Evan Mawarire is a Zimbabwean clergyman who founded #ThisFlag Citizen’s Movement to challenge corruption, injustice, and poverty in Zimbabwe. The movement empowers citizens to hold government to account. Through viral videos, the movement has organized multiple successful non-violent protests in response to unjust government policy. Evan was imprisoned in 2016, 2017, and 2019 for charges of treason, facing 80 years in prison. His message of inspiring positive social change and national pride has resonated with diverse groups of citizens and attracted international attention.
Evan has addressed audiences around the world, and Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the 100 global thinkers of 2016. The Daily Maverick Newspaper of South Africa named him 2016 African person of the year. Evan is a 2018 Stanford University Fellow of the Centre for Democracy Development and the Rule of Law. He is a nominee of the 2017 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression awards and the 2018 Swedish government’s Per Anger Prize for democracy actors.
- Introduction and clip from #ThisFlag viral video
- How Evan Mawarire became a Pentecostal minister
- #ThisFlag movement - united around the symbolism of the Zimbabwe flag
- Compassion, mercy, and other biblical values that can be practiced across all levels
- “If we don’t stand up, our children will hold us to account one day, and say ‘Why did you do nothing?’"
- "I was asking people to shut down the government in 48 hrs."
- The other side of fear is possibility
- The atrocities of Robert Mugabe: abduction, silencing, torture, murder, citizen fear-based self-policing
- #ThisFlag Campaign Slogan: “If we cannot cause the politician to change, then we must inspire the citizen to be bold."
- Pentecostalism and Political Activism: Apostolic Faith Movement, Reinhard Bonnke
- Pastor Evan’s detention and torture in maximum security prison
- How encounters with prison inmates transformed Pastor Evan
- “Look at the walls that are holding you back, and understand that there is a bigger prison that holds you back: the prison of your mind… Ignore these walls, behave as if they do not exist."
- What is a life worth living?
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
Evan Mawarire: Justice is not alive, is not animated until people stand up. Because my sense is that justice is not an act; justice is people. Just the same way that freedom is not something that is granted, freedom is something that we have inside. And in essence, no matter how much I was incarcerated, my freedom is something I already had inside. And we must strive by all means to create a nation that respects human life, a nation that restores human dignity, because Zimbabweans had lost their sense of self-worth because of what we have been through.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture.
Zimbabwe was a British colony called Rhodesia until it gained official independence in 1980. But in reality, the country hardly enjoyed the freedom it had gained. Under the dominance and corruption of Robert Mugabe, who served as either prime minister or president of Zimbabwe for 37 years, Zimbabweans lived with famine, poverty, violence, authoritarian politics, and a fear of retaliation. If ever they were moved to speak against the Mugabe government, the threat of abduction, detention without trial and even torture and death, kept voices low, if not silent.
Until 2016, when a Pentecostal pastor named Evan Mawarire recorded and shared a video about the symbolism of the Zimbabwe flag, its green, yellow, red, and black, and called for a renewed sense of freedom, re-interpreting the colors in a way that gave dignity and courage and hope to silenced and exploited and impoverished citizens of Zimbabwe.
Evan Mawarire: This flag—it is my country, my Zimbabwe. We go through so much. We don't look like much even now, but this is promising. I will fight for it. I will live for it. And I will stand for it. This is the time that a change must happen. Quit standing on the sidelines and watching this flag fly and wishing for a future that you are not at all wanting to get involved in. This flag—every day that it flies is begging for you to get involved, is begging for you to say something, is begging for you to cry out and to say, "Why must we be in the situation that we are in?" This flag—It's your flame. It's my flame. This flag.
Evan Rosa: The video went viral and in its wake pastor, Evan founded the #ThisFlag movement, and became one of the leading voices calling for the removal of the Mugabe government and true freedom and democracy for Zimbabwe. He was arrested and imprisoned several times, detained, tortured, forced to suffer humiliating acts of interrogation, but he persisted. It would not be silenced.
