Australian Biography

Eva Burrows - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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It must have been interesting for you professionally as a teacher to be working in Africa when you'd worked before and been trained in a different context. What did you learn in the time that you were in Rhodesia about education?

I learnt a great deal and one of the things was that, first of all, the Africans were so keen to be educated that they work like slaves. Also, most of them who'd been sent to boarding school, they were paid for by their parents. So the parents had sacrificed very much to send them to school. And therefore they wanted to do well, you know, to please their parents as well. So they were very much crammers. They wanted to know what exactly they had to learn and learn it. Actually, I think Africans are more deductive thinkers than inductive, you know, that you give them the rule and then they follow on. I found them not always keen to discuss things and talk about it. They said, 'Tell us what we have to learn and we'll learn it.' And I think sometimes in those days even the examinations, the external examinations, really tested you on what you'd crammed rather than what you'd thought through. But first of all, they were very keen students. We never had any discipline problems in those early days when I was teaching. In fact, if we wanted to punish a child for being … for having misbehaved, we would put them out of school, and they'd cry and ask to come back. You know, they were so upset. To miss a class was the most terrible thing that could happen to them. Which is a bit different now. I think they've learnt a lot of Western ways now. But they were very enthusiastic, very keen. And I loved them. I found it very pleasant to work with the African students. I wanted to try and understand them, identify with them. So I would talk to them a lot about their home, what happened at home, and what they believed at home and so forth. And that's when I used to also go out into the villages myself, to talk with the women. And that's when I began to learn the African language. Because at the mission station everything was in English because the students, once they got to about fourth year in school, everything was in the English medium. It prepared them also for the future. And then they sat exams which were equivalent to the British examination system. So to really learn the language you had to make an effort yourself, get out amongst the people. But I found sharing with them to be a lovely part of my own life's experiences.

What was it, do you think, that you loved so much about Africa and the Africans?

I think their exuberance. They were really bright, happy people. No matter what they do they sing. For example, we'd send them to the garden to dig up the beetroot or something, and they'd all be singing away. And in the fields. There's something of a deep sense of happiness about them, even though they had plenty of struggles and they lived in quite great poverty, to our way of thinking. But they seemed to be at base happy people. And also they were a giving people too. They shared with each other. They could sacrifice one for the other. Much later in life I've learnt from a Russian the comment that, under Communism, Russians forgot how to love each other. I think the Africans were a people of a simple outlook on life, they'd lived a very ordinary, simple existence, and they found their pleasures in the simple things.

Did the other people on the mission go out and about in the villages the way you did?

No, not quite so much. I think I showed a greater interest in that than some of the others. Many of them, because they could do all right with English, they didn't always learn the language either. I used to teach them the language. But some of them got weary in well-doing and gave up.

What language did you learn?

That was the Shona language. That's the northern part of Zimbabwe. There are two areas of Zimbabwe, and the northern part is the Mashona people -- the majority. And in the south is an offshoot of the Zulus, called the Ndebele, and they spoke a language which was an offshoot of Zulu too. I didn't learn that language. But I took my language studies seriously, because I did correspondence lessons with the University of South Africa, where you didn't only learn the language and fluency, but you learnt all the background and the syntax and morphology and -- it was a very interesting language, quite different from our English style of language.

And you became quite fluent in it?

Reasonably fluent, yes. Because I used to preach, sometimes, but I always felt that in preaching the language, I was so keen to communicate well that if I made any mistakes in Shona, I'd have a translator with me. We had wonderful translators available, speaking to the people in their own language with their own idiom. So idiomatic language is so important, which you don't always learn when you're studying a language in-depth.

What happened in relation to religion of the people? You were there not just as a teacher but as a missionary. Did you ever have any encounters with their own faith, their own belief?

