‘Bernard Mizeki was no martyr’

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HAVING been ‘born’ into the Anglican Church, I guess I am not one expected to question some of the church’s doctrines and religious practices.
There are certain rites that have naturally become entrenched.
As you ‘grow up in the Church’, you are taught to recite the orthodox prayers, memorise not less than 10 of the commonest hymns, albeit with different tunes, but the one thing you do not do is question why you have to go through all these paces.
Like many others, my denomination has been inherited since the first convert in our family, sekuru VaZiyanai, converted to Christianity at St Augustine’s Penhalonga in the 1890s.
Even though I was born long after he had joined his ancestors, my father and his siblings respected and revered the decision my great-grandfather made in joining the first Church in England.
It aroused a sense of pride, somehow, that my Church had its roots in England.
This, coupled with a few years of high schooling at St Augustine’s Penhalonga, made me a ‘fuller’ Anglican.
As they still say, ‘Kuti usi kufunde kwaTsambe hauna kufunda ba’, which, loosely translated in the Manyika dialect, means if you were not schooled at Tsambe (St Augustine’s) then you did not get the best education.
And most of the former St Augustine’s students remember the houses they were in, be it Knight-Bruce, Gaul, Powell or Beaven.
No one really bothered to check whose names these were, just that they were most probably early missionaries who played a central role in setting up the Church.
According to Bishop Eric Ruwona, writing in The Manica Post, the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe was born after the arrival of Bishop Knight Bruce at Umtali Township (now Mutare) on June 1 1891 and its journey started with the establishment of the first mission station across Tsambe River.
The timing of the establishment of the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe is rather curious.
In the early 1890s when the country had just been colonised, missionary crusades against African cultures saw Africans, especially the young ones, being inducted into mission schools.
A paper titled ‘Missionary Witchcrafting African Being: Cultural Disarmament’, by US-based Zimbabwean historian Professor Mhoze Chikowero, takes the reader on a voyage exploring how European missionaries rabidly assaulted African cultures, attacking them as special manifestations of what they termed African ‘savegery’.
Prof Chikowero’s works focus on ‘African perspectives, methodologies, epistemologies and forms of self-craft that have long been marginalised by Northern epistemologies that reify the colonial written archive as the site of knowledge and subject production’.
Writes Prof Chokowero:“The missionary assault significantly undermined fountains of African being.
“As such, I posit that missionisation should be read as an insidious attempt at cultural disarmament that greatly facilitated African subjugation to colonialism and neo-colonialism.”
Excuse the digression.
During my time at St Augustine’s, we all looked forward to the pilgrimage to Bernard Mizeki Shrine, a rite practised by all Anglican devotees.
To be honest, the main reason most of the schoolchildren were fascinated by the trip was just to get away from the boring repetitive mission school routine and get a chance to mix and mingle with peers from sister Anglican schools.
The other thing that made the trips all the more enchanting was the myth surrounding the man called Bernard Mizeki, whose name is sometimes written as Bernard Mzeki.
It was said Mizeki, just like the Biblical Elijah, did not die like mortals but was whisked away by angels following a savage attack by Chief Mangwende’s loyalists.
Eyewitness accounts, including that of his wife Mutwa, reported they heard sounds akin to flapping wings of many birds, supposedly of angels, before witnessing a bright blinding light, and when they rushed up the mountain to check what was taking place, all they saw were trees marked with stars and a blood-trail which suddenly disappeared at the point where he was ‘taken by God’.
It was also said the blood-trail would, for many years to come, remain fresh, defying the vagaries of the elements, a point used by Anglican clerics to mystify the Mizeki story.
In search of answers, The Patriot set out to dig up information on Bernard Mizeki and compare narratives not only from the Anglican Church, but also explicate narratives from the Mangwende clansmen where Bernard Mizeki set up his station, settled and was subsequently murdered.
The Bernard Mizeki story has for many years only been told through the lens of the Anglican Church despite the existence of counter-narratives.
When one delves into the intricacies of the Mizeki story, which has over the years gained mythical status, it immediately becomes apparent that the narrative pushed by the Anglican Church is porous.
The part on who saw the supposed angels remains a grey area, while the Church has failed to explain the fetishism on the rock where Mizeki reportedly ‘departed’ from which congregants regard as holy ground, and thus go to pray in sympathy with Mizeki who they believe was killed by heathens who persecuted him for his religious beliefs.
However, one of the most compelling counter-narratives of Mizeki’s martyrdom was proffered by Professor Chikowero in the book African Music, Power, and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe which questions colonial narratives not only in music, colonialism and African self-liberation, but brings to the fore attempts by Northern epistemologies to entrench hegemonic and pathological systems of power.
