Saints and Seasons

Mashonaland Martyr (Part 1)

by Mike Oettle

SINCE the very earliest years of the Church, Africa has figured in its history. A Jew from what is now Libya – Simon of Cyrene – carried Jesus’ cross on the way to the crucifixion. The conver­sion of an Ethi­o­pian official appears early in the story of Acts. Holy men and women from all parts of North Africa feature promi­nently in the early Church. But in Bantu-speaking Africa – that great region stretching from the Eastern Cape to Kenya on the one hand and Cameroon on the other – the Church was late in coming.

It was not until 1891 that a permanent mission was estab­lished in Mashona­land, the eastern part of what is now Zimbabwe.

So when we look at 19th-century African witnesses for Christ, we find that they were often unschooled tribespeople about whom little is known except that they were new believers who were killed for re­fusing to honour the ancient religion – Manche Masemola and Maqha­mu­sela Khanyile are two examples.

But Bernard Mizeki (died 18 June 1896) is different. Not only was he an exceptional man, an edu­cated black Christian and a person of extraordinary faith, courage and humility, but his story has been collected and written down in a book[1] which not only reflects his life and times but shows, through careful sifting and weighing of the evidence, that this man was in every respect a true Christian martyr. No evidence of miracles has been produced, but since the Anglican Communion neither canon­ises saints as the Roman Catho­lic Church does, nor requires miracles as proof of sainthood, this is not a require­ment. In any case, since Bernard lived in an era when people were not encouraged to believe that miracles could be wrought by (or through) living Christian believers, it is unlikely that any could be attri­b­uted to him in life.

Bernard was not originally his name. Born about 1861 in the Inha­mbane[2] district of Moza­mbi­que, he was Mamiyeri, son of a Gwa­mbe tribesman named Mi­tseka, and would have been called Ma­mi­yeri Mitseka Gwambe. As a boy he chose to go into exile with a party of older cousins and took ship with them to Cape Town, where he worked in Rondebosch[3] and gave his name as Barns. (His own name he would have kept secret, out of superstitious fear.) In his early 20s he began attending a night school run for the Cowley Fathers[4] in Woodstock[5] by a German lady, the Baroness Paula Doro­thea von Blom­berg. The Fräulein (as she was known) noticed him as a bright youngster, willing to learn and re­spon­s­ive to the Christ­ian message. When in due course he was among the first to be baptised at St Philip’s Mission, Sir Lowry Road (7 March 1886), she stood as his godmother. At baptism he took the name Bernard; his surname appears suddenly as Mizeki,[6] and these names he kept.

Shortly after his baptism Bernard gave up his job in Ronde­bosch and became the voluntary, unpaid (at his request) “house­boy” at St Columba’s Hostel, a residential home for African men off Sir Lowry Road. Here he showed a capacity for evangelism, and after a few months he was sent to Zonne­bloem College,[7] District Six, to be trained as a catechist. Not at first a promising stu­dent (except in the Fräulein’s eyes), he initially retained an African mistrust towards answering questions, but later became the college’s star pupil.

Then in January 1891, the Right Rev George William Knight-Bruce, former­ly Anglican Bish­op of Bloemfontein and now appointed to the brand new Diocese of Mashonaland, landed in Cape Town seeking volunteers for pioneer missionary work. Bernard was one of two newly trained cate­chists from Zonnebloem who responded.

I take up the story in the second article.

[1]Mashonaland Martyr: Bernard Mizeki and the Pioneer Church, by Jean Farrant (Oxford University Press).

[2] This Bantu placename was written down in Portuguese and retains its Portuguese form today.

In Portuguese the letter combination NH has much the same function as Ñ in Spanish; the sound it represents would be written in the Nguni languages as NY, or in Sesotho as NJ: say I-nya-mba-neh.

Around 1900 the Portuguese settlements along the African east coast were governed as separate colonies, and Inhambane issued its own postage stamps. The region lies between Maputo (then called Lourenço Marques) and Beira.

[3] The town of Rondebosch, on the Liesbeeck River, was a separate municipality until 1913. In those years it was largely rural, but is now intensively urbanised.

[4] Members of the Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE), who had established a much needed mission in Cape Town.

[5] The town of Woodstock, also a separate municipality until 1913, is right alongside the centre of Cape Town; the Woodstock railway station is the last before the main station.

[6] Farrant gives no explanation of this name. It would seem, however, that the Fräulein had written “Mitseka” down in a German fashion, spelling the TS with a Z, but had misinterpreted the final vowel.

The name Bernard would appear to be a formalisation of “Barns”.

[7]Zonnebloem, founded by Bishop Robert Gray, was left derelict by apartheid. Its buildings still stand and its name has been given to District Six, but the college has been moved and amalgamated with another in Kuils River.


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

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    Write to me: Mike Oettle