Book Review: The Dust Diaries, An African Story by Owen Sheers

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This is a personal pilgrimage of a book –  a semi-biographical story that documents the mind and passions of a missionary imagined by his great-great nephew across an unsettled colonial history .

Arthur Shearly Cripps, Independent Missionary to Southern Rhodesia, died in what is now Zimbabwe in 1952 at the age of 83.  We are introduced to him at the very end of his life, and learn of him through his memories.  Many of these memories Owen Sheers has teased from piles of correspondence and research material gathered together in England.  Other details are filled out in Africa where we are taken to see the farms and missions where Cripps lived and to meet those who knew the man and his work.

The Cripps we are shown was tall and resolute, an Oxford-educated natural athlete with an unflinching determination to protect those he felt responsible for – particularly the Africans he lived amongst.  Through his eyes we see their lives and are also shown the European society Cripps was so often at the edge of.

Cripps knew his local area intimately.  He walked hundreds of miles between the capital, and the scattered churches and local villages.  He saw first hand the tribal and social consequences of new boundaries and sudden taxation and he felt it his duty to protect those who bore the brunt of such change.  He delivered his opinions relentlessly – in person; on paper; through letters to the press; and even by pamphlet.   Many in authority, and some who owned property around his missions, saw him as troublesome and slightly out of touch.  These opinions do not seem to have bothered Cripps’ himself and his followers remained devoted.

The Dust Diaries paints a vivid picture of the missionary’s character and of the time in which he lived.   Stories are woven into the context and used to illustrate the nature of this stubborn, poetic priest who remained at his mission despite becoming increasingly frail and isolated.

At the end of his life Cripps might have been ‘cut off’ through blindness and circumstance but he was never alone.    Noel Brettell visited him weekly to read poetry to him and Leonard Mamvura served as his eyes and scribe.  It was the type of existence that Cripps preferred – close to what he saw as the real Africa and on his terms.

In many ways his life had been blisteringly complete.  He had been outspoken and individual, relentless in his values, unswerving in his faith, and of service to others.    Perhaps, as at least one bishop suggested, it was the life of a saint.

Depicting such a life without being sycophantic is difficult and describing its ideals against the backdrop of modern Zimbabwe only adds to the complications.   Sheers manages both challenges by showing us a man who lived with his own secrets in a land that failed later to meet his ideals.

It is a careful, fascinating tale.

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