Drumming and dancing in delight
HARARE, Zimbabwe — Musicians and dancers played a spectacular role during celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Baha'i Faith in Zimbabwe.
A variety concert that followed the opening ceremony on 12 December 2003 showcased talents of Baha'is from throughout the country.
Among the performers was a Baha'i youth group from Bulawayo, "Isitsha Sothando" ("Portal of Love"), which performed the Ndebele tribe's traditional dance for community celebrations.
"Letters of the Living," a group from Mashonaland Central Province, danced to the traditional piano-like instrument, the mire, as they sang about the coming of Baha'u'llah and the subsequent introduction of His teachings to Zimbabwe.
The Chiweshe Baha'i Choir sang and danced as members of the group played drums that they had made themselves. The Harare Baha'i youth and children also sang during the event, and a Baha'i youth from Matabeleland, Sithule Moyo, recited a poem.
Baha'is from all provinces of Zimbabwe and nine other countries attended the festivities that were held from 12 to 14 December 2003.
The event followed smaller regional congresses held throughout the nation in 2003 to mark the golden jubilee.
Television, radio and newspapers provided extensive coverage of the event. For example, a newspaper, "The Herald," which circulates nationwide, carried two major articles on the Faith.
From the Baha'i World Centre in Haifa, Israel, came a congratulatory message from the Universal House of Justice, which said in part: "Your assemblage is a testimony to your devotion and brings to mind those valiant souls whose sacrificial efforts laid the foundation of the Faith in your country."
Those pioneering Baha'is were remembered as the program, chaired by master of ceremonies, Jonah Mungoshi, began with a slide show depicting the Baha'is who established the Faith in Zimbabwe (previously called Southern Rhodesia).
The most prominent of all the Baha'is who resided in the country was John Robarts, who was appointed by Shoghi Effendi as a Hand of the Cause in 1957. Mr. Robarts served as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of South and West Africa until 1959. With his wife Audrey, and their children, he lived in Bulawayo from 1957 to 1967.
In an opening speech, Beth Allen, a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors for Africa, said there was nothing more joyful than to see the jubilee gathering.
"Today we are gathered here heart and soul to commemorate not only 50 years of the Faith in Zimbabwe but also to celebrate the coming together of people whose varied backgrounds and different cultures lend a beautiful diversity to the colorful flower garden God has created," Mrs. Allen said.
In the official opening address, the founder and acting vice-chancellor of the Women's University in Africa, Hope Sadza, called the 50th anniversary "a remarkable landmark."
Dr. Sadza said she cherished the hope that the Baha'is would "help Zimbabwe to become spiritually as beautiful as physically she is, so that our lovely country may become the abode of peace and tranquility and the envy of the rest of the world."
Among those in the audience were a former cabinet minister, a representative of the diplomatic corps, leaders from Christian churches, and other distinguished guests.
A prominent government official, Nathan Shamuyarira, briefly addressed the conference, speaking about his high regard for the Faith's teachings and principles, and the great respect he has for Baha'is.
History came alive at the jubilee when some of the early Baha'is of Zimbabwe were introduced to the participants. They included Izzat'u'llah Zahrai, Douglas Kadenhe, Nura Faridian (now Steiner), Enayat and Iran Sohaili, and former member of the Continental Board of Counsellors for Africa Shidan Fat'he-Aazam and his wife Florence.
Mr. Zahrai was the first Baha'i to come to the country during a Ten Year plan to take the teachings of the Faith around the world. He was followed soon after by Claire Gung, Eyneddin and Tahirih Ala'i, and Kenneth and Roberta Christian. All six received the accolade of Knight of Baha'u'llah from Shoghi Effendi.
Mr. Zahrai told the participants that the "sweetest moment" of his life came shortly after his arrival when he received a cablegram from Shoghi Effendi which said, "Fervently praying success."
Another speaker was prominent Harare businessman, Mr. Kadenhe. He became a Baha'i in 1958, one of tens of thousands of people from all major tribes of Zimbabwe who have joined the Faith from that time until the present day.
Baha'is now live in more than 1,600 localities in urban and rural areas, and there are 43 Local Spiritual Assemblies. The National Spiritual Assembly was formed in 1970. There are Baha'i centers in Harare, Bulawayo, Chinamora, Mubaira, and Murewa.
The Baha'is have undertaken a range of social and economic projects in Zimbabwe. For example, there are three Baha'i pre-schools, most of whose pupils are not Baha'is. Baha'is have conducted agricultural programs devoted to improving cultivation of fruit and vegetables. There is also a pilot program by the Baha'is to combat HIV/AIDS.
The Baha'i community has co-sponsored workshops on women's rights, the family, and human rights with the University of Zimbabwe, the Teachers' Association, and government ministries.
History of the community
During intervals at the jubilee, an audio-visual presentation of historic photographs was screened, reminding Baha'is about the past difficulties and triumphs, and of their precious heritage.
Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith, visited the country firstly by himself in 1929, and then with his wife, Madame Ruhiyyih Rabbani, in 1941. He visited the Victoria Falls, Matopos, and Bulawayo.
The first indigenous person to accept the Faith was Morton Ndovi in January, 1955 (he left for Malawi, then Nyasaland, shortly afterwards). Other local people accepted the Faith soon afterwards, and in April that same year the first Local Spiritual Assembly was formed in Harare (then called Salisbury).
The first African woman to become a Baha'i in Zimbabwe was Mabel Chiposi, who accepted the Faith in 1957. She passed away two years later. Her husband, Leonard, continued serving the Faith until his death in 1993.
Many local people were introduced to Faith in a primary school set up by two pioneers from the United States, Larry and Carol Hautz.
They had established a motel, service station, and a snake farm on the Bulawayo road just outside Salisbury (now Harare). The school was initially for the 20 children of the staff, but it eventually expanded to a total enrollment of 400.
The first people of European descent to become Baha'is in the country were the late Salvator ("Sue") Benatar, and his wife Sylvia Benatar. Mrs. Benatar, a pianist who has performed internationally, attended the jubilee and played a selection of classical pieces.
Another Baha'i pioneer working alongside the ever-increasing numbers of African-born members of the Faith was author and educationalist, Dr. Genevieve Coy, whose course on living a spiritually-based life was published as a widely-circulating book, "Counsels of Perfection."
(Jubilee photos by Dana Allen.)
(Historical photos, except for last three portraits, courtesy of "Heroes and Heroines of the Ten Year Crusade in Southern Africa," compiled by Lowell Johnson and Edith Johnson. Baha'i Publishing Trust, Johannesburg.)