Below is an excerpt on Mizeki from the book on page 25-26:
“The Anglicans deployed Bernard Mizeki, a catechist, to evangelise among Ishe Mangwende’s people of east-central Zimbabwe in the mid-1890s. He was killed there in June 1896, and the church declared him a martyr and the first African saint in the country.
“According to the official narrative, ‘during the Mashona rebellion against the Europeans and their African friends, Bernard was especially marked out, in part because he had offended the local witch doctor’ (Granger, 2012). The implication is that the catechist fell victim to the combined anti-colonial and ‘heathen’ fervor during the First Chimurenga.
“A counterstory narrates how Mizeki targeted the VaNhowe people’s sacred hills for a mission station, desecrating the burial grounds of departed chiefs and erecting crosses at caves that served as the people’s indigenous spiritual sites. In spite of the conflict his actions caused, Ishe Mangwende reportedly gave him his daughter in marriage.
“But apparently unsatisfied, Mizeki is alleged to have gone on to sleep with the two wives of Mushawatu, the chief’s eldest son. Outraged, Mushawatu’s younger brothers, Gomwe and Muchemwa, ambushed and murdered Mizeki at night and burned his corpse, which they adjudged unfit to be buried in their land.
“For this crime, according to Mushawatu’s great-grandson Neddington Mushawatu, Mizeki’s white patrons shot Mushawatu and scattered his family. The Anglican Church allegedly shrouded this scandal in a conspiracy of silence and threats, identifying Mizeki as a saint and designating the place of his killing a holy shrine (Mushawatu, interview).”
Interesting!
Almost a century after Mizeki breathed his last on June 18 1896, his footprints in Chief Mangwende’s land seem to suggest that the man of the cloth is not who or what the Anglican Church wants everyone to believe.
An article published in The Patriot on May 23-29 2014 titled ‘Chimurenga risings: Africans who died for the cause of the whiteman’ written by the now late Dr Vimbai Gukwe Chivaura poses two pertinent questions: The first one being: Is the role of the Church in Zimbabwe to liberate Africans from colonialism or to deliver Africans into the hands of colonialism?
The second question is: Is the role of African priests in these churches to liberate Africans from colonialism or to help colonialism enslave Africans?
These are questions that I doubt the thousands of devout Anglicans who converge annually at the Bernard Mizeki Shrine, close to Bernard Mizeki College, the hilly area under Chief Mangwende’s rule, to commemorate his life, might be able to answer without scratching their heads.
Hence in search of answers, this year, this reporter was part of the pilgrimage to the Bernard Mizeki Shrine, where more than 5 000 congregants paid homage to Mizeki.
There, it was said more than 200 pilgrims from Mozambique had graced the shrine, while hundreds from South Africa and Zambia had come to join Zimbabweans.
While pilgrims are said to have started gathering on Friday, Saturday morning was a hive of activity starting with a mass, before people took the trek up the rocky hill where Mizeki sought refuge after being stabbed.
Mizeki has since been referred to as the first African martyr in Zimbabwe.
Born Mamiyeri Mitseka Gwambe in Inhambane, Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), in 1861, the man was later known as Bernard Mizeki.
He is said to have briefly worked for a European trader as a storekeeper before emigrating to South Africa, Cape Town, by ship, at the age of 12 or 14.
It is reported he set out for South Africa in search of greener pastures after his mother had passed away.
Since the South African colonial regime did not respect conventions on child labour, especially in Africa, Gwambe worked as a general labourer in the slums of Cape Town for the next 10 years.
At one time he worked at the docks, loading and offloading ships.
While he would work during the day, at night Gwambe attended night classes at an Anglican school under the tutelage of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) — an Anglican religious order for men known as the Cowley Fathers based at St Philip’s Zonnebloem.
The night classes he attended were conducted by a female German missionary called Fraulein von Bloemberg, who was charmed by Bernard Mizeki and eventually taught him to read and write.
Gwambe eventually joined the Christian faith and on March 9 1886, was baptised and christened Mizeki at St Philip’s Church in Cape Town.
According to justus.anglican.org, Mizeki not only mastered the fundamentals of European schooling at SSJE, but he honed his skills to become a master of English, high Dutch, Greek, Latin, Hebrew and at least eight local African languages including Zulu that in time would endear him to the Anglican Church when he began translating the Church’s doctrines into African languages and doubled as a court interpreter.
Lillian Knight Bruce would later, after his death, mourn Mizeki since the missionary cause regarded him an asset, describing him as a missionary with ‘great skills in learning languages and as an interpreter which made him a most valuable helper to our cause’.
