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Baptism of death: ‘It couldn’t be the Holy Spirit’

By Elliot Ziwira

A piercing scream cuts across the night becoming part of a cacophony of sobs, whimpers and heart-rending wails as the truck bearing the bodies of brothers, Peter (46) and Tendai Marera (28) drives into their mother’s yard in Ward 4, Marymount, Rushinga.

Part of the mourners at Peter and Tendai Marera’s burial
Part of the mourners at Peter and Tendai Marera’s burial

It is Monday and the time is 7.42pm. The driver, a relative to the deceased, steers the truck towards the two-roomed house to the northeast, then reverses to the southwest, and delicately brakes a metre or so from the thatched kitchen.

The tempo rises to a crescendo as pallbearers step in to accompany the two siblings on their last sup in their mother’s kitchen, albeit in a silent way from their white coffins; making death so much proud.

The yard is packed, and in the darkness, momentarily split by torchlights, or cellphone beams, white is the dominant colour — it is the colour of the Vapositori.

Hushed tones, whimpers, tirades from a pained relative or two become part of the sombre atmosphere engulfing the homestead for the two hours or so.

No funeral dirges — no funeral drumbeat — just echoing silences of what could have been.

Later, much later, Vapositori’s requiems slashed through the heavy cloud of sorrow, undercut by an occasional salvo of disapproval from ‘non-believers’ among the mourners.

It is a story of pain, faith and disbelief where questions override answers, which is usually the case with spiritual matters.

Among the mourners are Tendai’s widow, Melody Kumhera (20) who has their 11-month-old daughter, Rudo Isabel, tacked on her belly.

The same story is replicated at four other homesteads across Rushinga District, Mashonaland Central, in Chief Makuni’s domain. It is also playing out at another homestead outside the province.

Peter and Tendai are part of a group of eight “prophets” who drowned in the Mhungumwe pool on the confluence of Mazowe and Tsvinje rivers in Marymount, Rushinga, when a Johanne Masowe eChishanu baptism ceremony went wrong.

They are said to have met their fates within three minutes of their contact with the murky waters of Mhungumwe.

The eight have since been buried.

There is so much speculation surrounding the incident, with some pointing to ritual dabbling; others say the pool is sacred; and some say it could be a consequence of internal power struggles in the church.

Others maintain that the eight were simply bad swimmers, or were slowed down by their long garments.

To find out more, The Herald did not only join the mourners to commiserate with them, but also visited the ill-fated, or rather, sanctified Mhungumwe pool.

Chief Makuni (Chaora Nicholas Musika) (81), maintains that Mhungumwe is a sacred pool, whose history goes back about 400 years when one of their forefathers and Mhondoro, Bvumo, was murdered.

Delving into the history of the pool, he said Bvumo, their ancestor, was assassinated owing to succession disputes, involving three brothers.

Mhungumwe was his sanctuary. He used to keep his snuff and other paraphernalia in its environs. His assassins attacked him there and threw his body into the pool.

Chief Makuni has since subpoenaed the leaders of the apostolic sect also known as Jeandie; Mike Chidavaenzi of Kunyeti Village, Shame Kufandirori from Kufandirori Village and Trust Chizondo, demanding 20 head of cattle as penalty for the desecration of the pool by the church and causing the death of the eight “prophets” by drowning.

We walked from where we had parked among a hotchpotch of leafless mugoro, muzaroro, mutongoro, mubikanyemba, muwuyu, muzunga and musumba trees for more than 20 minutes in the searing heat along the dry Mazowe riverbed to get to the confluence of disaster.

Tsvinje, which is supposed to offload her burdens into Mazowe has long since given up on flowing due to heavy siltation.

Mazowe River has also sacrificed her flow to sustain the thousands of artisanal miners whose dreams of rich gold pickings weigh down on her bed, flooding it.

Both rivers are dry. It is eye splitting to tell the banks from the riverbed as everything is now a vast span of sand and rubble.

More than three quarters of Mhungumwe is dry. With scores of cattle wading in and taking huge swigs from the pool before retreating to contemplate the next move on the dry riverbed, one is tempted to dismiss the revered Mhungumwe as just any other pond.

So, were the gods of the pool angry, or was it simply a case of the Holy Spirit abandoning the faithful?

Ward 4 Councillor, Shepherd Kamugogode, expresses grief over the drowning of the eight, adding that members of apostolic sects should respect sacred places, and always seek guidance from traditional leaders, who are privy to the history around them.

“Everyone here knows that Mhungumwe is sacred. The chief is on record warning that whoever violates the pool should be ready to face the consequences,” he says.

He urges religious tolerance and core-existence.

“Traditional religion that our ancestors pursued is still very much alive. Sacred places should be respected. The challenge we face today is that people mix aspects of traditional religion and Christianity, which leads to disaster if not well-handled,” says Kamugogode.

Ward 19 Councillor, Howard Machipisa, shares similar sentiments, saying members of apostolic churches should not tempt guardians of revered places.

Tonderai Muzika (27), uncle to the late Alexio Makombe (20), who dived into the pool, and was submerged more than five metres down for some time before being tipped up, says on the fateful day, the Holy Spirit appeared to have abandoned them owing to disregard of doctrine by some of the church’s leaders.

“I did not immediately plunge in, since from the moment we arrived at the pool, I doubted the holiness of it all,” he says.

