Bicycle-riding nun one of Zim’s unsung heroines

Miriam Mangwaya
TO non-Catholics, she was popularly known as “the bicycle sister”.

To Catholics, from the youngest to the oldest, she was Sista Kiri. To the people of the Govere area, Sister Christiana Mugocha was a celebrity, a nun who rode a bicycle, running errands for freedom fighters as they fought to liberate the then-Rhodesia from colonial oppression during the mid-70s.

As Zimbabwe prepares to celebrate 37 years of independence, 75-year-old Sister Christiana of the Little Children of the Blessed Lady (LCBL) still vividly recalls how she diced with death as she straddled between serving God and participating in the liberation struggle.

“Serving God is not all about participating in church, praying or reading the Bible,” she said. “Truly serving God is saving lives and souls. Even during the toughest times of the war, I never regretted being a nun. My heart swells when I think of how I dedicated myself to liberating the country and assisted the guerrillas to fight for everyone’s liberty.”

Sister Christiana was famous for cycling from Gandachibvuva Mission to Chivhu in Masvingo province, then Enkeldoorn, to collect medicine that was sent from the capital, Harare, for freedom fighters.

The freedom fighters needed medication to speed up recovery from the injuries they sustained during battles. So, Sister Christiana took it upon herself to get on a motorbike and collect the medical supplies.

“Back then, in the 1970s, people would call one another to come outdoors and take a glance, for it was a wonder to see a woman, not a mere woman, but a catholic sister, as holy as I was in their minds, passing by their homesteads riding a motorbike,” Sister Christiana recalled.

Riding a motorbike was masculine, the villagers believed. But later on, they realised that they needed Sister Christiana’s masculinity. For the guerrillas to remain healthy, they needed medicine.

So that she would not get caught by soldiers because of the rumbling of the motorbike, the same villagers, who at first despised her for riding the motorcycle, advised her to use a bicycle.

And that’s how she became “the bicycle sister”.

Sister Christiana was born in 1943, at St Killian Mission in Mutare, in a family of six. Her parents were famous in Mutasa Deanery for their loyalty to Catholicism. They had no problems with their daughter’s desire to live under the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Sister Christiana completed her primary education at St Killian, before going to All Souls Mission in Mutoko in 1959, to prepare to take the veil.

While a candidate at All Souls Mission, she proceeded with her secondary education, up to Form 2. After taking her vows, she left for Johannesburg, South Africa for a pastoral course and came back to offer spiritual guidance to Catholic congregants at various parishes, before landing at Gandachibvuva Mission in the early 1970s.

“I grew up admiring the LCBL sisters at St Killian Mission,” she recounted. “They looked beautiful in their cream tunics. And the smiles that never departed from their faces made me want to be one of them. In my neighbourhood, we knew that all who had problems, either spiritual or social, would go to the convent to seek deliverance. From that, I yearned to become a redeemer; that is why I never thought twice about participating in the war.”

Her participation involved cycling more than 100 kilometres from Gandachibvuva Mission to Chivhu, often exhausted, soaked by rain and tormented by the scotching heat from the sun.

Alone in the deep forest, she avoided straight paths, fearing that she might meet soldiers while carrying supplies for the freedom fighters. Fear would grip her from time to time.

“I knew that if the soldiers caught me, they would certainly kill me,” she reminisced.

But she remembered that during her final profession ceremony at Regina Mundi Convent, she had, in the presence of the archbishop and priests, the mother superior and other LCBL sisters, solemnly vowed that she would serve God in poverty, obedience and chastity.

“I therefore could not disobey God and give up helping the oppressed Zimbabweans at a time when they needed me, but had to work hard to accomplish my mission,” she said.

Narrowing her eyes, the nun added: “It was hard for me to stay in comfort while I heard gunshots day and night. I knew people were dying and, as a nun who had vowed to help the people, I had to join them. In my mind, it’s like yesterday when I remember the soldiers shooting our comrades in broad daylight while we watched helplessly. What strengthened me was the solidarity which the mass had.”

Sister Christiana was not just a medicine carrier, but at the pungwes, she also joined the chimbwidos, mujibhas and the rest of the villagers, praying for peace and exhorting them to remain united to effectively fight the enemy.

When she missed evening prayers at the convent to attend the pungwes, Sister Christiana knew being part of the depressed, enslaved Zimbabweans was the best way she could serve God at that moment.

She sometimes failed to cross the flooded Mwerahari River on her way from collecting the drugs, and was forced to spend days among the villagers. This was an opportunity to engage in pastoral work that helped her to mingle with women and strengthen their faith in God.

She said: “I am proud of myself because even during that time of the war, I did not stop preaching the word of the God. With the help of other sisters at the mission, we converted many to Christianity and our congregation grew, despite the war hardships.”

Today, there’s a marked difference between the vigorous woman who took on wartime duties, and the elderly nun who is currently stationed at St Francis of Assisi Mission Convent, located at Chivhu Deanery in Mashonaland East.

She spends her day in vocational prayers and uprooting weeds in the garden, feeding the chickens and reading scriptures, before dozing off on a sofa in the convent guest house. But Sister Angella Madzivadondo, the Sister in Charge at St Francis of Assisi Mission Convent, said Sister Christiana was still a hard worker.

Leah Mangara, the chairperson of the St Francis of Assisi Church centre where Sister Christiana attends services, said despite her age, the nun was very fond of lifting women’s spirits in worshipping God.

“It’s only that resources are prohibitive, but Sister Christiana is very involved in projects that are concerned with women’s empowerment.”

The LCBL guild is common in the dioceses of Gokwe, Chinhoyi and the archdiocese of Harare. It was established in 1932 by the late Harare Archbishop Ignatius Chichester, a Jesuit. The Chichester convent in Chishawasha, a residence for the retired LCBL sisters, was named after him.

Although other nuns of her age have already retired to the Chichester Convent, Sister Christiana still has the urge to serve God in the community. She said she was inspired by Father Walter Gallaue, a priest, who managed to convince his black parishioners that even though he was white, his goal was to strengthen their faith and prepare them for a brighter future.

“Father Walter helped me to know that true worshipping is helping a soul which is in need of help,” Sister Christiana said.

The writer is a journalism student at the National University of Science and Technology

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