Bernard Mizeki was born in Mozambique in about 1861. When he was twelve or a little older, he left his home and went to Cape Town, South Africa, where for the next ten years he worked as a labourer, living in the slums of Cape Town but, unlike many migrant workers, rising above the squalor of his surroundings. After his day’s work, he attended night classes at an Anglican school run by the Cowley Fathers. So he became a Christian and was baptized in 1886. Besides the fundamentals of European schooling, he showed a rare aptitude for language study, mastering at least ten languages. In time these skills would be a valuable asset in the work of translating the Scriptures and prayer books and hymn books into African languages.
After graduating from the school, he accompanied Bishop Knight-Bruce to Mashonaland, in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), to work as a lay catechist. In 1891 he was sent to Nhowe, and there he built a mission complex. He grew crops, studied the local language, observed the daily office and cultivated friendships with the villagers. In due course he opened a school for the children, which further endeared him to the local people.
Eventually he moved the mission complex on to a nearby plateau, next to a grove of trees sacred to the ancestral spirits of the Mashona. Although he had first obtained the chief’s permission, he angered the local religious leaders when he cut some of the trees down and carved crosses into others. But this clear assertion of the authority of Christ did not hinder the mission’s work and over the next five years (1891–6), the mission at Nhowe experienced many conversions.
In 1896 there was a native uprising against the rule of Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company, which administered Southern Rhodesia. Missionaries, regarded as agents of the colonial power, were especially vulnerable. Bernard was advised to flee but refused to desert his converts or his post. On 18 June 1896, he was speared to death outside his hut. His wife and a mission worker went for help and, when some distance away, claimed to have seen a blinding light on the hillside where Bernard had been lying, and heard a rushing sound, as though of many wings. Certainly, when they returned there was no sign of the body. The site of Bernard’s martyrdom has since become a popular place of pilgrimage.