Review of Journeys Beyond GuBulawayo to the Gaza, Tonga and Lozi, Letters of the Jesuit Zambezi Mission, 1880-1883 - Mukai

Journeys beyond Gubuluwayo to the Gaza, Tonga and Lozi, Letters of the Jesuit Zambezi Mission, 1880-1883.
Translated by Véronique Wakerley, edited by R.S. Roberts,
Weaver Press, 2009.
Reviewed by Fr David Harold-Barry SJ
Published in Mukai-Vukani Jesuit Journal for Zimbabwe No 49, September 2009, pp 22-23.)


When we attend the enormous gatherings for the ordination of a bishop or a priest, or when we go peacefully to our Sunday Eucharist, we are actually enjoying the confident establishment of a church now well over 100 years old. But the beginnings of our local church were far from confident. In fact the early years of proclaiming the gospel in this region of the Zambezi River were fraught with arduous toil, deprivations, disease, loneliness, uncertainty and for ten Jesuits – between the years 1880 and 1883 – death. Journeys beyond Gubuluwayo is the second volume of the letters and journals of the early missionaries who travelled up to this part of the world from the south at the average speed of nineteen miles a day. Originally published in French as Trois ans dans l’Afrique australe in 1882-3, it has taken time for a translation to appear. The first volume in English, which dealt with the establishment of the mission was published 29 years ago at the time when we were celebrating the centenary of the Catholic Church in this country. This second volume now completes this work and we owe a great debt of thanks to Fr Edward Murphy SJ, Véronique Wakerley and Professor R.S. Roberts for seeing it through.
The main writers of these letters and journals were Frs Karel Croonenberghs and Henri Depelchin, hardly well known names in our Catholic consciousness today. Depelchin, the Superior, was often on the road while Croonenberghs kept the mission at Gubuluwayo. They describe their plans, their hopes, their fears when news is so long in arriving and their loneliness and pain when they hear of the death of one of their number. The average age of the ten who died was 41. As the full title indicates the main events described were the attempts to found missions among the Gaza, the Tonga and the Lozi. All three attempts ended in failure and indeed all the men north of the Limpopo were withdrawn by 1889, except for Fr Prestage who begged to remain at Empandeni.
‘I must tell you of all the very distressing events I have learnt of in a fairly recent visit to Lo Bengula,’ wrote Fr Croonenberghs on 17 November 1880. ‘Lo Bengula welcomed us with his usual courtesy and engaged us in very friendly conversation. Alas! After a very pleasant beginning the audience took a very sad turn, for I was to learn some very sad tidings of our brothers in the east.’ And so the story unfolded of the journey. Fr Wehl had wandered off and got lost for several months, the wagon had to be abandoned, and Fr Law and Bros De Sadeleer and Hedley walked on to Mzila’s where the first two arrived ill and exhausted. Fr Law died and Bro De Sadeleer and Fr Wehl decided to go to the coast at Sofala for supplies. Fr Wehl died there and De Sadeleer returned to rejoin Hedley and the two made their painful way back to Gubuluwayo. Their journey and sufferings achieved nothing and a similar verdict could be made of the journey to the Tonga and the Lozi.
But this second attempt at evangelisation of the interior (if you take Gonzalo de Silveira’s in 1560 as the first) cannot be written off so easily as a failure. As Professor Roberts reminds us these writings are only about the missionaries north of the Limpopo. They were part of a larger band of men many of whom worked south of the river and who were remotely preparing for their turn to cross the river. Much was learnt about the conditions in the interior and the practice Ignatius insisted on of writing letters and journals served the next generation well. The success of the work both south and north of the Zambezi after 1890 owed much to the efforts and trials of these men. The pioneers of Chikuni Mission, in southern Zambia, Frs Torrend and Moreau, had met Depelchin and been inspired by him and their mission was directly linked to the first efforts among the Tonga of Fr Depelchin and his colleagues.
This collection makes for fascinating reading. They were men of their time with all the presumptions and language usual at that period. The letters would have been written slowly and carefully under the shade of a tree with a pot of ink and a dip pen and they would have taken months to reach their destination. The collection gives the reader an immediate experience of the life and hopes of those early priests and brothers who were cut off from all the contacts people of any time, leave alone our high tech time, would expect. The writers never dwell on the interior motives of their life at any length but their witness is all the more powerful for that. We have come a long way since those early days and we can be immensely grateful for those who toiled to present this collection to us. It is our story.   )

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