All who came into contact with the late Aaron Ndebele as fellow-travellers on the highway that leads to Zion and who spent some time in his company will remember him as a Christian and a gospel minister of no ordinary stature. So well endowed was he intellectually that he would undoubtedly have become eminent in any secular profession that he might have chosen to enter, but by divine grace he chose to serve the Lord Christ as a humble minister of the gospel. All the gifts bestowed on him were laid at the feet of that Master whom he served so well and so faithfully until his period of service came to an end and he was summoned into His presence to receive the reward of the inheritance.
He had the inestimable privilege of being born into a Christian home. It might have been humble and primitive by Western standards, but the Lord was honoured within its pale, and that gave it a status which no amount of earthly riches or grandeur could bestow. His father, Philemon Ndebele, the earthly head of this African kraal, sought by precept and by example to bring up his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. He was, on the human level, much indebted to that faithful minister of Christ, Rev J B Radasi, who made it one of his principal aims to make his people literate and thus able to read the Bible in their own homes. As a result the Holy Spirit enlightened Philemon’s mind in the knowledge of the One of whom Moses in the law and the prophets did write. Later in life, after years of blameless profession, he was elected to office and over many more years he faithfully served the Church as an elder at Zenka.
His son, Aaron Bamhlomele Ndebele, the subject of this obituary, was born on 25 August 1925. After completing the teacher-training course he had embarked on, and while still in his early twenties, he was persuaded to take up a teaching post at Zenka Primary School. It was there at Zenka that he was to come under the saving power of the gospel and it was there, presumably, that he was to profess Christ publicly for the first time. Details are scanty, but it would appear that he was much influenced by the prayers of the old, revered elder, John Mpofu. It is also thought that the young teacher benefited much from the preaching and teaching of Rev James Fraser, who was minister at Zenka from 1948 until 1953. It is evident from the Report submitted to the 1953 Synod meeting that Mr Fraser was very attached to him, and the account he gives of what appears to have been the genuine conversion of an old heathen called Mapala is of great interest and not least because Aaron Ndebele was involved.
Mapala had never attended church and, until shortly before his death, had never called upon his Maker to have mercy upon him. This account (reprinted in Rev A McPherson’s James Fraser) is too long to include here in full, but as it sheds light on Aaron Ndebele’s early life, it is of interest to insert some of it. Strange to relate (although later on in life he did not give much place to dreams) Aaron dreamt that this old man Mapala was dying and “in great distress of soul because he did not know the way of salvation”. A visit by Philemon Ndebele, on his way to take a service at Mabayi confirmed this and the outcome was that Mr Fraser and Aaron on a hot summer day visited the kraal and held a service inside the hut, where they found Mapala, scantily clad, crouching over a fire in the middle of the floor.
Such was Mr Fraser’s confidence in his young companion that he asked him to take the main part of the service. Mr Fraser wrote: “Aaron chose as his text the Saviour’s question to the impotent man at the Pool of Bethesda, ‘Wilt thou be made whole?’ . . . He went on to apply his text, first to his audience in general and then to Mapala, particularly and personally. ‘Mapala, Jesus Christ asks you this question today, Wilt thou be made whole?’ At first the old heathen scarcely seemed conscious of our presence, let alone the fact that a most solemn question was being addressed to him. His sunken eyes were fixed on the floor. Then, while the question was being repeated again and again, Mapala’s withered frame became suddenly tense, his dull eyes brightened up and, turning towards the preacher, he cried, ‘Yes, I want to be made whole. Oh, I do want to believe and to appear before the Father’s face in peace.’ The remainder of the sermon was addressed to Mapala alone, and the rapt attention which he gave the preacher was in itself a marvel to everybody present, as was also the clear strong voice in which he again cried out, ‘Oh, I do want to believe’.
“After the service, Aaron and I taught him the prayer of the publican, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’. With an effort he memorised the words, and from then until the day of his death, two weeks later, he kept repeating them during his conscious moments. . . . After his death I asked Aaron if he believed that Mapala had passed from death to life. ‘I have a good hope that he was indeed saved,’ was the reply. When asked on what he based his hope, Aaron answered that apart from what he had seen of Mapala before the end came, the testimony of the dead man’s heathen wife and relations gave him good grounds for believing that he had been savingly changed.” Apparently, Mapala’s affections came to be centred on things above and not on his earthly possessions and, most impressive of all, when he could not communicate with, or recognise, those around him, he was still heard praying the prayer of the publican and petitions of a similar nature.
Much later on in life, Mr Ndebele was to indicate where his delight was placed at this early stage of his Christian life. In 1996, just after he had assisted at a communion at Nkayi, he wrote to a member of our mission staff: “I started going to communions at Nkayi 50 years ago. It was December 1945 when I first met Mr John Mpofu and his son Alexander. Alexander interpreted for Rev Dr R MacDonald; Rev John Tallach also preached, and Norman Miller was with them. . . . I thought Dr MacDonald was great at the action sermon: ‘Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’. I had some refreshing memories at Nkayi. I tried on Sabbath morning to get the congregation and myself to meditate on: ‘For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ’.” When Petros Mzamo, then the Headmaster of Zenka School and its boarding department, was accepted as a student in training for the ministry, it was Aaron Ndebele who was appointed to succeed him.
