What you need to know:
Mount Zion Prayer Mountain in Harare offers a spiritual refuge for those seeking a safe and secluded area in which to pray and lessons for those who wish to make a business out of spiritual tourism. Its founder hopes that the retreat can become a source of inspiration across Africa.
Irene Brickus Chikaka, 76, is very much at home in her residence in Borrowdale Brooke, an exclusive area of Harare. The property is a sign of a successful career. It is also the site of her latest business and one which she espouses as a potential money-spinner for economies across Africa; spiritual tourism. Almost everything in her home is made by local artisans.
“I love supporting local artists and getting all my things done locally. The bricks of this house were made from resources from this property. Zimbabwe has such potential to be a self-sustaining economy,” she says, speaking with a passion for the country that belies her American roots.
She gestures to the tree plantation on her property which she has used to build her house and the beginnings of what she hopes will become one of Zimbabwe’s hottest tourism sites; Mount Zion Prayer Mountain.
“Religious tourism is something I have been developing into and helps to grow the economy in a sustainable way that intersects religion with employment and sustainability,” offers the alumni of Wharton Business School in her native Pennsylvania.
Chikaka moved to Zimbabwe in 1977 with her late Zimbabwean husband, Ted. Together they started many successful ventures including a school, farms, hotels, and art projects. When Ted passed away in 2003, she chose to remain in Zimbabwe rather than rejoin her family in the United States as she felt there was still a lot of business potential in the country, without the associated “burnout” that often comes with a successful business career in the United States.
It is estimated that before the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of tourists travelling globally for religious reasons numbered around 300 million annually, out of 1.8 billion tourists worldwide. There are very few figures available that highlight the potential value of religious tourism but it is clearly a considerable amount and can add significant value to an economy; something Chikaka came face-to-face with while travelling on the continent.
“I realised the positive impact that religious tourism had when I travelled to Lagos in Nigeria and spoke to the airport personnel. The lovely people were surprised that I was not there to see T.B Joshua (the controversial pastor who died last year) as eighty percent of all people travelling into Lagos were there to see him,” she recounts.
The more she dug, the more she discovered the impact of religious tourism in Nigeria. It was increasing employment at the airport, providing business opportunities for hoteliers and restaurateurs who gave accommodation and sustenance to religious tourists, while curating a more organic form of marketing for the country’s other attractions as religious tourists would inevitably venture into other parts of Lagos and Nigeria.
More than prayer
Chikaka realised that the same thing could be done for Zimbabwe. One aspect of religious and spiritual beliefs in Africa is praying on mountains; termed prayer mountains or prayer hills. Chikaka happened to have access to that very thing back “home” in Zimbabwe. That was how Mount Zion Prayer Mountain got started.
Mount Zion Prayer Mountain has seen steady growth over the years. The area has also become a destination of choice for women who want to feel safe taking a simple hike or spending the night praying. It has also become a popular destination for many who are growing not just their religious ministries but who are also interested in learning the business and financial skills.
Chikaka curates a number of programmes that help people become financially independent, even in Zimbabwe’s difficult economy. One of the current programmes teaches how to create food security and independent sources of electricity and water; issues that were highlighted by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Religion plays a large part in many people’s lives and we shouldn’t be afraid to use that, even in our businesses,” Chikaka says. Words that could well echo across many parts of the continent.
BY Tanatswa Taruvinga