25 December 2013

Zimbabwe: Ex-Gangster Beats Sword to Ploughshare

He dropped his gun and picked up a Bible. Takawira Masendeke is a 25-year-old ex-gangster and ex-drug addict who has undergone an astounding transformation into a devout Christian. What's more, he is in training to become a pastor.

I hadn't met Takawira Masendeke before. Even after hearing he had given up his gangster life, l still expected to face a giant with bloodshot eyes looking frantically around him, rumpled hair and a fast gait. l was surprised to be greeted by a beaming, calm and lightly built fellow.

But behind his smile, I knew, was a spine-chilling history of robberies, alcoholism and theft.

The repentant sinner's story would not be complete if his relationship with his brother and one-time mentor, Edgar Masendeke, wasn't mentioned. Edgar, born in 1974, occupies the popular imagination as one of Zimbabwe's most feared robbers. He was executed in 2003 after a string of robberies, murder, rapes and almost every other conceivable heinous crime.

The elder Masendeke was also notorious for a number of jail breaks, including one in 1995 that saw the police and other security services deploy dogs and a helicopter to search for him and three accomplices. They escaped, but were later caught in neighbouring Mozambique living under false names.

Family affair

"I started criminal life when I was 10, after being introduced to it by Edgar. He taught me to use force each time l wanted something. He groomed me like a soldier," Masendeke begins his story.

He took his bellicose life to school where he later ganged up with like-minded youths to form notorious gangs who used guns, knives and other weapons to survive. Among his numerous brushes with the law, the ex-gangster once spent four months in prison for robbery. He describes his prison experience as rough.

Masendeke hails from a family of criminals and traces this to some of his long-gone elders. He sees this as a "generational curse". He has four surviving brothers, all of whom are also into crime. At the time of the interview, his brothers' arrest for a recent murder is featured in a newspaper story.

But he prefers not to discuss that for fear of offending his siblings. Masendeke's life story could easily have been the same as that of his siblings had he not given up his criminal life for the pulpit. The pulpit indeed, because he is currently in training to become a pastor.

Supernatural assistance

At the height of his criminal life, Masendeke says he was aided in his acts by using juju (supernatural powers). This came in the form of fat extracted from a dead lion. The fat, which is administered by witchdoctors, is commonly used for inducing bravado among criminals and would even give the user a premonition of a looming police raid.

"When the medicine is administered, you literally turn into a demon," says Masendeke. "I still cannot explain the strength that l would sometimes have when I ventured into these robberies."

About his drug use he says: "There was a time l went to a doctor who told me almost the whole of my body was full of alcohol. He also said with the amount of cocaine that was in my body at that time, it was going to be a miracle were I to one day stop taking it, let alone survive its effects."

Laughed at

Even after he had decided to give up his criminal life, Masendeke admits he still found it difficult to stop stealing and would even steal from his church mates. The former drug addict says he would not want to reveal more detail about his gory adventures as some people have tended to "use that as a weapon against [me]", he says. "I have revealed some things about my past and some people have doubted that l am no longer a thief."

By becoming a Christian and even a pastor-to-be, Masendeke also defied his friends who still continue doing crime. "When l told them I had turned to God, my friends scoffed at me. They laughed, telling me: 'You of all the people cannot be a church character at any one time.' Even when the saw that I had indeed repented, they tried to take me to my old ways," he says.

Masendeke says even his own late father did not give him a chance. On his deathbed, he told Masendeke's mother: "I am dying, but let me tell you that this young man is going to be a problem."

Radio show

"The life of praying to God is a very good life, my brother," says Masendeke when asked if he regrets anything in his life. "I regret not turning to God earlier in my life. Since I repented, I have never dreamt of going back to my old ways. I sometimes meet my old friends driving posh cars, but l have never been tempted to re-join them. I have made my decision, and it's final!"

Masendeke says he feels grateful that his girlfriend has welcomed and accepted his dark history. Now full of ambition, Masendeke dreams of touching the lives of many young people who are still bent on criminality.

"God willing, I would love to host a radio programme where l would preach the gospel," says the aspiring clergyman. Masendeke says he owes his [new] life to one Apostle Vutabwashe, founder of the Bible school where he has started his pastoral training.

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