September, the long-awaited birth of spring in southern Africa, invokes in me the memory of John Bradburne.
He died as spring arrived in September 1979 not far from his adopted home in Mutemwa in what was then Rhodesia.
Mutemwa means, “You are cut off,” in the local Shona language.
It is well named. Wedged in the bush between two giant granite hills, it is far from the tourist haunts.
Even if they knew of the place, few tourists would venture there for Mutemwa is the home of Zimbabwe’s oldest leper colony.
Today there are less than 100 lepers left in the settlement that once housed over 1,000 sick, desperate and lonely souls.
“Cut off” is exactly what the colonial authorities planned when Mutemwa was chosen to house these most discarded and isolated of all human beings.
Here, among the lepers, that John Bradburne, a wandering English pilgrim, settled, and as the story of his life and the strange events surrounding his death spread, more and more people started visiting Mutemwa, a site of pilgrimage.
So much so that each September, around the anniversary of Bradburne’s death, upward of 30,000 pilgrims descend on this isolated spot.
And, almost every year, 6,000 miles (9,656 kilometers) away, a special commemorative service is held for Bradburne in London’s Westminster Cathedral.
Since his death, several people have claimed miraculous healings after praying to him, the BBC reported one year ago in a piece titled “Why Briton John Bradburne could become Zimbabwe’s first Catholic saint.”
The miracles satisfy one condition for sainthood in the Catholic Church. It is also said that at his funeral, held in Harare, a speck of unexplained blood appeared below his coffin.
SON OF ANGLICAN CLEREGYMAN
John Randal Bradburne was born in Cumbria, the son of a high Anglican clergyman.
Educated at Greshams, A Church of England foundation school, and commissioned into the Indian Army in 1941, he had a solid war record, serving first with the Ghurkhas in Malaya and then with the Chindits in Burma.
When hostilities ended, Bradburne converted to Catholicism and gave up secular life to become a pilgrim, attaching himself to various monastic orders in Britain, Europe, and the Holy Land before traveling to what was then Rhodesia as a missionary helper in the early Sixties.
Jesuit missionaries had been active in Rhodesia from the late 19th century. They introduced him to Mutemwa, where lepers from many southern African countries and various African tribes lived in appalling conditions of sickness, poverty, and isolation.
From the moment Bradburne first saw the leper colony in 1969, it was clear his search was over.
The restless English pilgrim had finally found his apostolate.
Mutemwa became home, and the lepers became his family. He lived among them, attending to their medical, material, and spiritual needs, all the while battling officialdom for a better deal for his severely disabled and marginalized charges.
IMPROVMENT IN LEPER COLONY
Under Bradburne’s care and with the support of a number of local farmers conditions improved at the leper settlement.
By the late Seventies, however, war had come to Rhodesia. The Mutoko district, with its thick bush, rugged hills, and hidden caves, had become a hot spot for guerrilla activity counter-insurgency operations by the Rhodesian security forces.
In November 1966, the white minority-led government of the British colony of Southern Rhodesia had illegally declared itself an independent nation, saying it was part of a struggle against international communism.
That act led to international sanctions against the country and the intensification of a war started by black nationalists two years earlier.
War crept ever closer to the mission. On the night of February 6, 1977, three Jesuit priests and four Dominican nuns were shot dead by guerrillas at St. Paul’s Mission, Musami, some 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Mutemwa.
Dunstan Myerscough, a Jesuit priest and the sole survivor of the Musami massacre, recalls the moment he faced the killers: “The full realization that we were going to die came to me,” he wrote afterward.
“There was some discussion among the guerrillas. The three facing us raised their rifles; the rest of the party seemed to run away in haste. I was looking at the center one, and I saw his gun belch fire. I turned away from him and fell to the ground.
“There was a continuous burst for a few seconds after which more running feet receded. All then went dead quiet. I turned around, and there was no one to be seen. I got up and went to each of the seven in turn. Being assured that they were all dead, I went to the office to phone…”
Today the bodies of the ‘Musami Seven’ lie alongside those of other murdered missionaries in ‘Martyrs’ Row’ at the Jesuit mission cemetery at Chishawasha outside Harare.
By mid-1979, the Mutoko district had become a no-go area and the war had made it impossible to be a neutral observer.
In July that year Luisa Guidotti, an Italian doctor who regularly visited the leper colony from her base at the nearby All Souls Mission, was shot and killed by Rhodesian security forces at a roadblock near the mission.
She was traveling in a marked ambulance when the killing occurred. Some commentators believe she was ambushed as Guidotti had previously had a brush with the Rhodesian authorities and been arrested under suspicion of aiding a wounded guerrilla, a claim that was later found to be groundless.
But the security forces were suspicious of rural missionary communities and their role during the war. Guidotti may well have paid the ultimate price of that suspicion.
In the light of Dr. Guidotti’s death and the deteriorating security situation in the area, Bradburne’s friends urged him to leave Mutemwa. He refused, insisting he stay on with his family, the lepers.
