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Life, death, and Robert Mugabe

by
05 October 2012

A year after the Archbishop of Canterbury's visit to southern Africa, Pat Ashworth recounts how shocking news cut short her assignment

LAMBETH PALACE

Welcome, welcome: Dr Williams is greeted warmly at All Saints'Anglican Church in Malawi, during his visit last October

Welcome, welcome: Dr Williams is greeted warmly at All Saints'Anglican Church in Malawi, during his visit last October

I NEVER sleep on journeys, even on night flights; so I am wide awake as the plane makes its 12-hour journey to Johannesburg. My bedtime reading is one of three fat briefing documents on the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.

I have the privilege of being embedded in the official party of five, after years of writing about the dispossessed Anglican Church in Harare.

So, here in my hands, under the dimmed lights of the sleepers around me, I already have a sight of what will go out to the world after Dr Williams has had his historic meeting with Robert Mugabe - if they do meet; for, even at this stage, it cannot be ruled out that the President might refuse or cancel. As it is, he may well use the occasion for a tirade against the British Government.

The Archbishop, together with the Bishops of the Church of the Province of Central Africa, will present and speak to a dossier of abuses committed against the Anglican dioceses in Zimbabwe. They will seek the President's commitment that Anglicans are free to worship without hindrance in their own churches.

They will state very explicitly that Bishops Chad, Julius, Godfrey, Ishmael, and Cleopas are those recognised by the Anglican Communion. And they will urge the President, for Zimbabwe's sake, to help the Church restore the vital health and education services being destroyed, sold, or abused, often actively aided by the police.

It is tough stuff, but the abuses make familiar reading. I have been following and reporting the activities of the former Bishop of Harare, Nolbert Kunonga, an ally of President Mugabe, since before he came to power in a contested election in 2001. But they still disturb and shock. I turn for comfort to the text message from my husband, Ted, which says: "Sleep tight. I love you too."

He has had a lifetime of cheerfully seeing me off on journeys, packing my luggage because I am rubbish at it, and, scientist that he is, making sure I am au fait with the increasingly complex electronics necessary to get copy to the paper on time. He has waved me off at Derby station earlier today: he remains anxious at the prospect of anything to do with Mugabe, and, five minutes into the journey, he rings my mobile to say: "Did I kiss you?"

I catch up with him from the cab that is taking me to Lambeth Palace for the drive to Heathrow. He has been planning his meals for while I am away, though he has lots of dinner invitations from friends and family, and I make him promise to eat some fruit and veg. I will text you from the VIP lounge before we board, I tell him, and I do. He responds: "Have a safe journey, look forward to hearing from you in the morning. Love and kisses."

We have a three-and-a-half-hour wait at Johannesburg before flying to Malawi. I have not slept for two nights, but the adrenalin is keeping me going. I phone home, but there is no reply, and I leave a message to say we are safely here.

AT Chileka airport, we are met by the British Consul and a welcome on the tarmac which is big and joyful and noisy. At a press conference in a stuffy and oppressive lounge, fears do not materialise of its being hijacked by those who would seek to suggest that the Archbishop was here to promote a pro-gay agenda. Dr Williams is able to express his very real delight at being in Malawi to celebrate 150 years since the Church in Africa was planted.

And then comes the plunge proper into speeches and singing and dancing, a feast of colour displayed in the impossibly laundered blue-and-white dress of the Mothers' Union, and the immaculate uniforms of a host of school choirs.

Poverty assails us along the dusty road that will take us on to Blantyre, the commercial capital of Malawi, Africa's poorest country and the 12th most deprived in the world. From makeshift stalls and ramshackle huts by the roadside, people are selling anything they can find: piles of junk, worn car tyres, a few pieces of fruit, the paradox of mobile top-up cards. When we reach the hotel in its wooded gardens, I look with longing at the bath, but, stricken by the sight outside of toiling people waiting at communal taps, I cannot bring myself to indulge.

I find that the dongle that Ted has set up on my laptop will work from the hotel room, and send a jubilant email message home. There is no time to rest: darkness has fallen, and we head off to visit the Mackenzie shrine at St Paul's Cathedral. The slave-raider story of Bishop MacKenzie is Boy's Own stuff: he sailed up the Zambezi and Shire rivers to found the first mission station at Magomero, and died a year later of blackwater fever after the medical supplies that could have treated his malaria were lost in a capsized boat. Dr Livingstone erected a cross over the grave that we are now viewing by torchlight, stumbling on uneven ground.

Private prayer in the church and a photo opportunity over, we travel by car to the home of Bishop James Tengatenga and his wife, Josie. There are no street lights, and intermittent power cuts occur as we drive. All the Malawian bishops are here, some only a few months in post.

The Archbishop presides; the conversation flows; the hospitality is warm; the food, served outside on the terrace under the night sky, is delicious. Since arriving in Africa, my senses have been overwhelmed: finally back at the hotel, I am too stimulated to sleep, and morning is a long time coming. I try phoning home before breakfast but there is no reply on the landline, and I send a text.

By 9 a.m., we are on the way to Trinity Private Secondary School, run by the diocese of Southern Malawi. The dirt roads are deeply potholed. Do you have roads like this in England, the driver asks. I remember the holing of my sump on a farm track in Derbyshire and say, yes, occasionally in rural areas. He nods with satisfaction.

More speeches and enthusiasm from immaculately turned out, impeccably mannered schoolchildren and staff; the showing off of a library sparsely filled with oh-so-randomly donated books; the science lab with its bare minimum of ancient equipment; pride in the provision of private latrines for the girls.

