Bernard Mizeki was born about the year 1861 near Inhambane in Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). His parents, who were of Shangaan origin, named him Mamiyeli Mitseki Gwambe. He received no formal education during the early part of his life, there being no local school. He left his native land in adolescence when he accompanied a European hunter to Cape Town as a servant, and he found employment as a domestic servant in a Cape Town suburb.
Mizeki attended a night school run by an Anglican mission when he was able, showing himself a quick learner. Befriended by Anglican missionaries, he was baptized on March 9, 1886, receiving the name Bernard. He later enrolled at Zonnebloem College to train as a catechist. In 1891 Bernard volunteered as a catechist for the pioneer mission in Mashonaland, and was stationed at Nhowe (in present-day Zimbabwe).
Five years later, in June 1896, 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. On a Sunday that June the witch doctor ordered the people in Nhowe not to attend Bernard’s morning service, though Evensong that day was well attended. Upon hearing of this, the witch doctor threatened to kill Bernard and to punish the people who had attended the Christian service against his orders. Though warned to flee, Bernard would not desert his converts at the mission station.
On June 17, Bernard was dragged from his hut and mortally wounded by rebel warriors from the village. He managed to crawl to a nearby hillside, where his wife bathed his wounds. Leaving him for a short time to fetch blankets, she returned with another woman. They reported being frightened by an unearthly sound, “like many wings of great birds”, and by a dazzling light that moved toward the spot where Bernard lay. When the women had summoned the courage to go to the place where Bernard lay, his body had disappeared. His body was never found, and the exact site of his burial is unknown.
A shrine near the place of his martyrdom attracts pilgrims to this day. Every year, on the Saturday nearest June 18, a special liturgy of Holy Communion in held to commemorate the Anglican protomartyr of Central and Southern Africa.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980) and other sources
Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your love in the heart of your holy martyr Bernard Mizeki: Grant to us, your humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in his triumph may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The tapestry depicted above was embroidered by the Marandellas Women’s Institute. The central panel depicts Bernard catechizing. The upper border depicts the scene of his martyrdom, while the lower border depicts pilgrims coming to the shrine later erected on the site of his hut. The motif to the left depicts the triumph of the Cross over the witch doctor’s bones. The image is taken from the Rhodesian Tapestry website.