Yes. Not a great deal because so many of them were becoming Christians. I think the Christian church, when it went to Africa, appeared like the great colonial power, with all the knowledge expertise, and to be Westernised was like being Christianised. And we have, I think, some guilt in that area, that we didn't always ensure that we preached the message of Christianity in relation to their own culture. I certainly tried to understand their culture enough so that when I taught about the Christian faith, it somehow related to them. So that they became Christians, not just in order to be an educated African, but in order to be convinced that this was the right way to live. One of the most interesting times I had was when we were discussing with my students, who were teacher training students, spirit belief. And there are usually tribal spirits and there are all kinds of spirits, animal spirits. But then the students said, 'We know a man whose spirit is a really good spirit. He doesn't teach the wrong things' etc, you see. And so in that discussion I said, 'well, let's go and meet him and see what he has to say.' So with the students we went to the village where Gwangwadza lived. Now it transpired -- something that I didn't know -- that he had actually once been a student at our mission school and now was a medium for the whole tribe. So when we arrived at the village he asked to be excused for a while while he, the spirit, came upon him, who was this wise and worldly spirit who knew everything about the future. And when he returned he was dressed all in black and he had only a wooden bowl. He had nothing, anything European or Western, with him. Then he was this spirit. Actually his name in English was Chalmers (which I think you couldn't get a more English name than Chalmers, you know). Anyway, once the spirit came on him, he left Chalmers and he was Gwangwadza. And when the students began to question him, he said so many fine things about how you should behave. It was really a very fine exposition of ethical standards. And he even said to the students, you know, 'You've got to make up your mind what you're going to do. You either become a Christian or keep with your old faith. Don't become a double kind of person.' And then I think through a translator I asked him, 'What is your power and how do you look at Jesus Christ?' And then he said, 'Oh, I'm more important than Jesus Christ, because I was there when the world began.' And then he launched into the most wonderful, poetic description of how the world was made, and how the rocks were first soft and then became hard. It was a wonderful speech. But of course that was the crux and then when we talked about it later with the students, we said there's a verse in The Bible that says that any spirit that does not acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the son of God, then that spirit is not the true spirit. But I talked to students and said, 'If he's a wise man and you can listen to his wisdom, even when you still retain your Christian faith, because he said so many wise things to you today.' He was something like a philosopher really. So I wasn't afraid to look at the African faith.

What was the essence of their belief system?

Oh, their belief system is in one high God. And this is what made it much simpler for Christianity to be accepted in all that part of Africa. So this God, Mwari, was a God who was great, powerful, but very far away, and you didn't approach him at all except through the spirits, the spirits of your ancestors or the spirits of people who were great and famous in the tribe. So that there was a spiritual medium to God, and so therefore in teaching Christianity you could say, well, what you have been believing, if you take the next step, that is that God sent someone, Jesus Christ, his son, into the world and he has become the mediator. And we would look at passages in The Bible which taught that you go to God through one way: Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except by me.' And though you may honour the spirits of your ancestors, that it is through Christ that you come to God. And that's why, in many ways, some early missionaries would say, 'No, we must never use anything that belongs to their past belief. Christianity must come in as something entirely new. There's no point of contact. We must bring it in new,' whereas other missionaries felt that it is important to use what they have been trying to understand and grope towards. Now I was in that category.

Was there much talk at that time in that area about demon possession and so on among the Africans?

Oh yes, yes. Well, that also was another aspect of their belief, that you can have powerful evil spirits and there were witch doctors, you know. There were two kinds of witch doctors. There was the good one and he was the man we would now call a herbalist, who could help you cure your sicknesses. His knowledge of roots and all that kind of thing. But then there was the witch doctor who was the one who would … you could come and ask him to get rid of somebody you hated, or he can prophesy. For example, he would throw a certain kind of bones on the ground and tell you your future. Like a fortune teller. But he could also do a lot of harm. I mean, I've had students tell me that, you know, in you go to the witch doctor and he will have a dish of water. And you look in the water and you see the face of the person who has hurt you or harmed you. And then he will prick that water and that person will die. And that was a very strong belief. And I think [with] the coming of Christianity, often, those things were not dealt with. So when there was time of trauma or difficulty, then the African who was a Christian may say, 'I better go and make sure that nobody's got it in for me at the witch doctors or something like that. They were very strong beliefs and beliefs about death. Funerals were very, very important and how the person was buried. You were buried not in a straight grave like that, but they would dig down and then they would dig sideways with a little sort of a shelf. And the body was put in the shelf, so the evil spirits, they come down the hole, but they saw there was nobody at the bottom of the hole. So you would be safe.

Did you personally ever have any encounters with witch doctors?

