A sketch of an African who did “what she could”
MAHLABANGANA was one of the chief wives of Lobengula, the last king of the Matabele people, who died before the end of the last century. He was said to have had many wives, five or six of whom were known as chief wives, or true wives. These chief wives, especially if they were Christians, had a considerable influence among the people, even after Lobengula died.
After Lobengula’s death MaHlabangana came to live at Induba, about five miles from Ingwenya Free Presbyterian Mission which had been established by Rev. John B. Radasi, the first Free Presbyterian missionary. One of the mission outstations was at Induba, and it was under Mr Radasi’s preaching that MaHlanbangana was converted, as was another of Lobengula’s chief wives.
After her conversion MaHlabangana had a deep love for the gospel, and felt concern for the souls of others, especially members of her wide family circle. It was said that each Sabbath morning MaHlabangana would go round the huts of her people, knocking at their doors with her knobkerrie, and calling in Sindebele, “Time for church! Time for church!”
She and some of her friends used to come to communion seasons at Ingwenya, where she was a much loved figure, small and trim, shaking hands and smiling. Latterly, she used to take a blind woman with her on these visits.
When MaHlabangana died in 1943, she was greatly missed. The late Rev. John Tallach, who was a missionary in Rhodesia for 23 years until 1947, gave an interesting account of her in a Report which he sent to the Free Presbyterian Church Synod in 1943. I quote from his Report.
“I lately attended the funeral of one of the oldest of our members among the women. MaHlabangana had been a true wife or chief wife of King Lobengula, and in the old days had lived at the Royal Kraal. She was a little, insignificant slip of a woman who might pass anywhere without much notice being taken of her. Nevertheless, among her own people she was a person of influence and authority. She herself was uneducated, but even educated young men, as well as ignorant heathen people, would stand with downcast eyes and an ashamed look on their faces, when MaHlabangana had reason to rebuke them.
“She first made a Christian profession in 1914, and most honourably did she live up to it for her remaining twenty-nine years. She had all her old authority to the end, and it was always on the side of the Gospel. There were times when not only office-bearers but also missionaries felt the weight of her little tongue, but she never spoke of the person’s fault except to the person himself. If the fault were acknowledged or a good reason given, then a twinkle would return to her eyes, and her face would light up with the most disarming of smiles. Her inability to read and write, and the disability of old age did not discourage her from doing her duty. What she could do, she made sure of doing. We felt that she had definitely set out to do everything an old woman could do, to help forward the work of the Gospel among her dear people.
“Wherever there was sickness, or death, or a birth, or a marriage, we could be fairly sure all things were being done according to her orders. And she was kind to the poor. As one of the wives of King Lobengula she received an annual pension. Except for buying an occasional dress, MaHlabangana spent little on herself, but rather on those who could not clothe themselves.
“Most of her friends and relatives were connected with Lobengula and all of them were pleased to have her to stay with them. She made full use of her position in this way, and for the last years of her life she went from place to place, living for a few months with one or other of them. She did not require to carry food or blankets; people felt honoured to have her with them. If for the time being she lived near one of our mission outstations she attached herself to it, but if she was unable to do this she sent to Ingwenya, and almost demanded that a preacher be sent. We were usually able to do this, and in this way the little woman introduced the Gospel to many a kraal, where otherwise it would never have gone. I never mentioned the matter to her, but I began to regard this method of bringing the Gospel to her relatives as quite deliberately instigated on her part. Furthermore, in whatever place she found herself staying she would be certain to turn up at each of our communion seasons at Ingwenya.
“Some years ago a grandson of Lobengula was drowned at East London on the east coast of South Africa, and the [Rhodesian] Government arranged for some of his relatives from this country [then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe] to attend the funeral. Among those sent was our friend, MaHlabangana. I went to see her after her return. What was the most wonderful thing you saw, MaHlabangana, when you were so far away?’ She did not speak of street cars or tall buildings as many did. Oh,’ she said, the sea, the wonderful sea, which I never saw before. It stretched so far away, so far, and yet it was always running towards me. It was like the mercy of God, always without measure, and always running towards me. I felt how little of it I could carry away in these little arms.’
“MaHlabangana died in the kraal of some of her heathen relatives. For some weeks before her death one of our office-bearers had been conducting services there. The people were as spiritually dark as night, but she was as delighted as a young girl to have the Gospel preached among them. One of the last things she did was to thank us for following her up with the Gospel. Her funeral was a simple, Christian funeral. As I stood at her grave, I recalled her strange but beautiful ministry, and felt that it could be said of her, more than of any other person I had known, She hath done what she could’.”