A lonely death

We had an unusual anniversary this week: a dying man attended by a dying man. Fr Augustus Law, a Jesuit, died of fever at Mzila’s capital, near Chipinge, on 25 November 1880, just 140 years ago.


The man in attendance was Br Joseph Hedley, also a Jesuit, who recovered and lived for another 53 years. They were part of team of four who set out from Bulawayo by ox-wagon in response to a promised welcome from the Shangaan king. One of the others got lost on the way and the other, Br Francis de Sadeleer, had gone back to bring up the wagon which they had abandoned when the going got tough after they crossed the Save River.

The round number anniversary this year seemed like a call to do something to commemorate the effort these men made all those years ago. After all, the Church in Zimbabwe grew out of seeds that died. Fr Shepherd Muhamba and I set off this week to try and find the place where Law died and celebrate the Eucharist on or near it. We got puzzled looks at first until eyes suddenly brightened and everyone we talked to – from the priest at Chipinge, Fr Abraham Nyamupachitu, to the soldiers on the border – became interested and enthusiastic. In fact they marvelled at the story.

But we had set out without knowing precisely where we were going. We knew we must take the road to Mount Selinda and as we did so we received a gift: we passed a sign marked MZILA PRIMARY SCHOOL. The head was fascinated by our quest and phoned everyone he knew who could help. One of these was the local Chief, Madungwawa, who is also a senator. He wanted to help but he was in Harare. Robert Burrett, one of Zimbabwe’s most renowned archaeologists, had given us the approximate site of where Law had been buried – though his remains had later been moved to Chishawasha, near Harare, in 1904. The site was a few meters across the border and the soldiers would have allowed us to cross if we had the exact coordinates. I had never thought of that detail!

So we had to settle for the border itself and offered our prayer of thanks for these ancestors in the faith. I thought of Law lying on the floor without food that he could digest and without medicine, though the Jesuits were said to have alerted the world to the power of quinine. Rats were everywhere though there was a snake in the hut that kept them at bay. De Sadeleer later wrote it performed the function cats did in his Belgian home.

Law and Hedley were helpless, dying in what was for them a remote place surrounded by people who did not understand why they came. They were not hunters, traders or miners and seemed to have nothing to offer. They comforted one another reading for the Lord’s Passion. Hedley managed to hold Law in a sitting position to say his last Mass some days before he died, by supporting him with a rope tied to the rafters.

It was a lonely death in a remote place. It seemed like a failure and Hedley and de Sadeleer, when they eventually met up again, returned to Bulawayo where they arrived 18 months after having set out and after accomplishing nothing. Or so it seemed. In reality it was an integral, even necessary, part of the story of the founding of the Church in Zimbabwe and beyond. Our journey this week and the interest it aroused shows that it touched a chord. The excitement of those we met seemed more that ephemeral. They too glimpsed the reality. Perhaps we too planted a seed.

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