“Who we are today,” she explains, “is how we are affected by what happened back then.”
An essay John M. Baker
The Convert is the first chapter in a trilogy of plays Danai Gurira is creating about Zimbabwean identity. In this first play, she transports audiences to Southern Africa in the mid-1890s: a major historical moment for the part of the continent then known as Rhodesia, today called Zimbabwe. During this turning point in African history, ideologies, religions, traditions, and cultures collided with the arrival of British colonizers and Christian missionaries, and the reverberating effects of these events are still palpable in Zimbabwe today. To begin understanding twenty-first century Zimbabwe and to begin grappling with her own identity as a Christian, a woman, and a Zimbabwean, Gurira knew she had to start by excavating this inciting incident. “Who we are today,” she explains, “is how we are affected by what happened back then.”
A few treaties and concessions in the late 1880s paved the way for much of the social, political, and cultural chaos in which Gurira’s characters are immersed. During the late nineteenth-century Scramble for Africa, Zimbabwe’s mineral deposits and agricultural riches made the home of the Ndebele and Shona peoples very desirable to the British, Germans, Portuguese, and Boers. The British gained the advantage when the leader of the Ndebele signed the Rudd Concession and the Moffatt Treaty, unknowingly conferring British politician and businessman Cecil John Rhodes with sweeping commercial and legal powers and “complete and exclusive charge of all metal and mineral rights.” Queen Victoria then granted Rhodes a charter, and his British South Africa Company (BSAC) became the administrative power in the region. Before long, the first group of settlers had arrived and Rhodes had granted Christian missionaries huge tracts of land to build mission stations.
In the subsequent years, as British colonists and Christian missionaries imposed Western ways on the Ndebele and Shona, tensions quickly escalated. War was inevitable. The Convert begins between the two nearly back-to-back insurrections of this period. The BSAC forces, with the help of the first self-powered machine gun, defeated the Ndebele during the first war. But peace was temporary. The British introduction of the hut tax in 1894, which taxed Africans on a per hut basis, added fuel to the fire. In Ndebele and Shona societies, wealth was calculated by cattle, not currency. With no other way to pay the new tax, many Africans were forced to abandon their traditional way of life: they sold their land and cattle and began working in British mines and infrastructure. On the eve of 1896, with drought, locust plagues, and cattle diseases ravaging the religion, Ndebele and Shona religious leaders persuaded their people to revolt against the BSAC.
NEXT! Part Two
THE CONVERT BLOG HOME
Image: THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES
Cecil Rhodes astride the African continent
About the Author: John M. Baker is the Artistic Producing Associate at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Associate Producer at NYC-based Partial Comfort Productions. He is the former Literary Manager at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. As a dramaturg, John has developed new work at Boise Contemporary Theatre, Clubbed Thumb, Juilliard, The Kennedy Center, The Lark, Ma-Yi, Page 73, Partial Comfort, PlayPenn, Seattle Rep, Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, South Coast Rep, and Woolly Mammoth, among others. He has spent seven summers as a dramaturg at The O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and frequently collaborates with Samuel D. Hunter (A Bright New Boise, The Whale). John has taught at Fordham University, Marymount Manhattan College, and Rutgers University, and has worked as a guest artist at in the graduate playwriting programs at NYU Tisch Asia, The University of Texas at Austin, and The University of Iowa. He holds a BA from Boston University and a MFA from The University of Iowa.