“You see, dark colours and other gear like sheath knives are not part of our doctrine at Johanne Masowe eJerusalem. We only wear white, and occasionally light blue.”

Muzika reveals that most of the “prophets” who dived into the pool were clad in red garments, among other colourful apparel brought by leaders from Harare.

“To me, that was a red flag. I questioned why there were red garments and a sheath knife contrary to our dogma at Jerusalem,” he avows.

This view is articulated by many others from the church, including Peter and Tendai’s siblings, Elisha, Moline and Rudo, as well as their widows.

They point out that something wasn’t right somehow, which could make them think twice before returning to the fold.

Muzika says one of the “prophets” from Harare, Gabriel, had a sheath knife raised above his head when the song “Hosanna” was being sung; and when the prophets plunged into the pool, he lodged it into the ground.

“When we arrived at the pool, Madzibaba Mike asked all the prophets,from a congregation of between 4 000 and 5 000, to go to the front,” he says. “Due to heavy siltation and the fact that we are in the dry season, the bulk of the pool is dry, save for a part towards the eastern bank, which is the deepest.

“The first thing that we did was to ford the pool to determine which part could be used for the baptism ceremony. A demarcation was then made using poles and white cloth.

“All the prophets numbering about 35 or 40, including about 15 seniors, stood alongside the edges of the water, with all the others spreading out on the riverside and banks.”

“Hosanna”, a holy song usually used to open ceremonies, was then sung. Before the hymning ended, Madzibaba Everjourney (Shame), tossed his staff (tsvimbo) into the pool on the side delimited as the deeper end.

Instead of sinking, the staff floated further east towards the rocky banks, which is the deepest part, spurred on by the swirling tides.

This version is corroborated by Madzibaba Jonah (48), who, however, puts the figure at over 2 000. He reveals that it was not the first time for them to gather at the pool as they were there in 2018, although they used the shallower part. The pool was not as dry as it is now.

According to him, it is possible that many among them could not have first-hand information on what transpired. He is also noncommittal on who threw the staff, or whether it was flung in or not.

“Everjourney was the first to dive in, followed by several other prophets. Some of them dived on the swallower side, and others were on the deeper part,” continues Muzika.

He says he does not know how he got into the water, against his better judgment, as he was convinced that something was amiss.

“I just took a step and then leapt into the pool. I felt a powerful body pushing me downwards to a depth of about nine metres or so, making it impossible for me to swim or manoeuvre to safety. When I felt the pressure lessening from my shoulders, I glided up, but could not get to the surface,” Muzika recalls.

Madzibaba Jonah, who lunged into the water three times, and brought out a loose garment on his first attempt, puts the depth at about five or six metres.

Like Muzika, he bumped into others, who were also desperately signalling for help, Alexio among them. On the third attempt, Madzibaba Jonah felt his legs slackening, and decided to call it quits.

By this time four of the dead “prophets” bodies were retrieved.

“It was over within three minutes or so. More than 15 “prophets” plunged into the pool, either in response to the incantation during the singing of ‘Hosanna’, or to assist others,” Madzibaba Jonah, who has been with the church for more than 20 years says.

On whether the long garments could have curtailed attempts to swim, Madzibaba Jonah says, it could possibly be, but Tendai’s issue somehow puts that to rest.

He also says not all of the victims were bad swimmers; some were proficient in water.

When Tendai jumped for the first time, he had his church regalia on, but he managed to swim back to shore, after Madzibaba Mike pointed at him with his staff.

He removed his garment and plunged back in shorts and a T-shirt when he realised that his elder brother was still in the water, but he could not make it back.

He was among the four whose bodies were later retrieved, clasping at each other in pairs, using a thorny tree branch weighed down by attached boulders and suspended across the pool by means of ropes made from torn garments.

When the first four victims were rescued, the faithful thought they could make it, although it was clear that they were dead.

Muzika says it was Alexio who signalled that they were in danger of drowning, prompting others to dive into the pool in an attempt to rescue them.

After the ordeal, Madzibaba Everjourney (Shame) is said to have uttered: “Sinners die in baptism ceremonies. I always tell you that there is always a need to confess, and be closer to God. You did not confess.”

He then disappeared from the scene, followed by those who had not lost loved ones.

“So, could it be that the eight of them, including my husband, did not confess, and deserved to die?” quips Tendai’s tearful 20-year-old widow, Melody, at the graveside.

On why the Holy Spirit did not forewarn them of the danger, Moline (37) says her brother, Tendai, foresaw his death and told fellow members at the shrine, but they did not take heed. Alexio is also said to have warned that the ceremony should be called off. He also foresaw his death in visions.

Another female prophet’s warning was shot down as well, others say.

Muzika says a lot happened between Tuesday and Saturday. An advance team of three was sent to the pool on the eve of the ceremony. Some say an owl hooted throughout the night as a premonition of bad omen.

Muzika says three grey-haired and long-bearded men were seen by artisanal miners at the pool on Thursday.

He avers that Madzibaba Mike was no longer keen on the baptism rite, but he was pressured by other leaders.

Could it be that those from Guruve, where the church originated from played a part in the saga?

“It could be, since there is a longstanding tiff concerning Madzibaba Mike’s anointing as leader. They have always insisted that the baptisms should not be done here,” Muzika says.

“The issue of the mysterious long-bearded men, may be an answer to that.” The Herald

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