mystic who discovered peace and then violence among the lepers of Africa.
Spiritual Odyssey to an African leper colony
LAST MARCH on a visit to Zimbabwe I heard the name of John Bradburne for the first time. I was sitting out with Fr John Dove, director of Silveira House, a training centre for Africans, overlooking the Chisawasha valley about twelve miles from Harare.
Dove and Bradburne had met For the first time in the Indian Army during the war. Bradburne had been with the Ghurka Rifles; when the Japanese captured Singapore he had lived off roots in the Malay jungle and had been shipwrecked when trying to reach Sumatra in a sanpan. Later he joined the Chindits.
When peace came Dove found his vocation with the Jesuits, Bradburne spent all but the last eleven years of his life searching for his. A poet, mystic, hermit, vagabond, he resembled in some ways Charles de Foucauld and perhaps more closely Benedict Joseph Labre.
In search of solitude he was led from place to place, from country to country for twentyfive years until he settled at Mtemwa, a leper colony about eighty miles north of Harare. In the short time since his violent death in September 1979 his memory has been spreading fast in southern Africa.
When he arrived at Mtemwa in August 1969 he found about ninety lepers in the care of an African warden, an expoliceman, and a few orderlies: the inmates had scant rations, some medicines but no loving care. Within days John knew each leper by name, and made a point of visiting all of them every day; he kept vigil with the dying, waited on them as normal people, hardly noticing that their lips, nose, hands or feet were missing. He sang African songs with them, read them psalms, recited the rosary with them.
Daily he went through the settlement with a large wicker basket, giving the lepers something extra, oranges, cigarettes, snuff, new batteries for their radio, sugar. onions, sweets, whatever he could gather for them from his friends.
He would bath those needing it build fires, make beds and change dressings. Sometimes he would simply crouch on his haunches and chatter away, trying to help and encourage.
At Mass the blind lepers would sit round the walls of the chapel and as the priest came round John would tap them on the chin with the communion plate: if he favoured anyone it was the blind, for he had a poet's passion for nature, whether it was the Himalayas or the countryside of Devon, where he had grown up, the son of an Anglican parson.
His own abode at Mtemwa was a small one-roomed store where he had a typewriter, some old calendar pictures, a bed, a mosquito net, his wicker basket and not much else. He belonged to the Third Order of St Francis, said the Little Office daily, and wore the Franciscan habit. Since demobilisation he had been received into the Church at Buckfast, fallen in love, stoked a coal burner in the North Sea, made two pilgrimages to Jerusalem (the second with only £5 in his pocket), tried his vocation at parkminster, suffered at times dark depression and doubt, had been a postulant in the Order of Our Lady of Sion (he loved Jews in the same way as did St Ignatius), served as caretaker to the Archbishop of Westminster's country house until the builders came in (Cardinal Godfrey understood his odd saintliness and search for solitude) and had served in Zimbabwe at Silveira House as Fr Dove's assistant and secretary.
After Bradburne had been ten years with the lepers the war began to close in on the settlement. John refused to leave. In the early hours of September 3 1979 noises were heard outside his hut. John was abducted and taken to a People's Court behind Mtemwa moult There he was condemned to death for being a white man, a foreigner and a hindrance to progress. Orders were given that he was to be taken to the guerrillas to be shot. After two days he reached their hideout. This time a woman spoke up for him and he was released.
On the road back to Mtemwa he was shot in the back. The guerrillas had followed him.
Fr John Dove, who certainly knew him more intimately than anyone, tells the story of John Bradburne's life with sympathy but without adulation: it makes the most fascinating spiritual Odyssey I have read in decades. The book contains a good deal of his poetry and records with total objectivity the curious, even sensational, incidents that followed his violent death.
Strange Vagabond of God, The Story of John Bradburne by John Dove £1, (Ward River Press, Swords, Co Dublin. £4.95).