THEIR VOICE Bradburne with on of the inhabitants of leprosy settlement Mutemwa – which means ‘outcast’ in the local Shona language. Pic: Twitter/Johnhbradburne.com
Fr Kevin Hegarty
This year marks the centenary of the birth of John Bradburne. He was a poet, mystic and a passionate advocate of social justice. Ultimately, he was martyred on a remote road in Zimbabwe in 1979. The Zimbabwean Catholic bishops are promoting his case for canonisation. Already the Vatican has granted him the title of ‘Servant of God’, the first rung on the ladder of the heavenly pantheon.
Bradburne had a chequered life. He was born in June 1921, the child of Erica and Thomas Bradburne. His father was an Anglican vicar. At the age of 19, he joined the army and saw service in Malaya and Burma during the Second World War. Of gentle disposition, he was an unlikely soldier. As a friend said: “War demands courage and expertise in killing. The latter was quite foreign to John.” Nonetheless, he was fervently patriotic Englishman. Returning home from war in 1945 he wrote: “I gloated for my country and thought her the fairest sunlit isle where one may stand. I strolled her in my soul.”
For the next 17 years he led a restless existence, sometimes marred by over indulgence in alcohol, as he sought spiritual sustenance for his hungry soul. He worked variously as a farm labourer, teacher, bookshop assistant and country-house caretaker. He went on pilgrimages to Rome, Lourdes and the Holy Land. After a spell with the Benedictines in Buckfast Abbey in Devon, he converted to Catholicism.
He also was a prolific poet, credited with 6,000 compositions. Much of his poetry was of indifferent quality as he cheerfully admitted. A few of his poems deserve posterity. Three themes pervade his writing, his love of the natural world, his desire to find purpose in life and his Christian faith, viewed through the prism of its Jewish roots. His poetic exemplars were Geoffrey Chaucer, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Ogden Nash.
Encouraged by a friend, Fr John Dove, he moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1962, where he remained for the rest of his life.
One again he worked at a variety of jobs. In 1969, he found the place his spirit had been looking for. Mutemwa is a settlement 60 miles east of Harare. It was a place where people suffering from leprosy were incarcerated. They were treated as outcasts because of their medical condition.
Appointed as warden of the settlement, he worked vigorously to improve the circumstances of the residents. Better food, clothing and medical care were provided. In the wards of a friend, Roger Riddell, he became ‘…the eyes for the blind, the ears for the deaf and the fingers and toes for those who had only stumps for hands and feet, he sat with those who were sick and prayed with those close to death’. Parties and social events were regularly organised. Through his efforts Mutemwa became a vibrant and happy community.
Success brought rejection for Bradburne. The authorities claimed he was too kind to the residents and that he squandered money. He was removed as warden. He stayed on, living close to the community, in a primitive hut. He continued to help the residents, to the limit of his resources, for the rest of his life.
His final years in Mutemwa coincided with the civil war between the white-supremacist army of Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe’s black guerilla force. John did not support Smith, whom he described as a racist. Mutemwa had, however, become a dangerous place for a white man.
Though he was advised to leave for his own safety, he remained, in solidarity with the leper community. In early September 1979, he was captured and killed by black guerillas. Ironically, a few days after his death, a peace deal was brokered between Smith and Mugabe.
In his years at Mutemwa, Bradburne gave a voice to the voiceless and dignity to the sick.
He was one of those of whom poet Stephen Soender wrote – people ‘who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre, born of the sum, they travelled a short while toward the sun and left the vivid air signed with their honour’.