No, I didn't, not with a witch doctor who does the wrong thing (according to us the wrong thing). But I have spoken to a witch doctor who had herbal medicines and so forth. And I encouraged people to use African medicines. And in fact, now in Zimbabwe, they have hospitals where they can treat people with that, something like the barefooted doctors in China and in -- when I lived later in Sri Lanka there's Ayurvedic medicine, which is the natural medicine and they have their hospital as well. And I think people are coming to discover that many of those herbal treatments are the best of all.

In looking back at that time in Rhodesia, which was quite a long time, how long were you there?

About 17 years.

During that 17 years, what is your most vivid memory from that period?

Oh, that would be very difficult, because there have been many wonderful occasions. But I think it's the people themselves. The elderly people; I came to be very fond of some of the elders. There were some elderly women, Salvation Army officers, and I would love to talk to them and hear how they have found their faith. And I think that was -- that's the best thing of the lot really. But I mean I had other experiences, such as the vast congresses for example. And in the African life they had many festivals and dances. Beer dances usually, with a lot of native beer flowing and people would get up and the spirits of animals would come and they'd have great celebrations. And all this wonderful occasion. Well, the Salvation Army was able to replace that with what we call congress gatherings, when all the African Salvationists of an area would come and sleep out over a few days, because we would always hold them in a time of the year when there was no rain. That's a good thing in Zimbabwe, no rain from about May til October. So everybody would sleep out under the sky; people would make little thatched shelters. And then we would have all kinds of competitions. The ladies would all bring their new sewing and knitting and things that they'd done. And then the children would play all kinds of athletic games. And then on the Sunday we would have services. And everybody would be sitting down and when we sang joyful songs they'd be all up dancing. I have great difficulty in sitting still in church when there's a good song, there's a good hymn. So it was really happy. I remember those occasions very much and in my younger days there I would just be attending. Later on I would often preach at those services too. So those were very happy times.

What was life like on the mission station itself?

Well, it was really a fairly restricted life, according to some people, because we were out in the African area and we very rarely left the mission station, except perhaps once a year when we went on our holidays or, occasionally, to go into town for some shopping. And town, in those days, was Salisbury, now called Harare. But it was really more like family life, and your whole life revolved around the school and the religious activities. And sports. Africans are very keen soccer players. And I also was a netball teacher. And we had competitions with other missions for sports and athletics. So we were always having something after school. We began school about 7 o'clock in the morning and then after lunch we'd start again, because we didn't have afternoons off. It was very serious business. And then in the evening there would be studies at the boarding school and we'd all take our duties there. But the religious life was … the Christian life of the mission station was a very happy experience. Because we had clubs, Christian clubs, and where the young people could learn The Bible. We had the timbrels, the girls played their tambourines. And then we would have the services on Sunday. There were, at that time, probably about 500 students on the mission station. And they sang so wonderfully in the services. And I used to organise all that. I often think now, how did I get that job of doing all that. But probably because the principal knew I was a willing worker. So I did that for many years. And the African students came to love The Bible very much. They are spiritual people. They're not like us Westerners. You know, we are so secular now. But the African people have always been aware of a spiritual world round about them, so that the students very easily took to religion. To them, I mean, to think of somebody not believing in God was absolutely ridiculous. And in fact, I think I read once, an African said the first time he ever heard anybody say there is no God was at Hyde Park corner in London. And he was a student in England. So they are spiritually geared. And they accepted the Christian faith. And of course the person of Jesus Christ was very important to them. He's someone they could admire, want to emulate and, in fact, to really be a good Christian, it means you're going to seek to be like Jesus Christ in your own character. I think one of the verses in The Bible says, 'Let this mind be in you,' which was in Jesus Christ. And a modern translation says, 'You should have the same attitudes as Jesus had.' So I think that they greatly enjoyed studying the New Testament. But the Old Testament was also quite interesting to them, because there was polygamy, the same as their polygamy. And they used to ask questions about why did they give up polygamy. And the Israelites, like Abraham, had a few wives and concubines and so forth. So there was always some interesting discussion. In fact, they liked to discuss a religion more than discuss what they were learning in school.

The Christians were required to give up their polygamy, were they?