When Mizeki eventually graduated, he accompanied Bishop George William Knight-Bruce, in May 1891, to Mashonaland, then referred to as a tribal area in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) where he was dispatched as a lay catechist tasked with converting the Shona people.
Mizeki was accompanied by his pupil John Kapuya and the Zulu catechist Frank Ziqubu, and together, according to Dr Chivaura’s narrative, helped Bishop Knight-Bruce translate the Lord’s prayer, the 10 Commandments and the Creed into Shona in 1894.
While Mizeki was dispatched to preach the word of God, he met resistance from the locals who argued that they already prayed to God, a supreme being their called Musikavanhu, Mwari.
Mizeki would oftentimes accompany Douglas Pelly on numerous village visits.
Later, Pelly would mourn Mizeki ‘as a charming companion who made many a long walk bright with his interesting talk of native customs, thoughts and legends’.
Mizeki moved his mission complex onto a nearby plateau, next to a grove of trees sacred to the ancestral spirits of the Mashona. (justus.anglican.org)
Although Mizeki was said to be in good books with Chief Mangwende, he is said to have ‘angered local traditional leaders when he cut some trees down and carved crosses into others. Although he opposed some local traditional religious customs, Bernard was very attentive to the nuances of the Shona spirit religion. He developed an approach that built on people’s already monotheist faith in one God, Mwari, and on their sensitivity to spirit life, while at the same time he forthrightly proclaimed the Christ’. (justus.anglican.org)
The above is indeed an admission that Mizeki desecrated the Mangwende ancestral lands which they had jealously guarded during a volatile political period when the First Chimurenga was raging.
Mizeki’s desecration of the Mangwende sacred shrines and forests is validated by the Bernard Mizeki Play, one of the features that marks the crescendo of the Bernard Mizeki pilgrimage.
The play takes a dig at the ‘primitive’ Mangwende tribesmen who are portrayed as blood thirsty savages who murdered Mizeki for an unjust cause.
Featuring prominently in the play was Mizeki’s courtship of Mutwa, Chief Mangwende’s daughter, who caught his eye on one of his village visits. In the play, the courtship is facilitated by VaZvandiparira, Chief Mangwende’s wife, hosi yamambo.
According to an article titled ‘Bernard Mizeki: Story of an African martyr’ penned by Dr Sekai Nzenza in The Herald of June 22 2016, when Mizeki arrived in the Nhowe area, he was given a warm welcome.
Dr Nzenza writes that Mizeki and Mutwa’s marriage occurred when Ndebele and Shona people’s tempers had flared in retaliation to the British South Africa Company’s (BSAC) unbridled greed to colonise the indigenes. Thus this was the beginning of the First Chimurenga.
To show that Chief Mangwende meant well, he welcomed Mizeki’s overture to take his daughter’s hand in holy matrimony, and the wedding took place at Rusape on March 6 1896 in a ceremony conducted by the first African priest, Reverend Hezekiah Mtobi.
Mizeki and Mutwa’s wedding, as portrayed in the play, is evidence that Chief Mangwende had welcomed Mizeki as a son-in-law despite his divergent political affiliation and worldview.
The play attacks the traditional practices that Mizeki found in the land, depicting him cutting down trees on sacred hills, provoking mhondoro and carving crosses at sacred shrines and caves housing the Mangwende ancestors.
Basically, the play denigrates all African traditional practices.
According to Dr Nzenza’s article, Reverend Foster, on June 14 1896, heard disturbing news that there was a plan to murder Mizeki because the locals suspected he was spying on the locals due to his association with the whiteman.
Never mind that the same locals were seeing Mizeki during trials of their fellow tribesmen since he was a court interpreter.
Being an interpreter placed him stark in the middle of the white administration as the messages he communicated to convicts were only put forward in the words they understood by Mizeki, such that the last voice of the judgment handed down to any of the indigenes was Mizeki’s.
Add to that the desecration, Mizeki had it coming to him.
On June 18 1896, three men reportedly knocked on his door and when he opened the door, he was speared in the ribs and dragged from his home.
The men did not pull out their spear, but left him for dead.
His wife Mutwa is said to have found him still alive in the nearby hills where he was hiding, suspecting his assailants would return once they heard that he was still alive.
Thus Mutwa went to call for help.
Upon returning, they were shocked to find Mizeki’s body had disappeared, and that is when they claim they saw ‘great white light all over that place, and heard a loud noise like many wings of great birds’.
After considering all the narratives, Mizeki was was no saint but an arrogant, learned, philandering African glorified by whites for his ‘services’.
He was carried by no angels but killed by Chief Mangwende’s son, Muchemwa, with the help of his uncles Saridyo, Zihute and Bodyo for his transgressions.

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