Saints and Seasons

Mashonaland martyr (Part 2)

by Mike Oettle

BEING a bishop in 19th-century Mashonaland was no picnic. Neither the first Bishop of Mashonaland, George Knight-Bruce,[1] nor Wil­liam Thomas Gaul, his successor, was to stay long in the country, as both were worn out too soon by hard work and tropical disease, and each lived out his retirement in poor health before going to an early grave.

Bernard Mizeki, having been born in a region not too distant from the land of the vaShona, was probably immune to the diseases which so ruined white clergy. But he was nonetheless a loyal worker and served both bishops faithfully.

As shown in the previous article, he had been among the first to respond when Bishop Knight-Bruce ar­rived in Cape Town in January 1891, look­ing for volunteers for pioneer missionary work. In May that same year he landed with the bishop’s party in Beira. After a few months trav­el­ling as Bishop Knight-Bruce’s personal assistant and inter­pret­er, he was settled in the Marandellas (now Marondero) district at the kraal of Mungati, chief of the vaNhowe, who was known by his title, the Mangwendwe. While Bernard often travelled (on foot) to Salisbury (now Harare) and beyond to assist espe­cial­ly in the work of trans­lating Scripture and liturgy into seShona, this was to be his home.

Here he settled on land allotted to him by the chief and built a few huts, later moving to another site nearby. He first made himself furniture, but later burned it and deliberately lived simply as did the vaShona, to identify with the people. He was soon respected by most – except the witch-doctors, whose livelihood he threatened, and troublemakers such as Ma­ngwe­ndwe’s son Mchemwa. He also became the valued friend of two white men: the Government official Llewellyn Meredith and the lay mis­sion­ary Douglas Pelly (ordained deacon in 1895 and later made priest). Both wrote of Bernard as a man they loved and respected.

Boys and young men, and later their wives, too, came to live with Bernard to learn about the gos­pel. Although the London Mis­sion­ary Society had laboured for 30 years in Mashonaland, the first Shona convert to be baptised was one of Bernard’s young men, John Kapuya, baptised exactly a month after Bernard’s death, on 18 July 1896.

Permitted to marry, Bernard at first chose not to, but in late 1895 he was betrothed to a Nhowe convert, Mutwa, grand­daughter of Mangwendwe, who on baptism after Bernard’s death took the name Lily. They were married in March 1896, and after his death she was to bear him a daughter, whom she called Masiwa (fatherless one), but who was baptised Bernadina.

In June 1896, during the Mashonaland Rebellion, all mission work­ers were ordered to safety in Salisbury. Bernard, having the absent Bishop Gaul’s instruc­tions to stay at his post and his young men and a pregnant wife to care for, chose to remain at Ma­ngwendwe’s, although he sent some of his fol­low­­ers away to safe places.

Mchemwa, full of hatred, ordered Bernard’s death, and on the night of 18 June, Bernard was treacherously dragged from his hut, stabbed and left for dead. Shortly afterwards Mutwa found him nearby, wounded but alive, and he told her to flee. She went to fetch him food and blankets – and then saw a brilliant white light, seen by others as well, shining all over the hillside where he lay, and a great noise “like many wings of great birds”.

She never saw him again. Mchemwa, it was learned many years lat­er, had dispatched him and hidden his body. He also ordered the de­struc­tion of the mission settlement, so that all that was left was a group of mud floors.

Although the rebellion wiped out the mission for a time, the Church was soon afterwards firmly established in Mashonaland and to­day the site of Bernard’s hut is a shrine. Each year on Bern­ard’s Day, 18 June, a memorial communion service is held there, attended by thousands of people who camp in the vicinity for a few days. The top of the nearby hill called Mangwendwe’s Mount­ain, where the chief had his kraal, is dominated by a large concrete cross.

As for Bernard himself, had he lived he would probably have be­come a priest like Douglas Pelly – but the Lord had other plans. How­ever, he would not have been the first black priest in the diocese: that honour fell to a Xhosa, the Rev Hezekiah Mto­bi, who arrived in Mashonaland in 1895, having been shipwrecked on the way to Beira. John Kapuya was sent to Natal for training and worked many years as a catechist and teacher in Mashonaland. Another of Bernard’s youngsters, Samuel Mu­nya­vi, only a boy of 12 when Bernard died, grew up to become the father of a priest.

Near Bernard’s shrine stands Bernard Mizeki College. Among the 20-plus other memorials to him in Southern Africa are churches bear­ing his name in Kwazakhele, Port Elizabeth; Mku­me­nge, Transkei; and Atteridgeville, Pretoria; a chapel in Bo­tswana and a school in Swazi­land. Part of a stained-glass window in St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town; a reliquary in new St Philip’s Church, Cape Town; and an altar at St Cyprian’s Church, Langa, on the Cape Flats, also stand in his memory. The altar is inscribed: “Bernard Mizeki si tandaza.” (“Bern­ard Mizeki, pray for us.”)

[1] Bishop Knight-Bruce, invalided home to England, died in 1896, aged 44. He was succeeded in 1895 by Bishop Gaul (pre­vi­ously Arch­deacon of Kimberley), who was forced by ill health to resign in 1907.


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  • This article was originally published in Western Light, monthly magazine of All Saints’ Parish, Kabega Park, Port Elizabeth, in July 1990.

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    Write to me: Mike Oettle