Yes. That's from the teaching of Jesus. The polygamist kind of housing. That's another thing that I studied and many people think, well, a polygamist household must be a terrible place, where all the wives are fighting with each other, and so forth, but it's not. A man for example has three wives. And they each have their responsibilities and duties. They each have a certain part of the fields. And they work in their field. The little bit of difficulty and jealousy comes about the children, if one child is favoured over another, but the father usually is wise enough not to do that kind of thing. But in the church, if a man was polygamous, he could become a Christian, but he wouldn't be given a responsibility in the church. For example, he wouldn't be made an elder or something like that. But if he took some extra wives, then he might be disciplined in his church membership. But in our women's clubs we would have Mrs Joseph 1 and Mrs Joseph 2 and Mrs Joseph 3. And they'd all be sitting there together with their children around, learning how to knit or sew in the women's clubs. If a young man had no wife and was going to be married, then he was expected to be monogamous.

In those women's clubs, where you were teaching them to knit and sew in the Western fashion, did they teach you how to do their crafts?

Oh, they would do quite a lot of that, yes. In the women's clubs they wanted to learn how to make Western clothes, naturally, because they didn't only just have a sarong anymore, they were wearing dresses. And surprisingly, Zimbabwe is high, it was about four thousand feet where we lived at the mission station. So they liked to learn to knit, so they could get something warm to wear during the colder months. But their own crafts they would also have at the women's club. And when we would have these big congresses and we'd judge all these pieces of work from the clubs, there was always the African crafts as well, for which they'd get points. And even at our women's teacher training college, where we were teaching Western kind of cooking and so forth, we also taught them how to use their own cooking methods in a much more effective way. Cooking underneath the ground and so forth. So that the girls didn't leave behind a kind of cookery that their mother used.

The criticism that you've alluded to, that was made of missionaries, was that they were cultural missionaries as well as religious missionaries. Was there, at the time that you were there, really an assumption on both sides of the superiority of the Western ways?

Oh, there was certainly, from the African side. And I knew you would see that in little things, like if a baby was born, a man who perhaps had only had one or two years of schooling will give his baby an English name. So that it would look as if he's been educated. And that's why some of the names were so ridiculous. You'd go around to the schools in the villages, and there'd be -- in the school register -- names like Dictionary or Geography or Typewriter or something like that. Which meant that the father wanted to tell people he knew some English words. So definitely from the African side, that was the feeling. If I can get a Western education, if I can have Western style, I'll be able to improve my lot. On the missionary side there would have been a bit of ambivalence, I think. Many missionaries, like myself, didn't think we had all the answers. And of course we were in the period, still colonial period, where the colonial power was looked upon as the sort of strength that made the country what it was.

But you were also there during the time that the movement for independence was underway. Did you encounter that?

Well, I was in Zimbabwe at a time when Ian Smith was working towards -- and then announced the declaration of independence. I think that was one of my saddest days in Zimbabwe. I was so angry I couldn't teach. I didn't go to teach my class. I went out to walk in the forest, in the bush. Because I felt that was so unfair, the whites were so unfair, that Africans who got educated, you know, they were expected to become like whites, and if you were educated and became a teacher or you became a nurse, then that was almost the sort of highest level you could get to. If you wanted to be an artisan, a craftsman, a builder, a carpenter, a bricklayer, you couldn't do that. You know, you just had to be a labourer. So there was no opportunity for Africans to rise in the commercial field. They could stay in the teaching and the hospital field, even to become a doctor or a nurse, but really not to be involved in the economic development of the country. And then when you had the unilateral declaration of independence, and that meant …

Which was Ian Smith's response to a pressure from the UK for more liberal treatment of Africans …

Yes, that's right.

Could you just tell me [about] that, for those people who don't remember.

Well, you see, the British Government was pressing for greater freedom and opportunity for the African in Rhodesia. But Ian Smith and his henchmen, and his political cohorts, they didn't want that. They wanted to retain the power and authority. Of course, I have to grant them this --that we didn't have apartheid as in South Africa. We had what was called 'partnership'. But always the white man was the senior partner. We were able to go into the same shops, blacks and whites. But there was still the acknowledgment all the time that the white man is superior. And I felt that the Africans were going to get even less opportunity. And personally, I felt that civil war was inevitable. Much as I didn't like that thought, I really say it had to come. That was their only way.

[end of tape]

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