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British academic acclaims Zimbabwe ‘leper saint’ as prolific poet

A world expert in language and reference publishing, David Crystal, has asked poetry lovers to take seriously recently published works of John Bradburne, known in African circles of the Roman Catholic Church as Zimbabwe’s "leper saint".

Writing in a recently published book about the lay Franciscan, who devoted a large part of his life to looking after lepers in Zimbabwe, Crystal says, "Here we have someone who is certainly the most prolific poet the English language has ever seen."

Crystal edited the second editions of The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of English Language, The Language Revolution, The Stories of English, and Pronouncing Shakespeare. He now edits a poetry Web site dedicated to the slain missionary’s writings. At the end of 2006, it contained 4288 poems. An honorary professor at the University of Wales in Bangor, the 66-year old Crystal lives in Holyhead, Wales, where he writes and edits some of the more than 100 books he has produced.

In his latest – By Hook or by Crook: a Journey in Search of English – Crystal introduces lovers of religious verse to Bardburne. The Englishman was considered by some of his peers as a strange, materially poor but spiritually rich Christian, whom John Dove, a Jesuit priest in Zimbabwe, called "a strange vagabond of God".

Crystal first came across the dead missionary’s work when a friend showed him a letter written from Mutemwa (a Shona word meaning "isolated”), a missionary settlement close to Mutoko, where Bradburne lived from 1969 until the time of his killing in 1979. Crystal was shown the letter and asked friends of Bradburne’s if there was more writing like that.

Later, Crystal got in touch with one of the executives of the John Bradburne Memorial Society. "Not long afterwards," Cyrstal explains, "a large case arrived filled with manuscripts. If they were placed in a pile, they would have reached my waist."

Born in Skirwith, Cumbria, England in 1921, and the son of an Anglican priest, Bradburne served in Malaya during the Second World War. He converted to Catholicism and ended up in Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe, where he devoted his life to black lepers.

In 1979, shortly before the end of the Zimbabwe war of independence and the gaining by Southern Rhodesia of its independence in 1980, Bradburne was killed by an unknown group of gunmen, whom many thought were supporters of Robert Mugabe’s ZANLA guerrilla army.

Lepers remember Bradburne well, especially the way he sang to them at night, prayed for them during the day, and recited poems praising God and God’s creation and the way they would all have beautiful bodies in a life to come. Moves are underway to set in motion a "Cause" that could lead to the canonisation of John Bradburne, which would make him Zimbabwe’s first Catholic saint.

Reviewing Crystal’s latest work, literary critic Murrough O’Brien of Britain’s The Independent newspaper wrote in May, "Those who love wordplay will be grateful to the author [Crystal] for introducing them to this obscure 20th century poet."

(c) Ecumenical News International