Jairos Jiri was born on 26 June 1921 in the vast, and at that time remote, Bikita Reserve situated in the rugged broken country between Masvingo and the Save River Valley of Zimbabwe.
Jairos Jiri (1921–1982) was born in Bikita, Zimbabwe. He was a philanthropist. In the early days of his childhood he had a dream of helping the disabled people. He started creating facilities in the 1940s for disadvantaged and disabled people in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, using Christian principles of charity, patience and non-judgmental tolerance. The Jairos Jiri Association was founded in Bulawayo in 1950. The art centre outlet for the association quickly achieved prominence and by the 1960s was a prime source of curios for tourists. These items were made by disabled people and included tiles and tiled tables and wall plaques, carvings, pottery, painted artworks and sculptures. His rehabilitation centre in Bulawayo also fostered music and dance. By 1974 the centres had expanded and diversified to include homes for the disabled, and legal representation was gained locally and in the United Kingdom. Jairos Jiri centres and his philosophy are still a major resource for community action and charity in Zimbabwe. Jairos Jiri had 18 children in total and was divorced three times. He lived with his last wife Ethel Jiri and their six daughters: Patience, Precious, Primrose, Priscilla, Penelope and Pamela who was 11 days old when he died in 1982. Ethel Jiri died from throat cancer and was buried alongside her husband in Bikita – Mutenyami village. Jairos Jiri was accorded a national hero’s status in 1982 but his brother Ziwumbwa refused as he wanted him to be buried in the village. Jairos was buried in the Mutenyami Village in Bikita and the burial was attended by prominent people including the then Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
His father, Chief Mutenyami Jiri, was the fourth generation of his family who served the people of the area, not as a ruling chief per se, but as a chief to appoint chiefs and a descendant of the rulers of the Varozvi people.
His mother, Marufu, daughter of sub-chief Mazimba of Gutu, was the first and therefore senior wife of chief Matenyami.
His parents were however by no means rich. When he was twelve years old Jairos longed to join some of his friends who were attending school at Silveira House Mission in the locality of his home but because of lack of funds he could not.
From the sale of chickens and vegetables, Jairos Carefully hoarded his money until early in 1937, he had saved enough money to pay for two terms.
He set off to the Gokomere Mission School where he enrolled in Sub A. (grade 1) and was always proud of the fact that only after a week or two he was promoted to Sub B (grade 2) but suddenly became ill and returned home, bringing to an end the formal education he ever received.
During his time in Gokomere, he had learned a little about God and Christianity and took these things seriously.
After several months Jairos left home for Fort Victoria (now Masvingo) where he found a job as a gardener but was soon promoted to domestic-cum-baby-minder. Later that year he resigned from his employer who was disappointed and promised to increase his salary but could not entice him to stay.
Early in 1939, he set off on foot with his half brother, with all his possessions rolled in the sleeping mat he carried on his head, to seek his fortune in Bulawayo.
His half brother known as Mazviyo Jiri found him a job as a gardener in North End. During his initial period in Bulawayo he came across destitute, half naked, blind and disabled people begging in the streets. Jairos’ immediate compassion for the unfortunate beggars was unusual and remarkable.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1940, he like many other young men joined the renowned Rhodesia Africa Rifles in Bulawayo as a dishwasher.
The first real knowledge of rehabilitation he ever received came from a group of American Airforce Officers who were visiting the camp where Jairos was based and this must have had the effect of a thunderbolt on him.
His excitement and enthusiasm mounted and great things were soon to follow.
At one stage he carried a disabled young man on his bicycle to Old Memorial Hospital and persuaded authorities there to perform a corrective surgery on him and when asked if he could be responsible for payment he agreed.
Greatly encouraged by the help he had received at the hospital he started to take ex-blind beggars to his house and putting into practice all he knew about rehabilitation at that stage.
Eager to register his organisation and with the help of friends such as Benjamin Burombo, Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo, Gideon Mazaba, Mike Hove and Michael Mawema he drafted a constitution and after pain staking negotiations with the then native Commissioner the organisation was fully registered with the late Stephen Kwenda as Secretary, Fabian Dururu as Treasurer and Job Mapfinya and Jacob Mufute as members.
