Halesworth: Message of peace from a land hit by horror, the amazing story behind The Rain That Washes

Ashley Maynard, who plays Matthew, in The Rain That Washes by Chickenshed, at The Cut, Halesworth

Ashley Maynard, who plays Matthew, in The Rain That Washes by Chickenshed, at The Cut, Halesworth - Credit: Archant

Moved by Joshua Nkomo’s dream of majority rule, 14-year-old Christopher Maphosa used money meant for new shoes to leave Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and join the fight. When he finally returned that dream had turned into a nightmare - one that nearly claimed his life. Entertainment Wayne Savage listens to his story, the basis of new play The Rain That Washes coming to Halesworth this week

Christopher Maphosa, whose life inspired The Rain That Washes

Christopher Maphosa, whose life inspired The Rain That Washes - Credit: Archant

Christopher remembers the day his life changed as if it was yesterday.

The Rain That Washes looks at the struggle for majority rule in Zimbabwe and the nightmare reality

The Rain That Washes looks at the struggle for majority rule in Zimbabwe and the nightmare reality - Credit: Archant

“One morning I get up early to this noise in the streets of Bulawayo, there is singing of revolutionary songs, dancing... people are on the streets in huge numbers saying Joshua Nkomo is coming to address the people.”

Writer Dave Carey who worked closely with Christopher Maphosa to bring the story to life

Writer Dave Carey who worked closely with Christopher Maphosa to bring the story to life - Credit: Archant

That afternoon Nkomo, leader and founder of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, spoke at the Mpopoma south open grounds of Mahova shopping centre, telling them they were heading to Geneva to talk about bringing the country to the people.

The Rain That Washes comes to The Cut, Halesworth, this Friday

The Rain That Washes comes to The Cut, Halesworth, this Friday - Credit: Archant

“I’ve never, ever, seen something like this. It’s so full, you can see people on top of the roofs of houses, people are on trees... that [first] attracted me to politics,” says Christopher, who would read stories from the local paper to his uncle and grandfather or sit listening to what was unfolding on the radio. When those talks failed, with then prime minister and ardent advocate of white rule Ian Smith refusing to hand power to the majority, Nkomo said people would have no option but to fight for their freedom.

Hearing stories of young people leaving their homes and heading across the border – some by choice, some not – Christopher knew he had to join the struggle for liberation.

“One morning after we went to school I agreed with my friends we have to go as well, but how? I said I was going to ask for money to buy shoes. My uncle, who I lived with, loved me so much it was no problem. That became transport money and the next morning the three of us boarded the bus.”

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Taking them to the closest point to the border with Botswana, they crossed over and were flown to Zambia, Lusaka, and then Nampundwe Transit camp. From there Christopher was taken to various military training camps which is where his political involvement changed forever courtesy of his mentor Professor Malandu; whom he describes as one of the unsung heroes of their fight for freedom.

“I met this professor, one of the people in charge, at this refugee camp, who was living under the tall chabella trees in a tent, imparting political education to ZAPU cadres, that intrigued me a lot.”

Chosen to be trained as a party political commissar, he spent a year in Bulgaria, returning to pass on what he’d learnt. The end goal, to help Nkomo sweep to power in the country’s first democratic elections.

“We hoped Smith would be replaced by Nkomo, a very good leader who we still remember. Unfortunately he was replaced by Robert Mugabe. Many people in Zimbabwe wondered how could it happen, how could Nkomo be beaten by Mugabe who has turned our country into this ruin and was such a cruel man. If he had taken over the country we would not have seen what we have witnessed of Zimbabwe after independence.”

Christopher continued as a ZAPU political educator, spreading the party’s message to ensure it remained a viable opposition in Zimbabwe to allow for a democratic change when the time came.

“Yet we had this Mugabe, who straight from the word go worked on eliminating the opposition and made ZAPU and Nkomo his target to crush,” says Christopher, one of many to suffer his terror.

The instruments of this were Mugabe’s personal militia, Zimbabwe’s 5th Brigade; known for their brutality and terror. Their suppression in the predominantly Ndebele regions of Zimbabwe was given the name Gukurahundi, a Shona phrase which translates as “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains” and inspired the name of the play.

“That is where the innocent civilians were massacred in the [most] brutal of ways by this brigade. They estimate anything between 20,000-50,000 innocent civilians died... some of them buried alive, thrown into mine shafts.”