His activism flowed from his faith, expanding on a Pentecostal tradition that had not been engaged in politics, even though it exploded as a religious movement in Zimbabwe throughout the 20th century. For pastor Evan, his faith drove him into the public sphere, into activism, sensing the deep responsibility of a Christian minister to stand up and call out the injustice while non-violently fighting for fairness, government transparency, compassion and mercy. He has renewed a sense of hope, freedom, and deep agency for Zimbabweans, even as they pursue the fullness of the freedom they gained 40 years ago in the flourishing their flag represents. Evan Mawarire was a Yale Greenberg world fellow in 2020. Today, Miroslav Volf talks with Pastor Evan about his story of faith that leads to activism.
Miroslav Volf: Evan, it's so fantastic to have you on our show. And you will recall when we had our walk through COVID-infested New Haven, the idea forged in your and my mind immediately that we ought to have you on our podcast. You came to Yale and you're a Yale World Fellow. For our listeners, it may be good to know what an honor, an incredible honor that is.
3,500 or 4,000 applicants, from all around the world and from all walks of life, up to 40 years old, applied, and 15 get in. You were one of those 15 to spend a semester at Yale, and that's how I've gotten to know you. You are a Pentecostal minister and I think what's extraordinary is I think you must be the first Pentecostal minister to be a Yale World Fellow. Now, what I'm interested is what got you to be a Pentecostal minister, and then we'll talk about what shot you to the world fame.
Evan Mawarire: Miroslav, first of all, it is just such an honor to just be with you on your program. And yes, that walk for me was a very interesting talk just hearing from your life and I think realizing some of the similarities in the journeys of faith. But yes, a big honor to be part of the Yale community and to be chosen to be a Yale World Fellow.
My journey as a Pentecostal pastor, it really started off, Miroslav, as a child, because I was born into a Christian family that was a Pentecostal Christian family. So the first Christians I met were my mom and dad, and their faith was very strong. And my dad's faith remained strong up until he breathed his last a couple of months ago in April of this year, 2020. And it had a very strong imprint on my life, on the kind of belief system that I would later on choose as my own as well. So that's where that journey starts.
But the decision to then become a Pentecostal minister actually came after a stint I had done in the corporate world and I was in marketing. And I had an encounter where I was at a church where I was helping out in the youth department. And I was struck by the needs of the young people at the time, just the kind of direction they needed, the kind of guidance that they needed. And the interactions I had with these young people gave me a sense of purpose. I found it very purposeful to be talking with them, discovering which direction to take, the things to avoid, and it drew me in. And at that point I felt I discovered what for me would be my life purpose—helping people. I wanted to help people. So I made a decision right away that I wanted to become a pastor, that I wanted to help people. I wanted to speak into people's lives, especially with the foundation of faith. And so I began my journey as a student at the local Bible school. And a couple of years later, I began pastoring in Zimbabwe.
Miroslav Volf: And obviously one of the big needs of young people in particular, but of all Zimbabweans, was a kind of dire political situation that was there for many years, but in particular in 2015 or so. And you led, you started and became a leader of the protest against Robert Mugabe. Can you tell the moment at which that dawned on you, that that's the route you should take?
Evan Mawarire: Oh, man, what a moment it was. It'll live with me for the rest of my life because there are times I look back on that moment and think, "Were you crazy? What were you doing?" And then there are times when I look back on it and think that it could have only be by inspiration of God in my life.
Now sitting in my small church office, it was April 19, 2016. And you're right. Zimbabwe had gone through years and years of socio-economic collapse. Young people had lost so much in terms of dreams, opportunities, hopes. And not just young people, I'm talking about even older people. And so I'm sitting there and I'm thinking to myself, the country's beginning to collapse again. The difference this time, from the collapse the last time it had happened eight years earlier, is that this time I'm a father. I have two little children and I have a third one on the way.
And I'm thinking to myself: "Shall these children also lose their future? Shall they also lose their opportunities like I lost mine, like my father lost his, like my grandfather lost his." And so immediately I sit there and I think to myself: "Not another generation should go through this. Not another generation should face the abuse." And I grabbed my phone and I record this video that eventually starts this movement, and of course catapults me into all sorts of directions, whether you want to call them fame or whether you want to call it deep suffering, whichever way.