While there, his uncompromising opposition to superstition and witchcraft was publicly manifested. We learn from his father’s obituary that “what was wrong, or even suspect, in the culture of the Matabele people had no place given to it in his home. . . . Witch-doctors and their kind he would never consult, and he and his like-minded wife regarded these things as the ‘unfruitful works of darkness’. Even flippant discussion of these things was frowned on.” The son was to prove himself every bit as faithful as the father. The account given by Aaron Ndebele of his encounter with the witch-doctor at Zenka is printed elsewhere in this issue and exemplifies the fearlessness and courage which identifies a good soldier of Jesus Christ. (FPM March 2005 p86)
In 1962 he was transferred to Ingwenya to fill the post of Headmaster of the Primary School and also, his preaching abilities being now recognised, to take services there in the absence of Rev A E W MacDonald, who was on leave in Scotland. The following year he was accepted as a student studying for the ministry and subsequently spent a year at the University in Salisbury (now Harare).
In 1964 he began his theological studies at Ingwenya under the tutorship of Rev A E W MacDonald and then continued his studies in Scotland under Rev D MacLean for one session, returning to his native land in 1966. On June 2 he was ordained and inducted to the Ingwenya Mission charge. His first report, presented to the 1967 Synod meeting, gives a very comprehensive account of his manifold labours. He did not spare himself, visiting, superintending schools and taking services at the various stations on the Ingwenya circuit – while ever conscious of the need of the blessing of God the Holy Spirit, without which his labours would be in vain. In that report he touchingly refers to the departure of Miss Jean Nicolson from Ingwenya after serving the Master there over the long period of 33 years. Acknowledging that this service was by divine grace, he wrote, “Among the living and those who have since fallen asleep, none has given the same service to education and more help to the Africans in Rhodesia”.
By 1968 he had established regular services in Bulawayo. This was primarily out of concern for the spiritual welfare of young people attached to the Church who, in seeking to continue their education or as a result of finding employment, were likely to settle in that city and raise families there. These services were held in between the morning and evening services at Ingwenya – first of all in a hall and later in a school classroom at Mpopoma. (In 1974 Rev Donald Ross arrived to be settled in Bulawayo and not long thereafter a very suitable, fine building was erected at Lobengula.)
Space forbids us giving anything more than a brief summary of his labours. In 1984 he was taking four weekly prayer meetings as well as three Sabbath services. “Our duty,” he wrote, “is to preach the gospel to every creature and to leave the changing of the natural heart with the Lord Himself.” Over the period of his ministry, he acted, at various times, as interim Moderator of the Bulawayo and Zenka Kirk Sessions when these charges were vacant and also established new outstations at Inyathi (near where Robert Moffat had come as the first missionary to the Matabele) in 1982, and at Insiza (where some Fingo families had settled) in 1987.
Mr Ndebele was the first Free Presbyterian minister to visit Kenya, sent by the Church on what might be called a reconnaissance visit, and it was on the basis of his report that the Church took the first steps towards establishing a mission there. He also visited Malawi on more than one occasion. He attended Synod meetings in Scotland from time to time over the years and, in 1988, he was accorded the honour of being appointed Moderator. As Rev Lachlan MacLeod, his successor in that office, was a member of the Southern Presbytery and thus involved in the Lord Mackay of Clashfern case, which came before the Synod in 1989, Mr Ndebele was back in the moderator’s chair when the Synod deliberated on it. This was arguably the most important and critical case that had ever come before it. He rose to the occasion admirably, it has to be said, and presided over the Court in a most competent, dignified, firm and impartial manner. In regard to the issue which occasioned the departure of those men who formed what was to be called the Associated Presbyterian Churches, he was rock-firm on the side of the Church, as were, to a man, all the other African brethren.
His last visit to Scotland was in 1995, when he attended the Synod meeting in Inverness. On this occasion he also visited Holland and Canada. In the opinion of one who was his co-presbyter for a number of years, Aaron Ndebele was “a born leader, a fine judge of character, able to take wise decisions in resolving problems. . . . He had no doubt as to the scriptural witness of the Church and in his preaching he constantly reminded our people of the witness of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland from its beginning and the necessity for its continuance.” Most of all, he had the good of his own congregation at heart. In 1977 he wrote: “The Secondary School pupils at Ingwenya are a great help in providing the congregation with their melodious voices in the singing of the Psalms of David. I often wish that the Lord would cause light to arise in their hearts and that they might be saved, every one of them. May He bless the seed sown, to His own glory.” And in 1981: “When the schools are in session we have the opportunity of meeting boys and girls from all over Zimbabwe. The majority will be hearing the gospel for the first time in their lives and perhaps the only time. We can only pray that the Lord would bless the seed thus sown so that it would yield fruit, even after many years.” Those who were closest to the situation tell us that he was much esteemed and respected by the pupils. This remained the case notwithstanding the fact that they were not unfamiliar with rebukes from the pulpit, administered in his own inimitable way. For instance, on spotting some of them asleep, he would stop in the middle of preaching and call upon them to wake up, reminding them that they had their dormitories to sleep in!
