Ruth Chemubako, 45, likes to jog and do pushups inside the courtyard of a Baptist church at 4:30 a.m. three times a week with a dozen other women.
“Our pastor deaconess or pastor leads the body fitness exercises. It’s safe inside a church or running as a troop of women on the highway together,” she said of Zimbabwe’s churches moonlighting as informal fitness clubs in a country with a flailing public health care.
Zimbabwe’s public health care hospitals are tottering on the brink. Basic drugs like painkillers often are in short supply and the UK government cautions that, “Zimbabweans seeking health care are generally required to bring their own drugs.” In March, Zimbabwe’s health minister revealed the country of 15 million inhabitants has only one functioning cancer radiotherapy machine.
With few options, female Christians like Chemubako know prevention is better than cure, hence the obsession with any form of fitness endurances, be they killing road miles jogging or rope-jumping in church yards.
“As church women, we have developed holistic fitness routines to guard our health against obesity, hypertension or cancers. We train thrice every week, setting up at 4 a.m. from homes,” said the mother of four who earns a living operating a large stall of cabbages, onions, cucumbers and chilled water in Harare, the capital.
“With the ailing economy of this country, none of us can financially survive a cancer diagnosis.”
“With the ailing economy of this country, none of us can financially survive a cancer diagnosis. So better to exercise in the churchyard and keep our hearts and lungs healthier, flowing without bloods clots,” added Mavis Sakadzo, a retired Baptist evangelist, 52, who styles herself as the leader of a pack of 12 female worshippers’ fitness group who set out at dawn along the thin two-lane tarmac roads of Zimbabwe’s capital.
Private for-profit fitness gyms litter all suburbs in Harare, but an average monthly subscription of $80 is just too pricey in a country where the average monthly salary was $305 in 2018.
Zimbabwe’s economy is one of Africa’s most struggling in terms of creating employment and suppressing poverty. According to a Trading Economics research note, the country’s inflation once reached a dizzying 785% in May 2020.
Hence, Zimbabwe churches are foraying into the fitness arena to keep their worshippers healthy and avoid costly health care bills.
“In the last 15 years, we have faced touching incidents of desperate cancer or kidney failure with worshippers selling cars, homes to fly to India and get affordable life-saving surgeries, treatments because state hospitals here are really struggling,” said Barnard Jobe, a pastor with Revived Christ Missions in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city.
Several churches are building churchyard gyms for their congregations, Jobe said, “with children’s artificial rock climb rigs too to keep their bones strong.” Most churches organize early morning runs and jogs especially for female worshippers to exercise as a group for safety reasons — as a guard against opportunistic thieves and because Zimbabwe’s roads, where many drivers flout rules and the state of repairs is shoddy, can be fatal to pedestrians who try to exercise during the daytime. At 4 a.m., the roads are calm for healthy runs, Jobe explained.
“Healthy worshippers means healthy churches,” said Chenge Labode, a deaconess with the United Baptist Church in Harare. “We don’t just turn our churchyards and vacant buildings for jogs so worshippers lose fat and avoid diabetes. We want our churches to be one-stop centers for healthy lives.”
Sakadzo, the retired Baptist evangelist, summarized: “By organizing congregations into fitness troops, churches are proactive about their worshippers’ health. Worshipping God for us now extends into encouraging gym-like pushups every week to make sure our worshippers can reduce hypertension and strokes.”