But it was that moment of realizing that I cannot let another generation face this. I cannot let another generation go through what we went through simply because they remained silent. They remained quiet. And being a pastor for me had allowed me a window into the lives of people, the real lives of people, because you take people through counseling. You sit down with people and talk with them in terms of what they're going through, and you get a chance to see what people are really faced with. And so I felt like I just couldn't sit back and let that carry on.
Miroslav Volf: A brilliant idea to have a tagline for the whole thing, #ThisFlag, when you see the photos of people drowned in flags and protesting against the oppressive rule and exploitative rule. Tell me about that idea.
Evan Mawarire: Again, an idea which I had not planned. Whenever I tell this story, I talk about the fact that I am what you might want to call an accidental activist, because really what I wanted to be, Miroslav—I wanted to be a pastor for a church. And we had a small church, a small community church, and I wanted it that way—our small church that was doing what it was doing in the community.
And so when I did this four-minute video where I was ranting about the way things were in Zimbabwe, and really also talking about how Zimbabweans needed to stand up, that no one was going to do it for us, I did it holding the Zimbabwe flag. And in my mind what happened during this very unscripted moment was that I was thinking through what the colors of the Zimbabwean flag actually mean.
And they all have a meaning. When we were kids, they taught us the meaning of the Zimbabwean flag. And at the end of that meaning, you start to discover that it's a promise. It's a promise being made to generations to come that this will be a nation of free people. It will be a nation of people that have access to their natural resources. It will be a nation of people that have access to freedom and to wealth. And none of that was true.
Holding the Zimbabwe flag as I was doing that video, I realized that none of that true. And so I kept referring to this flag and how this flag, each time it flies, it's crying out to you. It's calling out for you to save the promise, to cause it to to mean the truth once again. And so I said this flag so many times, and that became the theme, that became the name of the movement. But more than that, which I didn't even expect at the time myself is that, the national flag in Zimbabwe became the symbol of resistance and became something that began to unite people around an idea.
And in Zimbabwe for 37 odd years, the Zimbabwe flag was associated with the ruling political elites. It was theirs. They're the only ones that had flags in their offices. They're the only ones that could display it as a symbol of their love for Zimbabwe. Everyone else felt disconnected. But at that moment, somehow that I don't know how I tapped into this, we were able to almost take it back. We're almost able to take it and say: "This flag belongs to all of us. It's not just for a few people."
Miroslav Volf: That's extraordinary. Normally the autocrats, they grabbed the flag, kissed the flag; they stand behind the flag; they make themselves representatives and here it's flipped. Flag is ours as a people. Beautiful. So it's a great moment of inspiration, but it has a consequence. I think one of the strikes was about a week long, if I recall correctly? A fairly intensive and long protest against the government.
Evan Mawarire: After I did that first video, I decided I'll do a few more videos where I was talking about why it was important for us to be a people of compassion; why it was important for us to be a people of mercy, people that sought after justice and the people that sought after transparency. That those values, if we stood by those values, if we went back to those values, our nation would come right.
And as a Christian for me, those values are biblical values. They are values that can be practiced at the level of an individual, the level of a family, the level of a community and the level of a nation. And eventually after the government began to call me a sellout and someone who was being used by foreign governments to dislodge them and to destabilize them, I said: "Look, I think you're missing the point. We're not trying to dislodge you or to get you to leave power. We're trying to get you to listen because the weakest of our society, those without voices, are struggling."
It is illegal in Zimbabwe to do a street protest, so I decided that we would do a reverse protest. Instead of going on the street, we will do a nonviolent protest where we asked families, we asked individuals, people, to stay at home, to not go to work, to not open their businesses. To, in a sense, just boycott going anywhere as a way of speaking truth to power. When it was time to call that protest, I didn't know how many people were listening. I didn't know what our reach was. We had never held a rally. We had never held a gathering because it was not allowed. All my work was through videos and social media. And I didn't know what the reach was. But at this point, my sense, Miroslav, was that if we don't stand up, if we don't say something, even if it's just a few of us, our children would hold us to account one day and say, "Why did you do nothing?"