Outside the mission compound, the sight which he longed to see was that of young men having the courage (which some young women apparently had) to attend the church on Sabbath and weekday “and leave the beer gardens closed for want of drunkards”.
His own fearlessness and courage in the face of danger were noteworthy. Over that troubled period of war and bloodshed which preceded the declaration of Zimbabwe as a sovereign state under that name, he much encouraged other fellow-labourers from the Word of God. We are told that he ventured, on the death of his father, into one of the most dangerous areas in order to be present at his funeral and to conduct the worship. While he was engaged in doing so, representatives of the men known as “freedom fighters” appeared as if from nowhere. They were heavily armed with weapons and bandoliers of ammunition wrapped around their bodies. Far from being intimidated, Aaron Ndebele took the opportunity of addressing them in regard to sin and salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ. What effect this had on them we cannot tell, but they were certainly restrained from placing a finger on any of those present.
Along with Rev Petros Mzamo, Mr Ndebele was one who took a keen interest in providing sound religious literature for the use of the Church. In 1963 (before he was a minister) he was, with Mr Mzamo and the late Mr James Tallach, a member of a Committee formed to provide a complete book of Psalms in metre in the Ndebele language. We are informed that this psalter was printed by the Trinitarian Bible Society and that it was changed to the new Ndebele orthography in 1973. From the same source we learn that, after coming to Ingwenya, Mr Ndebele was able to trace a copy of the original Xhosa Psalm Book printed by Lovedale for the Rev J B Radasi in 1922 and that he had it reprinted for use in the Cameron congregation, who are Xhosa-speaking. In addition to this, Mr Ndebele, for many years, translated into Ndebele the daily verses in the Trinitarian Bible Society’s Golden Thoughts Calendar.
In September 1996, while standing by the roadside near the Inyathi church, Mr Ndebele was knocked down by a passing bus. Although his life was spared, he was never fully to recover his physical and mental strength again. The writer was present at the time and is not likely to forget the trauma of the situation. From the scene of the accident, he was taken, unconscious, with all speed to the nearest hospital, at Inyathi, and after what seemed to be an interminable period of time, an ambulance arrived to take him to Mpilo Hospital in Bulawayo. For some time his life lay in the balance, but gradually he recovered his strength.
By 1997 he was back in the pulpit and attending to his duties, although at times he was incapacitated. The writer assisted him at two communions in the summer of 2000, at Bulawayo and Cameron, and although his mental and physical stamina appeared to be impaired, there was still fire in his preaching. This was evident on Sabbath afternoon in Bulawayo when he preached on the words: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
However, by the end of 2000, his health was again deteriorating and early the following year he retired from the Ingwenya charge and took up residence in Bulawayo. Rev John Goldby was present at the meeting held to mark his retirement and reported how Rev Petros Mzamo “addressed his old friend with great feeling”, and that “it was no surprise that Mr Ndebele was visibly moved, as the two ministers had been labouring together in the gospel for the past 50 years, first as Christian teachers and then as ministers”.
Physically strong and handsome in appearance, Aaron Ndebele stood out in a crowd. He had a most attractive personality and, being naturally of a happy, cheerful disposition, he was a most pleasurable companion, one in whose company time passed very quickly. By divine grace, he was, in our view, a Christian who bore the features of the Bunyan characters – Hopeful, Standfast and Valiant-for-Truth – merged together. He was highly respected in the Ingwenya and Zenka communities, not only as an upright man and minister of the gospel, but also as a skilful farmer whose well-tended fields stood out among those around. In this, as in other ways, he set an example before others. It was by rising with the sun that he was able to devote attention to these things. He loved his nation and his fellow men and earnestly prayed for the coming of better days when the gospel would have free course and would be glorified in the salvation of multitudes of the human race in Africa and beyond. His voice is now silent and that is our loss.
Over the course of his last few weeks in time, he suffered much weakness, but such suffering he endured uncomplainingly. The end came on 24 June 2004. His soul, now perfect in holiness, passed immediately into glory to join the company of “the spirits of just men made perfect”. Two days afterwards, on the Saturday of the Bulawayo communion, his body was laid to rest in the grave, to await a glorious resurrection. On that day, Mr Mzamo conducted worship and in closing drew attention to the departure of his friend and colleague, basing his remarks on words befitting the situation, words first written by Paul in prospect of his own dissolution: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith”. To his like-minded widow, who, over the years, so dutifully attended to his needs, and to the four sons and two daughters and other relatives whom he left behind, we extend our sympathy.
(Rev) John MacLeod
[This obituary was originally printed in the March 2005 issue of the Free Presbyterian Magazine.]