By Tapiwa Zivira
Maria’s body was found floating in a river close to her aunt’s homestead where she had taken refuge after running away from her abusive husband.
What puzzled those who pulled out the lifeless body was that Maria was still wearing the white denim pants and a blue top she wore the afternoon she left home.
Those who witnessed the incident told The Standard they suspected Maria did not drown while swimming as officially stated by her aunt.
“How could she have been swimming with her clothes on?” said one of the men who said he was there when the body was retrieved from the river.
“She could have committed suicide, or she could have been murdered” he added.
With such questions being raised about the cause of her sudden death, Maria’s funeral was heartbreaking.
Her mother was inconsolable and fainted several times and as relatives threw earth into the grave to bid farewell to a young life lost, it was all tears and weeping.
Even with the last shovels of soil being thrown onto the grave, mourners remained seated, defying the scorching heat, either in apparent exhaustion or perhaps in some hope that this was just a dream they would wake up from.
What broke the mourners’ hearts is that only a week earlier, 20-year-old Maria had thought she was finally safe from abuse after running away to her aunt’s place in Chikwaka, many kilometres away from her husband’s homestead in Masembura.
A victim of an arranged marriage, Maria had, a year earlier, found herself living with a polygamous man of advanced age, all with the blessings of her parents, who used the strict doctrine of the Johane Marange church to enforce the union.
Formed in the 1930s, the Johane Marange sect is one of the most popular apostolic sects in Zimbabwe and is known for its strict rules that members have to adhere to.
Among the rules are that all members of the sect including women must keep bald heads and that the women expected to submit to men always, whether at home or within the church. The father is the sole authority in the house.
Women do not contribute anything either by way of preaching or being part of decision-making in the running of the church.
“Women cannot stand and preach to a congregation, it is a sign of disrespect,” said a church elder.
Education for girls in the church is not a priority.
They are, instead, groomed to be housewives and are not supposed to get access to any culture or platforms that may be seen to be contrary to the church doctrines and parents are not encouraged to send their children to visit relatives who are not members of the sect.
The sect is also one of the few remaining that gets girls tested for virginity and those certified to be virgins are made to sit on the front row, facing church elders who use that opportunity to pick out potential wives.
To add to the woes of the girls and women, the church has powerful internal disciplinary platforms that are closely presided over by the church leaders.
With much of the rules and regulations of the church being enforced far from the eyes of the state law enforcers, abuse of girls and women often goes unreported, and is dealt with, if at all, within the church’s internal courts, which are often biased against girls and women.
Apart from the observed high number of cases where girls below 18 are married off — often to older and polygamous church members — there are also many incidents of birth-related deaths as the church forbids its members from using the formal health institutions and prefers its own midwives and spiritual healers.
The church also bars its members from taking medication, and women are not allowed to take contraceptives. defying the rules can lead to automatic expulsion from the church.
Members of the church normally live in large communities together and being expelled from the sect is like being banished from the whole community.
“The other members of the community shun you, so you will have to do everything to remain in the church, and that means following the rules,” said a member.
The church also uses –whether by design or coincidence — psychological indoctrination to make young girls believe the only way is to get married.
In church sessions this reporter attended undercover, preachers used derogatory words for things that they believe are not in conformity with their practices.
For example, when one fails to attend church, it is defined as “kun’ora” (dirty and sinful) and non-members are called “vanhu vekunyika vakan’ora” (sinful outsiders) and the church’s high priest, Noah Taguta, is referred to as a “god” who is sometimes likened to Jesus, and messages from him, including those that seek to suppress the role of women in church, are said to be directly from God.
In all the sessions this reporter attended, the preaching lines consisted of messages about women’s submission to men and there was always emphasis about the superiority of men.
The church members refused to officially talk to The Standard, citing strict church rules that barred them from talking to people “vemunyika” (outsiders) about their sect’s processes.
Attempts to get contacts for the church’s top priest based in Marange, Manicaland were futile as the sect’s members refused to co-operate with this reporter citing church rules.
With such strict rules in place, Maria, who grew up in the rural Masembura area, never got to know the other side of life, as everything within her family and community was centred on this doctrine of the Johane Marange church.