However, the years between 1945 and 1950 were never easy. In October 1950 through the courtesy of Bulawayo City Council the first skills training workshop was opened in Makokoba and this marked the beginning of his great rehabilitation work.
In 1959 twenty years after his arrival in Bulawayo, Jairos welcomed guests to the official opening of a new training centre in Nguboyenja made possible through the Bulawayo City Council which donated land and buildings funded by State Lotteries.
Impressed by his outstanding work the United States Consular General granted him three months grant to tour rehabilitation centres in the United States and Europe.
The demand for Mr. Jiri’s work was increasing and after being granted land by the then Salisbury City Council he joined hands with the Salisbury Society for the Handicapped formed by Jonah Matswetu, the late John Madzima the late Kate Chitumba and the late Mrs.
Lillian Sondayi who after an agreement elected him as their president. At the same time Mrs Margaret Chiwandamira who was running Mukwapasi Clinic opened by Mr Guy Clutton Brock approached Mr. Jiri for help and Mukuwapasi clinic was incorporated and Mrs Chiwandamira became the 9th Founder Life Vice President of the Association.
The work of Jairos Jiri continued to expand and diversify. For 32 years he worked in rehabilitation Jairos received enormous support and funding from both home and abroad.
Jairos, a small boy herding his father’s cattle, working in a garden to earn himself a pair of trousers, scribbling alphabet in the dust, a dishwasher, waiter, cook, newspaper vendor, boxer, comforter of beggars, defeater of bureaucracy and father of people with disabilities never entertained illusions that he would solicit the notice, let alone the recognition of an elite and exalted institution like a university or that tribute would come to him from the realms of higher learning.
Neither had he imagined when he painstakingly learned to write his name that it would one day read Jairos Jiri, MBE, MA (Hon).
In 1959 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II awarded Jairos an MBE (Member of the British Empire) for the outstanding contribution he had made to his fellow countrymen. In 1963 he was granted Freedom of the City of Bulawayo.
Later that year he was invited to address an International Symposium on Rehabilitation attended by several African Countries in Kampala, Uganda.
In July 1975 Mr. Jiri had an audience with Pope Paul VI, where he received a blessing for his great work and was presented with a medal marking a Holy year.
On may 16 1977 the then University of Rhodesia awarded him an honorary degree in Master of Arts. Later the same year he received the Lions International Service Award and a Humanitarian Award from the then Salisbury Union of Jewish Women.
In June 1981 he was granted Freedom of the City of Los Angeles. Earlier on that month Jairos Jiri became the first recipient of the newly inaugurated Goodwill Industries International Award for Humanitarian and Rehabilitation Work. Later the same year, Rotary International presented him with their International Year of Disabled Person Award for Africa which carries citation “Greatest Contribution to Rehabilitation in Africa – IYDP 1981”
Before Mr, Jiri died, he was faced with internal dissensions and cogniscent of his responsibilities, he made up his mind to request for help of sponsored experts to reorganise and train staff in he fields of financial control, administration, workshop management and agriculture and this was granted generously by the Association’s partners in Europe and the United States of America.
On November 12 1982 Mr. Jiri a great philanthropist and illustrious son of Zimbabwe, a man full of charisma, humility and unfailing love for mankind, was called to rest.
The state took responsibility for the funeral which was attended by the then Prime Minister, Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the then Deputy Prime Minister the late Comrade Simon Muzenda, several cabinet ministers and dignitaries.
At the time of his death, the Association, which Mr. Jiri founded, had grown from 1 centre in 1950 to 16 centres. Jairos Jiri not only gave hope and opportunity to thousands of people living with disabilities during his life time and after his death, but also earned Zimbabwe international recognition in the care and rehabilitation of the disabled.
It takes a man of great compassion and courage to assume responsibility for such people and to break down the barriers and attitudes of society towards them, and in doing so, restore to them human dignity and rightful place in the community. He has left a tangible legacy to the nation and all of us inherit the Jairos Jiri Association with gratitude and pride in its achievements to date.
Information from The Jairos Jiri Association website.