I was drawn to Isabel Mukonyora as a person with a story. Like the best stories, hers illuminates a particular experience in space and time. All the while, it imparts a knowledge of place and life that transcend her personal narrative. Hers is a charming voice, yet she complicates my sense of the unfolding histories of Christianity, of colonialism and post-colonialism, and of the continent of Africa.
She was born in the land we now know as Zimbabwe. Until Isabel Mukonyora turned 21, in 1980, it was called Rhodesia after the British industrialist Cecil Rhodes. Her grandmother was an herbalist who cultivated a traditional African spirituality linked to nature and ancestors. Her parents were Roman Catholic. Like many Africans in the colonial period that stretched from the late 19th to the late 20th century, she felt caught, in her own country, between several worlds. From the age of three, she was taught to speak English rather than the Shona language of her family. As she described this to me, I heard in her voice how simple letters — a, b, c — could create a sense of displacement. Mukonyora takes displacement and change for granted as features of life in past- and present-day Africa and elsewhere. They did not diminish with the end of colonialism as expected, she says, but have been intensified by the global era that followed.
Isabel Mukonyora uses a phrase in her writing and in her story that stays with me long after this interview ends: "finding meaning in the margins." She left home as a young wife to study at Oxford. She returned to the capital city of Harare, to teach at the University of Zimbabwe, as a religious scholar and a divorced single mother. In African culture, she says, this alone made her marginal and deeply suspect. She lived at first in the beautiful suburban house of a friend. It resembled a giant English cottage and quite literally brought home to her the disjunctions of Africa's colonial and post-colonial experience. The churches that sat in the center of the modern city struck her as potent symbols of unresolved tensions in that history.
Isabel Mukonyora decided to make peace with her marginality, but her quest became something more than personal. Just beyond her gate and across the road was a vast dried up marshland. She walked to the university through these tall grasses at the edges of the city. In Shona, such expanses are called sasa or sowe: "uninhabited fringes." There she encountered — and ultimately followed — mysterious, white-robed Shona people who gathered there for long hours of prayer. These were Masowe Apostles, who go purposefully to the fringes of modern society to worship in the open air. The very words sasa and sowe suggest both dread and illumination, Mukonyora says — places we fear and yet know can open new possibilities and enrich our lives. The Masowe gathered near garbage dumps and sticky, muddy clearings inhabited by mosquitoes and snakes and frogs. Yet, as Mukonyora describes it, the worshippers redeemed and reclaimed these rejected spaces with human presence, with milk and honey, with healing prayer and song.
There are an estimated five million Masowe Apostles at present, concentrated in Zimbabwe and surrounding countries, but spreading beyond the African continent. They have joined a long and ancient line of Christians and other mystics and seekers who have retreated to the wilderness, or recreated the wilderness, for a more authentic experience of God. The man who founded the Masowe Apostles, Johane Masowe, was born Johane Sixpence in the early decades of the 20th century, and he is seen as an African John the Baptist figure.
Many important and tantalizing themes emerge from my conversation with Isabel Mukonyora — insights into the diverse interplay of Christianity, Islam, and ethnic traditions in Africa, for example, and an introduction to the notion of "African diaspora" across history. I will relate differently to these large ideas from now on because they came to me vividly embodied in this woman's life and voice, the grief she carries gracefully and the laughter that comes to her so easily. She has found a kind of faith, a comfort, in "being lost." She has made her peace with wandering in and out of the fringes of society and often not having answers. Yet she is anchored in stories and truths and songs that will go with her anywhere. These ancient elements ground us in our digital, globalized world of displacement and change. We need them now, perhaps, more than ever.