Lyenor Lionel Nkosi, author, playwright and political activist, was tortured in Zimbabwe. After fleeing to Botswana, he encountered Mennonite Mission Network personnel who, among others, helped him find freedom and new ministries.
By Lynda Hollinger-Janzen
GOSHEN, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) — Surviving unspeakable horrors, hope radiates from Lyenor Lionel Nkosi.
Twelve years ago, Nkosi, writer and producer for film and theater, fled his home in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, after government secret agents tortured him and left him for dead.
Nkosi's crime? He was production manager for the play, The Crocodile of Zambezi, a political satire that pokes fun at an aging ruler of a fictional country and his power-hungry wife. The Crocodile premiered May 2008, a time when public discontent with the government was high.
Then president, Robert Mugabe, began his political career as a guerilla leader in the independence movement from British colonialism. When Mugabe became the first Black head of state, he changed the country's name from Rhodesia (Cecil Rhodes was a British imperialist) to Zimbabwe. In the beginning, Mugabe professed to work at racial reconciliation. But he soon encouraged violence and the seizure of White-owned farms. He awarded those farms to his political cronies with no farming background. Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of southern Africa, became a battleground and a food desert.
Mugabe, tortured and imprisoned for 12 years for speaking out against the colonial powers, ordered brutal torture of those who protested. Once a popular hero, he resorted to electoral fraud and corruption to stay in power.
These were the conditions that Nkosi and his colleagues opposed as they prepared The Crocodile for opening night.
"[Mugabe's] government was paranoid that any small public gathering …even three people on a street corner posed a threat … [but] the whole country was gripped with a seemingly impending victory and change of power. We all could feel it; that the curtain was coming down on [Mugabe's] regime and the excitement was high amongst the people," Nkosi wrote in his recently published autobiography, Hurt But Not Broken.
Nkosi and his colleagues knew that what they were doing was dangerous, but they felt compelled to speak the truth.
"'The truth will set you free,'" Nkosi said, quoting the Gospel of John 8:32. "This play was not aligned with any party. It is unfortunate that the ruling party never wanted to smell or hear anything that is based on telling the truth."
Opening night, May 28, 2008, was a huge success. People loved the play and art critics praised the performance. But in the middle of the night, a phone call from Raisedon Baya, one of the authors of Crocodile, jerked Nkosi from sleep. Baya was being called to Harare, Zimbabwe's capital city, for an emergency. Nkosi promised his colleague to take charge of the next evening's performance.
Just a few hours before the second performance began, five police officers arrested Nkosi. After questioning him, they released him if he promised to cancel that evening's event due to "technical problems." Nkosi was so relieved that they were freeing him. Yet, it pained him to lie to the audience about why the evening performance was being canceled.
"Although I wanted to tell the truth, I simply could not because of the fear that had been instilled in me," Nkosi said. "I felt the pain of being a prisoner of my words at that point."
As Nkosi left the theater, four secret service men abducted him. They pushed him into an unmarked car and sped away to Hilltop Dams, an isolated area. They handcuffed him and put a heavy grain sack over his head. "Today is your day," one of the government agents told Nkosi before they dunked him into water.
"With every dip, I felt like I was taking my last breath," Nkosi wrote in his autobiography. "I began to feel numb. I suppose this was the moment when I lost whatever hope I had left and gave up on everything." After the agents tired of dunking Nkosi, they stuck a pistol in his mouth and struck him in the face so that one of his teeth fell out.
Miracles, human "angels" lead to freedom
As the kicking and beating continued, Nkosi said he surrendered all to God and felt God's love enveloping him in unconscious peace. He awoke in the basement of a private hospital where medical personnel were caring for his broken bones and other injuries.
Through a series of miracles, God's people, at the risk of their own lives, discovered Nkosi left for dead by the government agents. Nkosi only stayed at the hospital for a few hours for fear of being discovered. Then, for several weeks, Sazi, Nkosi's wife, and the Crocodile cast moved him from one hiding place to another. Finally, his brother and grandmother smuggled him into neighboring Botswana, where Nkosi and his brother spent the next six months in a detention center for illegal immigrants in Francistown.
After the detention center came a refugee camp where conditions were slightly better. When Nkosi received permission to live outside the camp, he searched for ways to use his skills to help others. He worked as the artistic director with the drama troupe Bopaganang Basha Ba Semoya (Youth Center of the Holy Spirit), a Mennonite Mission Network partner. The young actors presented plays in churches and communities to share the good news of God's love and to teach life skills
At the youth center, Nkosi met Melanie Quinn, who served with Mission Network from 2008-2015.
"Melanie was the first person to talk to me about the importance of making peace with myself, forgiving those that may have wronged me, and the love that God has for us as humans," Nkosi said. "To this day, we, the Nkosi family, hold her dearly as a mother, sister and friend."