IT is far from resembling the biblical Canaan which flowed with milk and honey.

Canaan, a settlement along the Harare-Chirundu highway, 40 kilometres away from the capital is marked by hardships.

Established based on the teachings of Ishmael Chokurongerwa, a self-proclaimed prophet of the Johane Masowe Gore Jena apostolic sect, residents live in a close-knit community.

Beyond its walls children as young as eight years old shoulder the burden of hard labour.

Inside a tin-roofed workshop, a sewing machine clatters but immediately comes to a stop as 17-year-old Danny Gezani, sitting on a chair narrates his responsibility in the compound.

“I have been doing this for the past three years. I was taught this skill here and from then on I never stopped. I have sewn many clothes and on a day I do three clothes,” said Gezani, lifting a khaki short that he had sewn.

Gezani is one of many children in the settlement who have been forced to abandon their academic studies for the “teachings” offered in Canaan.

When boys reach school age, they are taught industrious jobs while girls are only restricted to household chores, which the elders in the settlement consider progressive.

Alex Desve, who claims to be voluntarily teaching boys valuable work skills,  said making children work is a religious belief based on interpretations of instructions from God through Madzibaba Ishmael.

“The children are taught everything until they master every skill. What they are instructed is what they do as per the voice of God. The products that are produced here are sold outside in shops with the returns shared in the community,” said Desve.

Since the shrine’s establishment in 2022, Madzibaba Ishmael is alleged to have instructed his followers to disregard mainstream education and isolate themselves.

This includes prohibiting children from attending school and forcing them to work within the compound.

These actions violate Zimbabwean law. Section 11 of the Labour Act prohibits employing individuals under the age of 16.

Madzibaba Ishmael along with other seven leaders were arrested last week by Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) when the compound was raided.

“The arrest follows a raid made by the Police at the farm on 12th March 2024. Investigations conducted by the Police established that 246 out of 251 children below the age of 18 years found at the farm had no birth certificates and were being used to perform various physical activities for the benefit of the sect’s leadership.

“Police established that all children of school-going age did not attend formal education and were subjected to abuse as cheap labour, doing manual work in the name of being taught life skills,” said ZRP spokesperson Paul Nyathi.

Madzibaba Ishmael, who clashed with law enforcement agencies in 2014 in Budiriro, has created a cult following at his Nyabira compound.

Shylon Mutyambizi, one of the church leaders said Madzibaba Ishmael is being victimised by the law enforcement agents.

“We went to formal school but it did not work. My religious beliefs prohibit us from working for someone. The word through Madzibaba Ishamael told us to do that and my children will never attend formal schools. This is enough for them. On the arrest of muporofita someone is tarnishing the reputation of our leader, ” said Mutyambizi.

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