In 48 hours—and I remember calling this and whenever I watched the video back in which I called for the protest, I thought it was crazy because I asked people to do this in 48 hours. In a sense, I was asking people to shut the country down in 48 hours. Who was I? I had no public position. I was not a public official. I did not have a national organization in the sense that I thought we had, but it was the passion. And dare I say it was also frustration that I was feeling.
And so I called this protest and believe it or not, in 48 hours, we had the entire country come to a complete stand still. Everybody listened. And the whole thing shut down. I have never been more scared and more excited at the same time than I was when that happened. But it was a buildup. So we had a whole week of these videos. I did speak about these values I spoke about. And then I called for this protest and it was a big success, but then that began a fresh journey ahead of me as well that I really hadn't packed any bags for.
Miroslav Volf: Tell us a little bit about that journey.
Evan Mawarire: That journey now meant that the government regarded me and a few young friends that were helping me and helping—we were really helping each other to to speak truth to power—it meant that the government now regarded us as their chief enemy. And Robert Mugabe, who was the president of Zimbabwe for 37 years at the time, began to talk about us being elements that were causing instability. The unfortunate thing is that it made people in the country really stand with us because they could see that we were really standing up for truth, were standing up for transparency, justice, and mercy, and being a voice for the voiceless and those that were weak.
And so when this protest then happened and it was a success, I was arrested immediately. I remember having gone into hiding just before I was arrested. My wife was pregnant at the time. I was really scared for my family and the police were out and about looking for me because they claimed that I had caused instability in the country, that I was trying to cause an insurrection.
And so eventually I handed myself into the police, and was arrested. And immediately I was charged with attempting to subvert a constitutional government. And according to the set of laws in Zimbabwe, this is a crime that attracts a 20-year jail term, if you're found guilty without without any option for a fine.
And so here I am sitting in a jail cell and ready for going to court where I am going to be arranged and either be granted bail or denied bail. And something amazing happens, Miroslav, at that time, it was a very low point in my life. It's the first time I had ever been to a prison. I'd never been charged for anything more than a parking fine. And here I am now sitting in a jail cell, filthy jail cell, being charged with attempting to overthrow an entire government by myself. It was me and my Bible and my flag. And I'm sitting there in tears because I'm thinking: "God, how have I ended up in this situation? I was only trying to do good."
And as I'm sitting in this jail cell, just outside the courts, I hear singing outside. It's a moment that still grabs me emotionally and still moves me because the singing that was coming from outside was a song that we have sung in Zimbabwe in Pentecostal circles for years. And the lyric says: "And Zimbabwe shall be saved. And Zimbabwe shall be saved. The Holy Spirit must come down and Zimbabwe must be saved."
And I didn't know who was singing this song until I asked the prison guard, and he told me that there were thousands of people with flags who were kneeling in the parking lot of the—oh man—of the courts. And they were singing because—they had gathered because they believed that I had stood up for what was right, and I had been wrongly accused and they'd come to stand with me and to demand my release. I still had tears in my eyes, but the cry changed immediately from being one of despair to being one of absolute amazement in what God could do with the people and in the people's hearts when change is needed.
And it became that evening and incredible moment when I was brought before the magistrate. It was late at night because people kept coming. Thousands and thousands of people kept coming to the courts. People were messaging each other: "We've got to go there. We've got to go and support this man. What he did was for us." And it was just amazing. And eventually the magistrate had to let me go because of the thousands of people who had gathered. And I remember when I was released, it was about 8:30 at night, and I was released into a sea of people who had gathered.
They were singing. We knelt down and we prayed right there in front of the courts in the middle of the night. And immediately I was whisked away. The state believed that they had been embarrassed and that I had a case to answer. And I escaped the country overnight through that same night through a secluded border and eventually found my way into into a safer country.
But that night proved to me that when a people begin to seek their freedom, it is impossible to stop them. It is impossible to instill fear in them because what we were breaking at that point in Zimbabwe was a spirit of fear. And I felt as if God had suddenly provided the most unusual way, the most unexpected way to embolden people.