Bradburne’s biographer Fr. John Dove writes: “A good number of the lepers were diseased foreigners; others were from different tribes.
They were unwelcome to some of the local tribesmen who herded their cattle on the leper fields, stole firewood, broke the fences, pinched mangoes. It was alleged that leper rations and gift clothing went astray. John was the shepherd who did all he could to keep the wolves at bay from his battered flock.”
There is a certain inevitability to the Bradburne story. Like some Greek tragedy being played out in the African bush, the end was always clear.
On the night of Sunday, September 2, 1979, a group of boys who acted as the guerrillas’ eyes and ears in the area – abducted Bradburne from his hut, tied his hands behind his back, and marched him off into the night.
In Dove’s account, the day before his abduction Bradburne came down off Mount Chigona, which overlooks the leper settlement and which he often climbed to pray and gather his thoughts. He reported seeing an apparition persuading him to stay on at Mutemwa.
Dove continues that Bradburne developed an “inexplicable, perhaps mystical, thirst ” on the evening of his abduction. He ran to the water tap near the clinic. The water was turned off. He hurried back to the lepers, asking them for water — they had none. The Christ-like thirst eased as it came. This was the last time they saw him.
The two old lepers in the guest hut next to John’s say that he retired there. Then in the night, they heard voices at John’s door speaking in English. They say John opened the door, and conversation ensued. There was a noise of departure, and then all was silent. They were too afraid to leave their hut before the dawn”.
Following his abduction, Bradburne was taken to a cave some six miles (10 kilometers) northeast of Mutemwa.
Here the abductors, now numbering around 40, mocked and taunted him before taking him to a nearby village. He was bound and left in an empty hut where he stayed throughout Monday, September 3.
That night Bradburne was marched to a local guerrilla commander’s hiding place in a cave in the nearby Inyanga Mountains. The party arrived with Bradburne the following morning.
There he was accused of being an informer, but the commander said he knew of Bradburne and his work with the lepers. He offered the Englishman the option of leaving Mutemwa and going to Mozambique.
Bradburne refused, saying the lepers needed him. That night the commander issued instructions for his release, but Bradburne’s refusal to leave the area had sealed his fate.
BACK TO THE LEPER COLONY
He began the journey back to the leper colony accompanied by a group of local villagers. He did not make it home. Along the way, he was made to kneel in a ditch beside the main road leading back to Mutemwa.
There he was shot in the back with an AK47. A guerrilla security officer who believed the Englishman had seen too much and was a security risk made the killing.
Bradburne’s body was removed from the culvert and laid on the side of the main Nyamapanda road. Villagers who witnessed the killing reported strange occurrences after the shooting.
They reported hearing unrecognizable singing and claimed that a large bird had hovered over Bradburne’s body. There was also the testimony of a shaft of light split into three when it touched the body.
John Dove comments: “The phenomena described were beyond the invention of people of a vastly different religious culture… the symbolism of the phenomena had no meaning to the group… This was all beyond their comprehension. They only experienced fear and bewilderment.”
Despite threats from the guerrilla security officer that their village would be burnt if they did not dispose of the body, the villagers were so frightened by the phenomena they had witnessed that they defied his order.
BODY LEFT ON ROAD
Rather than dispose of the body as instructed, they left it on the shoulder of the road where it was found on Wednesday morning, September 5 by Fr. David Gibbs, who had heard via the bush telephone that a ‘mukiwa’ (a white man) had been killed.
Having heard of the abduction, Gibbs concluded that it could only be Bradburne.
It was not only the reported phenomena surrounding Bradburne’s death that led to speculation that this was a blessed soul.
At Bradburne’s funeral in Salisbury Cathedral, three drops of blood were seen on the floor below the coffin.
The undertaker was so concerned about the incident that he had the body checked before clerical witnesses after the burial service. There was no sign of blood inside or outside the coffin, and Bradburne’s wounds were dry.
Numerous sources verified this incident.
John Dove writes that soon after Bradburne’s death, two Bateleur eagles landed on the grass outside the room at Silveria House, the Jesuit novitiate outside Harare where Bradburne lived for a period before moving to Mutemwa.
‘MESSENGERS OF GOD’
The eagles remained on the ground for three-quarters of an hour. Bateleurs are incredibly shy raptors and rarely alight on the ground. Among the local Shona people, eagles are believed to be messengers of God.
Each September month, local and foreign pilgrims are to found on the granite slopes of Mount Chigona, which soars high above Mutemwa leper station like an African Ayers Rock.
Most nights will see them sleeping out on the mountain below the infinite expanse of the African sky. They come to pray and seek spiritual favors from the Englishman who cared for the lepers who still live in the shadow of what has come to be called the ‘Holy Place’ – Bradburne’s Mountain.
Kerry Swift has worked as a journalist, corporate publisher, and academic. He worked on South Africa’s Drum magazine in the late 1970s, taught journalism at Rhodes University, and later ran a journalism training school for a nation-wide newspaper group training black journalists during the apartheid era. He lives in Johannesburg.