A first-born daughter to parents whose lifestyle was wholly based on subsistence farming and market gardening.
Maria only heard of — but never witnessed — the bright city lights or the fast-paced life the urban folk live.
Before she could see the other side of life, or at least define her own ambitions and chosen destiny, having dropped out of school at an early age, Maria was ushered into the world of adulthood.
After getting married off at 19 to a husband whose eldest child was older than her, Maria was to endure months of physical and emotional abuse from both her husband and the first wife.
Left with no choice, she fled to her parents, but because of the church’s strict rules, her father was not supposed to accept her back, but rather turn her back to her husband and have whatever dispute there was resolved by the church.
“According to the church’s rules, Maria was supposed to approach the church’s disciplinary structures and have her case solved because fleeing from her husband was seen in the church as an unacceptable thing, and one could be banished from the church for doing such,” said a church member.
Thrust into the lonely world, far from the ears and eyes of the many counselling and rights bodies, a troubled Maria took refuge at her aunt’s homestead in Chikwaka.
But her troubles were far from over.
Her husband was trailing her using both the church and the family channels.
Some witnesses alleged that her aunt’s husband, who is also a member of the Marange sect, was making advances on her with the intention to make her a second wife.
The Standard could not verify these claims, but the aunt’s husband denied the allegations when asked at Maria’s funeral.
According to traditional customs, it is acceptable for a younger woman to share a husband in a polygamous union with her elder sister or cousin.
If the allegations were true, then it means Maria must have gone through torturous times during her last days because when she thought she had run away from her troubles, her babamukuru (uncle) tried to make her a second wife,” said a relative of the deceased’s father.
When The Standard talked to Maria’s father last week, he said he was still to get his head around what could have happened to his daughter.
“I still blame myself for not letting my daughter come back home when she had problems with her husband,” he said.
“The explanation I got from my sister [Maria’s aunt] is not satisfactory and I think my daughter must have committed suicide, and not drowned by accident as I was told,” he said, adding that he had heard rumours that his sister’s husband was making advances on Maria.
A subsistence farmer, Maria’s father said he had no resources to follow up on the case and to get information on what really transpired.
“Up to this day, we do not know whether it was suicide, murder, or accidental drowning. What we just know is that the loss of my daughter could have been avoided,” he said.
A death that could have been avoided, and abuse that could have been reported, Maria’s tale is not unique in the Johane Marange church communities.
Abuse of girls has happened unabated apparently because of the church’s allegiance to President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF.
In 2013, Mugabe and his wife –all dressed in white garments –attended one of the church’s sessions in Bocha, Marange.
While campaigning for the 2013 presidential elections, which he controversially won, Mugabe appeared to condone the church’s practices when he told the gathering that he appreciated “the role being played by apostles in teaching good morals and values”.
A European Journal of Research in Social Sciences published in 2016 by Chikwature W and Oyedele V revealed that “learners in polygamous families lack parental material and motivational support to continue in school, the main focus of adolescent girls and boys is to get married and start a family, parents encourage and even arrange marriage of their girl children in school even without their consent. learners in Johanne Marange Apostolic Sect have very little option to extricate themselves from the ills of polygamy even in their future life.”
Summing up how widespread problems like Maria’s are, the study concludes, “… the submission of the women to husbands and being household head also is an impediment as the women first looks or seeks permission from the husband before she goes to participate in church, otherwise she risks her family’s social unity.
“There were a myriad of polygamy problems that include: reproductive and sexual health, rivalry among co-wives, collaboration and support among co-wives, limited ability to make autonomous life choices, potential for abuse, strained relationships among the children in family, restricted intellectual development and support burden by household head.”
Anti-child marriage organisation, Roots director Beatrice Savadye said, “This [Maria’s story] is just but one scenario where girls and women are being abused on the premise of power by men in positions of authority within the church, yet it’s happening in many spheres like the workplace, modelling industry, in tertiary institutions, to name but a few. Maria’s story is heart-breaking and all the violations she and many other girls face should not be tolerated.”
The Constitutional Court last year ruled that section 22(1) of the Marriage Act was inconsistent with section 78(1) of the Constitution.
This effectively outlawed child marriages and set 18 years as the minimum age of marriage in Zimbabwe.