I love the scripture in the Bible where David—as he's standing in front of Goliath and his brothers say to him: "What do you want here? We know you. We know how conceited you are. Who have you left those few sheep with?" And David answers them and he says to them: "Is there no cause? Is there no cause?" And I felt on that night as I escaped and crossed the border that the Lord had given us a cause, a genuine cause to stand behind, that millions of people without signing them up and conscripting them into a movement had sensed the genuineness, had sensed the need for a new, clean voice to speak up. And they had responded not just with their physical selves, but I think that a fair bit of their spirituality was involved in in that moment and in the moments that followed in the months to come.
Miroslav Volf: It's very interesting that what you say about the fear struck me as so profoundly important. What was in the way before was the spirit of fear or maybe despondency or maybe a lack of hope: we can't do anything and if we do, we're going to be crushed. And the moment the fear was overcome, it was possible to imagine something new. Can you speak more to this sense of fear and to its overcoming because I'm thinking also of a biblical passage in the Gospel? One of the most frequent injunctions is "fear not." And I find, especially in the political kinds of settings of oppression, fear is what holds us captive. So it struck me when you were talking about this. If you could say a bit more about this overcoming of fear?
Evan Mawarire: Absolutely. And you've picked up on a vein that really is the key battle, at least for Zimbabwe, but I think also is a key battle for life, for everyone's life, is the things that we fear the most. When we confront them on the other side of that fear, there are the possibilities or are the breakthroughs that we never thought possible. And I think this is what fear had done to Zimbabweans over the years—the fear of the political establishment, which was not an imagined fear I have to say, by the way, Miroslav. This was a real fear.
People had been murdered who had done what I had done. People had been abducted who had turned up to political rallies like these people had done on the day of my incarceration. People had been tortured, documented tortures, tortures that were known from 1980 all the way to 2016, where we were at that time. Robert Mugabe had tortured, murdered, maimed hundreds of thousands of people. And so people knew that when it comes to the political world in Zimbabwe, you don't speak. You don't say anything. You suffer in silence because of what could happen to you, because of what will definitely happen to you.
In fact, A year earlier, Miroslav, in March 2015, a young man who was exactly my age, who was a journalist in Zimbabwe, had been bold enough to go and stand in the city square with a big placard that said "Failed Robert Mugabe must go!" Within a couple of days, he was picked up from a barber shop where he was having a haircut and was abducted. And up to today—his name Itai—Itai Dzamara has never been seen, has never been heard from again. And no one knows where he is. Left his wife and his two children. So the reminder to Zimbabweans of what will definitely happen to you should you speak up was real.
So the fear is something that even people perpetuated themselves without needing the central intelligence organization, the feared CIO in Zimbabwe. Everybody polices each other. If the day that I did that first video, I had my own friends and family, rightfully by the way, called me up saying: "Evan, you need to stop this. You know what's going to happen to you. You know what happens." And so the sense of fear is something that was and continues to be real in that the population polices itself using fear. Everyone spreads it using fear.
But at that moment, I think this is where we discovered that you can face what you fear the most. And it is a sacrifice. It is definitely a sacrifice. But when you face what you fear and you begin to dispel the myth of the beast or the—you begin to dispel the myth of the power that these people hold, you actually increase your boldness. Our catchphrase, by the way, for the movement in the months to come when we decided that this was a movement—the catchphrase was: if we cannot cause the politician to change, then we must inspire the citizen to be bold.
And the reason we came up with this catchphrase was that we realized that there's little to nothing we can do to change the politician. They're set in their ways. So our work is to embolden the citizen. Our work is to cause each person or as many people as we can to understand that they had the power within them to face their worst fear. And it's on the other side of that fear that they could see some amazing breakthroughs, so that they could see the kind of nation that we hoped for, the kind of nation that we dreamed of. And I'm glad that my journey did that to quite a large extent—dispelling the fear, but unraveling the hope, unraveling the fact that we indeed are the heroes that we have been waiting for.