We leave to more cheers. The Archbishop is to meet this morn- ing the volatile President Bingu wa Mutharika, whose government is at loggerheads with all of civil society, including the Churches. Such diplomatic paths are difficult to tread: it is constantly reiterated that the Archbishop is here on behalf of the Anglican Church, not the British Government.

No journalists are permitted at the audience in Sanjika Palace, so, while that is in progress, I am able quietly to observe the preparations being made for tomorrow, when we will make the long journey to Zimbabwe. It is fraught with tensions and unknowns.

Our passports will go ahead to the border, with the hope of speeding up the entry into Zimbabwe. But, for now, it is another drive, to have a brief lunch with the tea community at the austere Thyolo Sports Club. It is like stepping back into the 1950s, an anomaly in the middle of Africa which evokes childhood memories of my parents' golf club in Yorkshire.

I HAVE just sat down at the table and got into conversation, when the Archbishop's press secretary, Marie, and his secretary for Anglican Communion affairs, Joanna, approach to tell me that something has come up. Could I come outside?

I pick up my bag. They look troubled, and I think they are going to tell me that I won't be going to Zimbabwe: no journalists allowed, perhaps. I am even more convinced of that when they suggest I sit down on one of the rattan chairs in the lobby.

It is not that.

There has been a phone call from Lambeth.

My husband has been found dead at home.

White-faced themselves, and infinitely loving, they hand me Marie's phone. It is my daughter, distraught but coherent; she mentions the unanswered calls and closed curtains that prompted concern; my neighbours; the police; the breaking down of the front door; the discovery of Ted's body. He has died probably of an aneurysm, but we will not know for sure until the coroner has done his work.

My questions and my tears pour out. All I want to do is to get home, but I am 10,000 miles away. My son is already on his way to my daughters from Manchester.

They take me outside into the gardens; a tray of lukewarm tea arrives; the tall, concerned figure of the Archbishop comes striding across the grass.

There is no prospect of a flight back today. Nor does anyone think it is advisable for me to return to the hotel in Blantyre, where I would be alone until the group returned in the evening. I opt to stay with them and continue the day's programme.

The panic must show in my face at the prospect of walking back through the lunch hall, and, in one of the first of so many spontaneous and unspoken acts of kindness I encounter, the big Malawian driver simply takes my hand and leads me out a different way.

NOW we plunge into a sea of smiling faces at All Saints' Anglican Church. The next few hours are surreal: the constant refrain is "welcome, welcome"; children grab our hands; everyone wants to greet us all. There are steaming pans of gruel at the feeding station; 100 tiny infants in pinafores in a rudimentary nursery; very sick old people. And later, under the startlingly blue sky, a walk in the fields where the bright-orange soil is producing the bright-green crops enabled by permaculture.

It gets more surreal. My mind is racing and my heart is breaking, but there are goats to be admired, homesteads to be visited, paper-making to watch, and presentations to be made. The potholes in the roads as we drive back have turned to craters, and my shaken bones are being rearranged within my body.

Lambeth has sorted out a flight back from Johannesburg for tomorrow night. The Archbishop has yet more engagements to fulfil today: a dinner with ecumenical leaders, business captains, and officials; and choirs - lots and lots of choirs. Marie has pictures and press releases to send out; we dine together in the restaurant; Joanna comes to say the night office; I talk to my son and daughter; I do not sleep.

They all have to leave at seven the next morning, to travel to the great thanksgiving service that will dominate the 150th anniversary celebrations at Magomero, before setting off later in the day for Zimbabwe. It is an agonising farewell. A shuttle has been booked for 10.30 a.m. to take me to Chileka for the internal flight, but it does not arrive. Smiling hotel porters lazily tell me that it will come at 11, at 11.30, at 12: it arrives at 12.30, and bumps me off to the airport with little time to spare before the flight.

I am on auto-pilot now. I just have to get home. I have not slept now for four nights, and will not sleep on the flight. Heathrow's Terminal 5 is calm and surreal in the small hours. My grey-faced children are there to meet me. My son drives us home, and I cry when I see the boarded-up front door, even though my neighbour has painted it white so that it will not look so stark. Friends and neighbours are in shock; and the house is already full of flowers and cards and kindness.

AS I look back now, it is still agony that I was so very far away, and so powerless to do anything. My daughter had to identify her father's body, arrange a funeral director to take him from the house, and phone everyone who had to be phoned, including her brother. After such an experience, the climb for her back to anything resembling normality has been excruciatingly hard: it was nine months before she could properly resume her teaching job.

I have found a kind of unspoken envy in those who have had to watch the slow and agonising demise of their loved one: isn't it the way we would all like to go, suddenly, at home, sitting on the sofa?

But it was as if, when I was thousands of miles away, and after 43 years together, the earth had simply opened up and swallowed Ted like the children of Hamelin. I still find it unreal. I was not there to hold his hand, and will never know what he suffered.

Sudden death is like an earthquake for those left behind: first the massive shock, then the after-shocks that keep coming, and then standing in the debris of a changed landscape and working out how to rebuild your life with a new and unfamiliar set of tools. I work. I play. I count my blessings, which are many. I think of tragedies experienced by others, beyond anything I can imagine.

On Sunday, we scatter his ashes. For me, his death will always be bound up with this whirlwind and holy experience of Africa, where death comes casually, unacceptably early, and without the indulgence of mourning. It is too soon to draw any profound conclusions about God, the universe, and everything. You have to bump along the bottom until, one day, you reach the surface and stay there. I think that is what faith is.

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