As part of the opposition party, every knock at the door could mean death.

“The one that nearly took my life... we were rounded up door to door and taken to the CIO, Mugabe’s secret police, to a camp. All day we’ve been assaulted and we were kept there, locked in a shed with cold water hose-piped in all night. I’ve done nothing.”

Questioned the next morning he was ordered to the truck, like so many others he knew had before him. The truck always returned, but those thrown inside never did.

“Before you jump in there are two guys with a stamp; if you’ve got proof you are employed you are stamped and free to go. I had nothing in my possession showing I was employed so I was suspected to be an Nkomo fighter to be taken away and disappeared.

“When I got to the truck, the CIO, he is my former classmate of the late 1970s. He says to me ‘Christopher, why are you here’? I’m saying ‘I’m just told to come here I don’t know what I’ve done, I don’t know where I’m going’. He politely stamps me and says ‘go, go, go’. Otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you this minute.”

When the second wave of violence swept across Zimbabwe in 2000 he knew he may not be so lucky the next time and escaped into South Africa, eventually arriving in the UK and Chickenshed where he works as a building supervisor.

Writer Dave Carey and Christopher have known each other for more than 13 years, regularly stopping in the corridors to chat about Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as it was then.

Each time the latter would slowly reveal a little bit more until, one day, he said “can I tell you my whole story”? Sitting down in his recording studio, Dave switched on the microphone. It turned out to be the best thing he did.

“He spoke for two to three hours... I knew something of the politics, but not to the extent he told me. That planted the seeds. I did nothing for about a year with it, because it was such a big story, so epic; I didn’t know what to do with it.”

A trip to Malawi, once part of Rhodesia, changed that.

“When I was out there I met a lot of people and was struck by how one person could tell a story and captivate a whole room of people,” remembers Dave, Chickenshed’s creative development director.

“That’s when I first figured we should do this as a one-man story instead of trying to have a cast of people playing Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo, Christopher... it reminded me very much of when I sat down with Christopher.”

Based on Christopher’s life from 1978-1982/3, it sees the character Matthew dedicate himself to the dream of majority rule only for Ian Smith’s Rhodesia to become Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

The set and costume changes are kept to a minimum. There are a couple of suitcases, a jacket comes off, a hat goes on. It’s the story that matters.

Working with director Kieran Fay, actor Ashley Maynard and Christopher, they knew staying true to his original story - albeit with some new characters and situations created to give the play a throughline that condenses three years into 70 minutes - with one man telling it made for a powerful piece.

“We’d take it in the rehearsal room, play around with it, show it to Christopher. I always knew if it was working or not when he would sit and watch. He doesn’t comment a lot and he’d either smile or look; I know at times he was very moved when it was things that were of a particularly personal nature involving family members or memories.

“It was difficult because you’re putting somebody’s life on stage. You have a huge amount of responsibility as a writer to do that justice, especially when the person whose story it is is sat next to you.”

Both agreed on calling the piece The Rain That Washes, a variation of the Shona phrase.

“[By using] the real name that carried the terror against the innocent population [meant] when the story is told the message is clear, here at Chickenshed we are putting it into theatre as a way of sending out a peace message. It brings [back] all those memories but with the message things must change, we have this evil regime that is clinging to power and denying the people the freedom they sacrificed so much for. That is why it is so important for me to have this story told,” says Christopher.

He’s happy when people come up to him after performances, curious to learn more about the country’s complicated past and still turbulent present.

“They say that it is educational because people don’t seem to fully understand what the people of Zimbabwe are facing; but I’m happy that people are becoming aware more and more.”

One day, he would love to take the play home to Zimbabwe so people can understand what he and so many others went through in the quest for freedom. With political theatre banned in the country, it won’t be any day soon.

“Mugabe doesn’t want anyone mentioning his brutalities of the 1980s, the innocent civilians he massacred. If I go there I can be picked straight from the airport. It’s a play that can only go there after Mugabe has gone or is no longer in power so a lot has to change.”

The Rain That Washes is at The Cut, Halesworth, from 8pm on February 28, as part of a UK tour. For more details, visit www.newcut.org. For more about the theatre company visit www.chickenshed.org.uk. For the latest entertainment and event news, follow @WhatsonWayne via Twitter

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