Miroslav Volf: Wonderful and amazing. I'm trying to connect this story with Pentecostalism that I know. You mentioned when you were incarcerated, outside there was this group singing well-known Pentecostal songs, Zimbabwe will be saved. For many years, decades, Pentecostal was a kind of personal spirituality movement God doing things to change individual lives, but the kind of a public political side of Christian faith was underplayed. In recent years, so especially with kind of kingdom theolog—or recent decades, I should say—Pentecostalism started coming more into kind of political around. How is it in Zimbabwe? What kind of Pentecostalism was it that you grew in or what kind of Pentecostalism is dominant?
Evan Mawarire: I grew up in the apostolic faith movement in Zimbabwe. And this really began to grow and take root. I think in the sixties and seventies it really began to explode. My earliest recollection of some of the Pentecostal movements in Zimbabwe as a child with a man named Reinhard Bonnke.
I know that name. I actually met him.
Oh my gosh, you met Reinhard Bonnke! That is amazing! He packed out stadiums. And in fact, they got to a point where when Reinhard Bonnke was holding crusades, what we called crusades in Zimbabwe, in Africa at the time, they had to use wide open spaces. And there were people as far as the eye can see that would attend these big meetings. And these big meetings were very much reliant on the presence of the Holy Spirit, were very much reliant on the fact that God was empowering people using His spirit to live amazing lives, to do amazing things in their communities, in terms of peace, in terms of physical healing, in terms of joy in your life, in terms of turning your life around from poverty to prosperity.
And I found that this had a huge impact on my life. And this has continued to be a very dominant aspect of the faith and the dominant aspect of Christianity, or at least, Pentecostalism, in Zimbabwe. But one of the things that it lacked was this aspect of being able to speak truth to power, especially the political power of the day. There seemed to be a sense that as Christians, we accept the leadership that we have, or we accept what the leadership we have does because this leadership was given to us God.
Miroslav Volf: I would interpret Reinhard Bonnke's as a position: "Don't rock the boat politically! Concentrate on individuals and their transformation."
Evan Mawarire: Exactly. So when I did what I did, you can imagine that a lot of the pastors, a lot of the big Pentecostal churches were upset at what I was doing because they felt that I was stepping into territory that was not for me, and that was not for the church and that was not what we should be doing. And so the first couple of months, as I stepped out to do what I was doing, part—not the entire part—part of the Pentecostal movement left me as a pariah and was detached from what I was doing.
Now later on, I have to say that many good pastors, many good women and men of God who led Pentecostal movements, came to my defense, came to my rescue and to speak up as well. But initially, that was the stance. Many Christians felt that I was mixing Christianity—I was mixing the mandate of God with the mandate of men, the politics of the world and the gospel, and that the two were not supposed to mix.
And yet I think as a young man, what I saw when I looked through the Bible, when I studied the life of Jesus, the life of the prophets, I could see these people confronting the government of the day. I could see them speaking truth to power, to the Kings of the day, to the rulers of the day. I could see them standing up for justice. I could see them demanding transparency. I could see them expressing compassion when rulers and governments had let their communities down. So I think this was the challenge in Zimbabwe with the Pentecostal movement at what I was doing.
But as I said, I must say that many of them came around and began to say: "No, wait a minute, I think there is a place for the church to speak. There is a place for us in Pentecostalism to speak truth to power."
Miroslav Volf: It always struck me that Pentecostalism has this concern with material aspects of our lives. There's emphasis on healing. The gospel has this side that doesn't concern only human soul, but it also concerns the ways in which we live, material wellbeing, prosperity and healing and so forth. Obviously that can be taken into extremes. But it seems to me that concern for political wellbeing of the nation is fundamental to the character of that movement. And so I'm glad that you've been able to initiate also certain kinds of religious transformation, if you want, in that domain. I know that after you left the country, you felt compelled to return back and upon your return, you ended up being incarcerated and this time for a longer period of time in a maximum security prison. Can you speak about this experience? And I remember us talking about both the experience of great suffering but also an experience of certain kind of transformation and learning.
