Why was Bernard Mizeki killed? The shocking counterstory

A scene from The Convert. PHOTO: McCarter Theater Center, NJ, USA

Thanks to Danai Gurira’s play, ‘The Convert,’ we have a visual idea of what some of the first African converts to Christianity, such as Bernard Mizeki, went through to separate themselves from their beliefs and families.

Mizeki was an African Christian missionary and is widely regarded as a martyr with the official story being that he was killed for his Christian beliefs.

A new book by U.S. based Zimbabwean historian, Mhoze Chikowero, offers a counter narrative that will not go down well with the Anglican church, which has a boarding school and a shrine named after Mizeki. Thousands of congregants make an annual pilgrimage to the shrine which is located in Marondera.

The book, “African Music, Power, and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe” interrogates colonial narratives of music, colonialism, and African self-liberation.

On page 25-26, is the following excerpt about Mizeki:

“The Anglicans deployed Bernard Mizeki, a catechist, to evangelize among Ishe Mangwende’s VaNhowe 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 anticolonial and “heathen” fervor during the First Chimurenga.

An embroidered piece from the Marandellas Women’s Institute titled 'Martyrdom of Bernard Mizeki.'
An embroidered piece from the Marandellas Women’s Institute  titled ‘Martyrdom of Bernard Mizeki.’

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 and groves 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.


Buy the Book


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).”

In recent years there has been a global trend to retell history from different view points, offering a counter narrative to the often one-sided story of many ages past.

The Zimbabwe launch of the book took place at the Mbira Centre in Harare on July 12. – Zimbo Jam

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