Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Italian Chapel of Masvingo, Zim

I’d like to make this location sound romantic… tucked away in a little hamlet just outside of Masvingo… but really, the A-K 47 staring down at us from the watchtower made this anything but comfortable.  

When we asked for directions to the Italian Chapel, the woman at our hotel desk said, “Oh!  I know just where that is.  I gave someone directions to this last year, and they never said they didn’t find it.”

They probably never said they didn’t find it because they weren’t speaking to her anymore.  Our search for the World War II prisoner of war camp’s little-known chapel lead us to three -gulp- military bases we surely did not belong anywhere near.  Note to self: when trespassing on a foreign military base, having a kid in a car seat and putting away your camera helps a lot.

“The Italian Chapel,” as it is simply referred to, is a small church built by WWII prisoners of war.  It sits below a still-waving red, green, and white flag as a reminder of the Italian ground it sits upon.  When we arrived, a caretaker named Jennifer walked over to unlock the building for us.  As we signed into a dusty book requesting nationality information, we realized we were just a handful of people whose eyes had viewed the church in the past year.  

Unique is an understatement for this Catholic relic squatting strangely in the midst of an African landscape and shadowed by a military-base guard tower. The church, which is parish-less but occasionally opened for intimate weddings, is known for its intricate painted murals, which cover every inch of the interior.  Some murals ornately tell biblical stories, and some illustrate fake-stones along the walls, while others hauntingly outline skulls and crossbones as that quaintly unforgettable reminder of the tortured souls that created the space.  "I would ring the bells for you," Jennifer had 
said, "but Italy has not paid the ZESA bill in months.  We have no electricity to open the bell tower."

Now if I haven’t yet successfully made our visit sound wonderfully unromantic, let me add Kurt’s favorite little anecdote for you:

Me, pointing to some abandoned burnt-out-looking cement buildings near the chapel: “Is that where the prisoners of war lived?”

Jennifer, the caretaker: “No… That’s where I live.”

Do check it out if you’re ever near Masvingo. The spirits of these artists would be proud to show you around.  But maybe get directions ahead of time...