Evan Mawarire: I thought that the journey would be over when I left Zimbabwe, but after we got into the United States with my family, I really sensed in my heart that what we had done was only the beginning and that we needed to go back, and in a sense, finish the job or at least advance the job a little bit further. And so I was away for about six months with my family and I made the decision. I asked my wife, I said: "Listen, I really feel like I've got to go back. I really feel like there's something that we did not finish. I did not finish the job and I need to go back." And it was a crazy request even when I look back on it now.
And my wife—bless her heart—as hard as it was for her—and I have to be honest that she warned me enough times and said, "Listen, I don't know whether you should do this. I don't know whether you should do this." But eventually she said, "Hey, if you really feel you must go back, go for it."
So I landed back in Harare, in Zimbabwe on the 1st of February, 2017, and immediately on arrival, before my passport could be stamped, I was arrested immediately. Taken off to a room, I was strip searched. I was interrogated. And this time, I was taken again by the police and charged once again with attempting to overthrow the government. This time, the charge stuck. People did not gather at the courts this time. It happened very quickly. And then I was thrown into Chikurubi maximum security prison.
Chikurubi maximum security prison is a place where convicted criminals go. I was not a convict yet. I was awaiting trial. And yet, I was thrown into this prison—a very tough place, and it was a very tough season for me. At the time, Chikurubi is a place where there's no running water, the cells are just like maybe 40 feet by 40 feet, and there's 43 men that live in that space. There are no beds. You sleep on the floor, the concrete floor. There are no toilets. You have a hole in the corner where everyone relieves themselves. Everyone has a maximum of two blankets each. You keep all your belongings in small buckets and are subjected to all kinds of treatment there from beatings to just inhumane searches where you are singled out and strip naked and searched. I was put into solitary confinement whilst I was there.
But during that time, and I spent about a month in Chikurubi maximum security prison. Whilst I was in that prison, one of the things that actually took place that happened was an encounter with the other prisoners who were there. And that, in a sense, really changed my life a lot. As hard as it was, these encounters with these men, many of them who are convicted of crimes that they admit to have done—these encounters changed my life concerning why I was doing what I was doing. I was not a stranger to them. They knew who I was through some of the news that had filtered into the prisons.
But I was struggling on my arrival with being in prison. I'll never forget this one young man who was serving 18 years for armed robbery and he confessed himself to me. He says: "Listen, I did it. I did. I robbed these people at gunpoint." But he had given his life to the Lord for the nine years he had been there and then become a powerful advocate for the gospel. And he found me one day—this young man found me one day sitting in the corner of the cell. I was having a very difficult time, Miroslav. I was thinking about the mistake I had made in coming back to Zimbabwe. I was thinking about being stuck in Chikurubi maximum security prison. I was thinking about being convicted. I was thinking about being tortured. I was thinking about my family and that I should have listened to my wife.
And so I was sitting in the corner, head between my legs. If there ever was a picture of a really scared man, that was one. And this young man came to me and he says to me—he says, "You don't have the time to be doing what you're doing." I remember putting up my head, thinking to myself: " Who is this? And why would you even say that?" And he says to me: "There are men in this prison that are counting on your presence here to be their hope, and to see you like this would destroy them. And so you need to stand up. You need to get up."
And I remember I said to him, "How do I do that? I'm in prison. Just look at me, look at these clothes I'm putting on." I'll never forget the clothes that they give you to wear in prison. The ones I was given were so dirty. They hadn't been washed in a long time that in the collar, in the hems, in the collar, and I remember in the sleeves of these clothes, there were lice eggs that were in there. And I had to get one of the prisoners to help me burn off the eggs with a match that he had, that they used to smoke cigarettes. And so for me, this was a dire situation.
And this young man said to me: "I want you to look at the walls that are holding you back and understand that there is a bigger prison that holds you back than these walls. And it's the prison of your mind." And he says to me: "If you don't deal with this, you're going to serve two jail terms or you're going to be incarcerated by two jails. One is the physical jail and the other is the mental jail of distress and depression. But if you look at these walls, and ignore them. He says to me: "Pastor Evan, ignore these walls! Behave as if they are not there, as if they don't exist. These prison guards—behave as if they are not here. Go about every day. Make appointments with these other prisoners, these men you see in here. Make appointments with them, sit with them, hear their stories, tell them your story, exchange hope with them. And if you do that, you will be freer than those who are free."
