RISING majestically (over 1200metres) from broad-based stoney boulders on the outskirts of Mutemwa Leprosy Centre, Chigona Mountain in Mutoko remains a sacred place of worship for Christians in the country, with a rich history of mysterious happenings, miracles, exhilarating spiritual experiences and a “martyr”, who is closely linked to its “power.”
BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
For many years, it has been host to thousands of people who are drawn to the mountain to pray, to revive their waning spiritual lives and seek redemption. Some come at their wits’ end, discouraged by life’s downside and looking for a place of rest and comfort. Many “battles” have been fought in the belly of the sprawling mountain, which overlooks Mutoko.
Most members of the Catholic Church converge for a pilgrimage every year, in the first week of September.
From a distance, it is just like any mountain that one would come across in Zimbabwe, but the locals hold it in thrall. There is rich history that surrounds the place. Mysterious happenings, supernatural experiences and even miracles are said to have happened here.
Students from various schools descend on the mountain towards examination periods and spend sleepless nights pleading for favourable results. The mountain is littered with candle wax, evidence of the nightly vigils.
The lame have been known to drag their bodies up the slippery jagged path, right to the top.
“Many people have given testimonies after being on the mountain,” Joseph Karichi from the leprosy centre said.
At any given time, there are people praying and some even pitch tents and stay for days reconnecting with their spirituality.
A recent visit to the mountain proved that those who have climbed it must have had much determination. It is not for the faint-hearted.
The long, often winding path is slippery and there is not much to grab onto except a few tufts of moss.
However, it is clearly marked in white paint directing the mountain climbers. Getting to the top is the most rewarding and many shout their prayers in careless abandon. No one really minds anyone, as each pours out their hearts.
At the very top there is a head stone of John Bradburne, a former warden at Mutemwa Leprosy Centre and now a candidate for sainthood.
Bradburne, who spent close to 10 years tending to the community, in particular the lepers, is one of the few people who started praying in Chigona.
“It is said he once stayed on the mountain for three months, praying. The pool at the top of mountain, in which he took his baths, has also become sacred. Many collect the water in bottles claiming it has healing powers, and mysteriously brings good tidings to those who use it,” Karichi says.
However, on September 5, 1979 he was shot dead near Mutemwa and his body left by the side of the Nyamapanda road.
His death was mired in such controversy and it said during his funeral a few drops of blood leaked from his coffin, but when it was opened they could not locate the source of the blood.
A shrine in his honour has been preserved over the years and part of it is his famous tin house and two other huts, which he used as his dwellings.
His humility struck a chord with those he came into contact with, especially the lepers. He nurtured them and nursed them back to health. His selfless acts defied all logic and the community loved him the more.
“He taught me how to pray in earnest and never gave up on us,” recalls a post leper, Colletta Mafuta.
Born to parents who had leprosy, Mafuta had a difficult childhood adjusting to her condition, but Bradburne was her pillar.
“He was not an ordinary man, God ordained him for the specific task of looking after the poor. He left behind a comfortable life in England and came to live among the poor and sick,” she said with reverence.
According to his biography put together by the John Bradburne Memorial Society, he was born in 1921, the son of an Anglican clergyman. After secondary school in Norfolk he joined the army in 1939, and served in Malaya and Burma, before being invalided home.
Something in Malaya — a conversion experience, it is said — turned him from adventurer into pilgrim.
He became a Roman Catholic lay preacher in 1947, when staying at Buckfast Abbey. After some months with the Carthusians, he felt the urge to travel, and for 16 years wandered between England, Italy and the Middle East, living out of a Gladstone bag.
Then he wrote to his friend, Father John Dove, in Zimbabwe asking: “Is there a cave in Africa where I can pray?”
Soon after his arrival, in 1962, he confided to a Franciscan priest that he had three wishes: to serve leprosy patients, to die a martyr, and to be buried in the habit of St Francis.
In 1969 he was appointed warden at Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement, in Mutoko.
The single-minded loving care he gave the residents, eventually, brought him into conflict with the management committee. He refused to put number tags around the patients’ necks and reduce their already small diet, so he was sacked.
He then lived in a tin hut, just outside the leprosy compound.
During the country’s liberation war, his efforts to prevent exploitation of the leprosy patients brought local hostility and suspicion. He refused to leave the place for safety and was abducted on September 5, 1979.
One of the post lepers, Jessie Brown, was present when the abductors came.
“The men asked where John was and I told them he had gone for prayers,” Brown said with tears in her eyes. After the men had left, she rushed to the church to warn Bradburne.
“He was not afraid and instead worried about my safety. He said to me, ‘If these men come back and you are here, they might harm you, go and seek shelter in the village’.”
That was the last time Bradburne was seen alive. Since his death, many other unusual events have been reported in relation to his name. Currently, there is a growing movement advocating for conferment of sainthood for Bradburne.