM) to do some Bible Studies with him. It was about this time that Peter introduced me to a man called David Wetherly one moonlit night as we all walked out of the compound hall after a service. I thought nothing of this introduction. At this stage, I just didn’t like white people. I had conclude that all white people were racist. The history I was reading at that time “confirmed” that. My initial interest in the gospel had vanished.
Fast forward 2 years later and I am walking down the road to visit my brother at Cox’s farm. The little bridge on the Bay Horse road at Ameva was overflowing, lots of rain that year. I stood there wondering if I should go through the process of removing my shoes and rolling up my trousers and wading the river, or just give up on this visit and turn round and go home. On the other side (the Ameva side) was Dave Wetherly who was taking a late afternoon walk. As he stood there watching the water on the bridge, he saw me and called out my name in greeting. This blew me away! I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t expect a white person to remember my name, especially after not seeing me for two years! But this one did. Wow! I responded to his greeting and straight away began to undo my laces. I removed my shoes, rolled up my trousers and waded the flooded river. As soon as I got to the other side, Dave gave me a mighty hug that nearly knocked me off my feet. He invited me for a cup of tea at his place (the little hut outside the Valentines kitchen). After a cup of tea and some talking, he gave me a pair of trainers and told me he had been praying for me all this time from the last time we met under the moonlight outside the church hall on the compound. He went on to say that he was preaching on the compound that night and wondered if I wanted to come to the meeting. I politely said yes at that time (because deep down I wasn’t sure if I should go). As I walked home (I didn’t carry on to go and see my brother) I was absolutely blown away by what had happened. How could a white person remember my name having met me in the night 2 years previously (circa 84)? And the gift of a pair of shoes? How did he know I needed those? (My old pair was properly worn out). I had a lot of questions.
That night, I was the first one to arrive at the meeting hall on the compound. I sat right at the front. This drew much laughter because in the past, when I walked into a meeting, I sat right at the back where I and my gang would unleash untold mischief to disrupt meetings. And now, here I was, sitting right at the front, alone without my gang.
David Wetherly preached from the life of Namaan the leper. His message was:
It is a simple thing to be saved. For Namaan to be cleansed of leprosy, all he needed to do was go and wash in the Jordan according to the word of the prophet. Only pride was going to stop him.
The moment Dave asked for people to come forward if they wanted to be saved, I lept from my seat and knelt down. The congregation laughed. They thought it was one of my antics. Dear Dave who was oblivious (or was he?) to what I had been up to, just came and prayed for me. I knew that night as I stood up that I was saved.
I walked with Dave and the Bible school students all the way to the farm. When I said good night and turned around, Dave came back and walked back all the way to the compound! When he said good night, I walked back with him all the way to the farm again! All the while we were talking and he was telling me more about Jesus and encouraging me to read my Bible, occasionally distracted by a shooting star.
That was my turning point, at about the age of 15. At school I wanted others to hear what I had heard. So invited David Latham to my school assemblies and also David and many others including Terry Watson. I just wanted my friends to hear the good news.
But this became a turning point for my family too. When they saw what God had done in my life, one by one, initially out of curiosity, they began to come to church. My mum, my sisters, my brother, my nephews, nieces and nephews all came and many of them had genuine encounters with the Lord. Even my dad gave his life to the Lord before he died.
David Wetherly discipled me through constant letter writing and sending books which were very inspirational. One of the most inspiring books he sent me was Through Gates of Splendour. It was this book that fired me up for missionary work.
In those early days at Ameva, I found myself being used in meetings as an interpreter. I had always loved reading and was never afraid of speaking English - way before the missionaries came. My grasp of the language became useful in helping others to hear the good news. I gave myself to this because I was concerned about the message not reaching others because of the language barrier.
When I became a Christian, one of the former students who was still helping at Ameva, Kasbert Magaya came to me and said he and others who had been evangelising on the compound had been praying that someone like me would become a Christian on the compound. The reason was that whenever they went away on holidays, whatever they had been doing on the compound would stop for at least a month. They wanted continuity. So I started running the Sunday school and the meetings when the Bible School students were away. This was something I enjoyed very much.
Ameva has been a special place for me. A place where I heard the Gospel and received new life. A place of vision. A place of being inspired.
I met many friends there some of whom have remained friends to this day.
I went out from Ameva and joined YWAM and that opened a door for me to go and serve in Mozambique for 13 years. I found myself during those years drawing on many lessons I learnt as a young man growing up at Ameva.
In the work that I did with YWAM, I led teams that were multi-cultural. The foundation of that was laid at Ameva were I made friends with English people, Americans, Ndebele, Shona, Sena and Chuabos. The foundation for effective cross-cultural communication was laid at Ameva.