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BABA MPANDI: A SAINT FRANCIS OF THE AFRICAN COUNTRYSIDE.

Joyce CSF writes:

Fr Arthur Shearly Cripps served the Shona people 1901-1952

Fr Arthur Shearly Cripps served the Shona people 1901-1952

In March 2011 I was privileged to be a member of a group from Southwark Cathedral visiting their link diocese of Masvingo, Zimbabwe, for the first time. During that time we visited the Shrine of Arthur Shearly Cripps at Maronda Mashanu, located about seven miles from Chivhu, midway between Harare and Masvingo in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. This was obviously a sacred space for the local African people, ‘a thin place’ of God’s presence in the diocese, where each year on the first weekend of August, hundreds of people gather to honour the heritage of this holy man. This stirred in me memories of a book I had read long ago telling his story, God’s Irregular by Douglas V. Steere and set me on a quest to discover more about this remarkable priest.

I located a copy of the biography above in the library of one of our Franciscan houses and was delighted to secure it for our house library! But I was even more delighted to discover a more contemporary and more personal account in The Dust Diaries by Owen Sheers, a Welsh poet and writer, and the great great nephew of Arthur Cripps. His research took three years, including visits to Zimbabwe to talk with those who personally knew Baba Mpandi, one of the Shona names given to his great great uncle. The name was translated as ‘the man who walks like thunder’ or ‘the man who shakes the earth with his walking’.

In 1901, this young English Anglican priest went to Mashonaland, Southern Rhodesia, as a missionary with the then Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. He was also a distinguished poet and a close friend of Fr. James Adderley, who helped to found The Society of the Divine Compassion (SDC) in East London, the first Anglican Franciscan religious community. It was this connection that led to some members of SDC serving the church in Wreningham in the 1930’s, where Arthur Cripps first went as the mission priest.

Arthur Cripps embodied the Franciscan spirit in his love for the poor and marginalised and this endeared him to the indigenous people. He walked countless miles not only over the veld but into the hearts of his African brothers and sisters. His poetry, novels and a play entitled The Black Christ challenged at a fundamental level the assumptions of colonialism. He battled against government policies like the hut tax and befriended black political leaders. This did not endear him to government or church authorities. In 1930, he eventually severed his formal connection with the Anglican church and described himself as an Independent Missionary to Mashonaland. His diocesan bishop at the time, however, considered him a saint. In one of his poems titled The Black Christ – At Easter in South Africa, he wrote:

4. Andrew at graveside

Canon Andrew Nunn at graveside

I believe, whate’er they say,

The sun shall dance on Easter Day,

And I that through thick twilight grope

With balms of faith, and flow’rs of hope,

Shall lift mine eyes and see that stone

Stir and shake, if not be gone.

He had the means to buy land at the place he named Maronda Mashanu (the Five Wounds) and allowed the Shona people to farm it for free in their way; he lived as one of them, enduring the greatest poverty, sharing his food and clothes with the poor, living in a thatched rondavel next to the church, which he also built.

He was blind for the last decade of his life but he still walked with an African guide, he still wrote by dictation. He died on August 1, 1952 at the age of 83. The Shrine was built around where he lived and where he was buried and has become a place of pilgrimage, still lovingly tended by some of those who knew him and others who acknowledge his holiness and his legacy to the African people whom he served so faithfully. The Franciscan spirit lives on through this man who shook Zimbabwe with his walking. f