I'll never forget that conversation for as long as I live, Miroslav, because it changed me. And I remember thinking to myself when I left Chikurubi after about a month and a half—I remember thinking to myself as I left that I think they made a mistake by sending me here because I came here and I am stronger as I leave than I was when I came in. And it was because of that one encounter with that young man. There were many other encounters we had in the midst of just a horrible situation—the tortures, the beatings that would go on whilst we were in there.
Miroslav Volf: I was going to end our conversation by asking you what do you think makes a life truly worth living. But it seems to me that your entire story has told me and told our audience what you think and how you acted. But if you want to say something about that on top of what you've already said so beautifully and powerfully, please be my guest.
Evan Mawarire: Miroslav, I think the one thing I've learned in this journey is that a life worth living is a life that is lived for the benefit of others. And the more and more we realize that in everything that we do—whether in our pursuit of wealth or in our pursuit of happiness, in our pursuit of health, in our pursuit of personal satisfaction and fulfillment—if we leave out the aspect of helping other people, truly and genuinely helping those people without expecting anything in return, we're going to miss the essence of what it means to live a fulfilled life.
Whenever I tell the story, I always tell people that was not my last arrest. I was arrested another maybe four times after that. My most recent arrest in Zimbabwe was in January 2019. And I thought I'd been to Chikurubi for my last time when I met this young man, but I went back in 2019 in January for another month and couldn't believe I was back, and had some more low moments, but had many more high moments once again, because of the fact that I understood that I find myself in places and spaces because someone there who's having a worst time needs my help.
That last visit, Miroslav, I met a friend I went to high school with. It was one of the most shocking encounters. And he was in there for murder. And with this young man, we sat down and he said to me: " Evan, I've served 20 years of my sentence. I'm almost leaving the prison. If I could find the family of this young lady I murdered and just tell them how sorry I am—they don't have to listen to me; they don't have to accept my apology—but if I could just get a chance to do that I would be happy.
And I'll never forget I left the prison and I was sharing my story of being in prison with a group of pastors. And a pastor stood up when I spoke about this young man who murdered his girlfriend and he began to cry. And I asked him what the matter was. And he said to me: "You wouldn't have known this, but the young man you speak of murdered my niece. That's my niece." And I broke into tears because once again, I was watching God at play, using my worst circumstances to deliver a message that desperately needed to get to a family.
And this man said to me, "Hearing you speak of this young man has made me make a decision that I'm going to go and speak to my family, and ask them to consider giving this young man an audience when he comes out." And that began an incredible journey of forgiveness and an incredible journey of this young man, eventually getting a chance to meet up with this man and some of his family, to express he's regretted what happened 20 years ago.
So even at our worst moments, Miroslav, our lives can mean something, if not for us, definitely for somebody else.
Miroslav Volf: Evan, thank you so very much for this conversation and may we learn lessons from you: those prison walls, they need not oppress us; and turn our lives to serve others. Thank you so much.
Evan Mawarire: Thank you so much, Miroslav. God bless you, my friend.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured Pastor Evan Mawarire and theologian Miroslav Volf. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. We produce new episode every Saturday and you can subscribe through any podcast app. We're grateful that you're listening to this podcast. We're passionate about making this work consistently accessible to people who are genuinely concerned about the viability of faith in a world racked with division, contested views about what it means to be human and what it means to live life.
If you're in a position to support our show financially, you're looking for some year end opportunities, please consider partnering with us. We rely on the generosity of individuals like you to make our work possible. And if you're not, please continue listening and engaging the content. Let us know what you're interested in. We're grateful that you're listening. But if you can give, if you're truly passionate about supporting podcasting that's all about pursuing really living lives that are worthy of our humanity, then consider a gift to the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Visit faith.yale.edu/give or find the link in the show notes to make a year end contribution.
It's our joy to bring these shows to you. We'd invite you to bring that same joy in supporting this work. As always, thanks for listening, and we'll be back with more next week.