In Danai Gurira’s arresting new drama, The Convert, the fictional 15-year-old Jekesai, an African girl in the region that would eventually become Zimbabwe, finds herself caught in a tug-of-war between her native family and culture and a new Christian religion and way of life. While the characters and actions depicted in The Convert are solely the playwright’s creation, the factual events of that explosive moment in history—the late months of 1895—permeate every aspect of the story, coloring-in the world around Jekesai as it changes before her eyes. In the history of the region, the last years of the nineteenth century would prove to be a critical turning point between long-held ways of living and a new, permanent reality.
For centuries, the region of present-day Zimbabwe had been home to a number of sophisticated native states, civilizations of mostly Shona-speaking people with established art, religion and commerce. But major change began to set in in the 1830s, when the Ndebele people of present-day South Africa, who were fleeing violence in their native region, arrived in the southwestern part of the country. They proved to be a powerful force and quickly seized control of much of the south by overthrowing many long-standing Shona chieftancies. The Ndebele eventually established a home, Matabeland, in the southwestern portion of the region, while many Shona-speaking people remained in Mashonaland, to the north, which became Matabeland’s subject-state.
Around this time, the European presence in Africa was steadily increasing. European political and business interests were scouring the continent for opportunities, while permanent missions—both Protestant and Catholic—had begun to take root. One of the first British missionaries, Robert Moffat, befriended the Ndebele king, Mzilikazi Khumalo, as far back as the 1820s. Moffat and his party earned the trust of the locals and introduced them to Christian values and Western customs. Though technically independent of the political and commercial British interests, the missionaries cast a subtle influence in the colonization of the area and the lives of its people, and often provided the locals with weapons while familiarizing them with Western values and education, for better and for worse.
As the century progressed, European governments and the missionaries’ business-minded contemporaries continued splicing up the continent. By the 1880s German, Portuguese, Dutch and British settlers were aggressively vying for the land and resources of southern Africa, and Zimbabwe became a prime target in the “scramble for Africa,” as its promise of mineral resources and rich ranching and farming land made it a desirable prize. The Ndebele king at the time, Mzilikazi Khumalo’s son, Lobengula, found his state swarmed with Europeans and their growing influence.
In 1888, under the leadership of politician and businessman Cecil John Rhodes, the British sent John Smith Moffat—the son of Robert Moffat—to meet with King Lobengula. Moffat convinced Lobengula to sign the Moffat Treaty, which prevented him from dealing with other foreign powers, and the Rudd Concession, which gave Rhodes “complete and exclusive charge of all metal and mineral rights,” as well as commercial and legal powers. Sending Moffat to negotiate with Lobengula was a cunning strategy: Lobengula trusted him—their fathers had been friends—and signed the concessions as a means of both protecting his people and keeping the foreign presence in his kingdom at a minimum. He knew he could not win an outright war with the settlers, and was led to believe his people would receive British protection from other European states. Additionally, he was verbally promised that no more than ten white men would be mining in his state at one time. In exchange, he received monthly payments, rifles and ammunition. On the strength of these concessions Rhodes was granted a charter by Queen Victoria, and his British South Africa Company (BSAC) became the administrative power in the region. The BSAC was given complete imperial and colonial power, and with it they established police forces, built roads, railways, harbors and banks, and sent the Pioneer Column, settlers protected by BSAC forces, north from South Africa to occupy the Zimbabwe plateau. In 1890, the Pioneer Column raised the British flag over what would become Salisbury (which would later become Harare); among their party was a Jesuit missionary. In 1895, the colony was dubbed “Rhodesia” (later Southern Rhodesia).
But the oral and written portions of Lobengula’s concessions differed. He eventually tried to appeal to Queen Victoria and failed. In 1893, war erupted between the Ndebele and BSAC forces; the Ndebele were defeated and Lobengula fled north. At that time the settlers believed the unrest was under control—the people of Matabeland were defeated and the colonists assumed those in Mashonaland were content. They were wrong, and tensions escalated. The locals were angry over the unbalanced appropriation of the land, and the introduction of the hut tax in 1894 forced them, a majority of whom had previously held their wealth largely in cattle, to work for colonists for currency so that they could pay taxes. Further complicating matters, an epidemic of rinderpest wiped out cattle. Religious leaders, spirit mediums who communicated with the ancestors and gods, urged a rebellion. From 1896 through 1897 first the Ndebele and then the Shona rose up against the colonists. Dubbed the first Chimurenga (“revolutionary struggle” in Shona), it was notable for the show of unity among tribes, but its early successes—some estimate that nearly half the white settlers in the region lost their lives—forced settlements into a siege mentality. But reinforcements of men and equipment from the south soon gave the settlers the advantage, and the leaders of the rebellion, including spirit mediums, were captured; many were executed.
Negotiations at the end of 1896 allowed for some amnesties, and a promise of the removal of troops from Matabeland settled the situation in the west. But the conflict in the eastern part of the country, which includes Salisbury/Harare, continued through the early twentieth century. These tensions and the strict rejection of traditional ways by missionaries also led to the emergence of independent African churches in the late nineteenth century, incorporating and blending traditional and Christian rites.
It would be another 80 years before Zimbabwe permanently broke free of colonialism. In 1922, BSAC rule formally ended and the region was annexed by the British government. The white minority opted for self government, and shortly thereafter, restrictions to land access forced many blacks into wage labor; over the next several decades black opposition to colonial rule grew and nationalist groups emerged. In 1965, the government unilaterally declared Rhodesia independent from Great Britain, setting off a civil war with nationalist groups that lasted until 1979, when British brokered peace talks led to a new constitution. In February, 1980, Robert Mugabe won the country’s first independent elections, and two months later Zimbabwe became an internationally recognized country.
This triumph and the hopeful years that immediately followed it were later marred by corruption, violence and economic deterioration. Mugabe has continued to win elections amid charges of electoral violence, corruption and intimidation. At the turn of the twentyfirst century, inflation exceeded 1000%, government-sanctioned land redistribution programs that seized white-owned land were plagued by corruption and violence and opposition politicians were beaten or charged criminally. Since 2008, Mugabe has shared power with Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader who now serves as prime minister, but criticism and tensions remain.