www.totalwales.com.. BT Welsh Website of the year

rugby shop
arms park
business in wales
wales world

business briefing
music wales
place to go
school results
degree results
secondary schools
search wales
QXL auctions
self build

Go Local


fish4itwales - fish4carswales- fish4jobswales - fish4homeswales
Part of the Fish 4 Network

A Trinity Mirror Business

Main News | Sports | Business | Arts/Ent | Education | Interactive | Motors | Property | Jobs

[img] LEGACY: Owen Sheers, who is writing a novel based on the life of his great-great-uncle, a missionary in Africa at the turn of the 20th Century Picture: NICK TREHARNE
LEGACY: Owen Sheers, who is writing a novel based on the life of his great-great-uncle, a missionary in Africa at the turn of the 20th Century Picture: NICK TREHARNE

Answers To A Mystery Deep In The African Bush

Karen Price

Western Mail


AS OWEN Sheers joined the crowds dancing to the sound of drums around the grave in Zimbabwe, he was finally witnessing for himself the powerful legacy his ancestor had bestowed upon the African nation.

The young poet’s great-great-uncle Arthur Shealy Cripps left Britain for Africa at the turn of the 20th Century.

The missionary-turned-activist spent 50 years of his life in the country and predicted many of modern Zimbabwe’s problems.

After two years of researching his relative’s story, Sheers travelled to Zimbabwe for the first time to unravel the mystery surrounding Cripps’s decision to move to the country, then known as Rhodesia.

It was when he attended the annual memorial service at his great-great-uncle’s graveside that he realised what a powerful man he had been.

“There were huge crowds of people dancing around the grave,” said Sheers.

“It was fascinating that a missionary priest who had gone out there at the turn of the century in a period when the British were more or less the bad guys was still being honoured almost 50 years after his death.”

Sheers, who was born in Fiji but grew up in Abergavenny, did not know much about his ancestor until he stumbled on a book at his parents’ home in July 1997.

A photograph of Cripps was emblazoned on the cover and the information inside provided Sheers with facts about his distant relative.

“The book had been written about him during the 1960s. It was a dry, academic book,” he said.

However, pieces of the jigsaw were missing, such as the real reasons why Cripps left for Rhodesia in 1900.

From then on, Sheers found himself eager to find out more about the man.

A year later, Sheers, who was then a final-year English student at Oxford University, visited a library in Oxford, where he knew letters written by Cripps were stored.

“There were seven boxes of letters with manuscripts and photographs. It was an incredible source.”

It was then that Sheers decided to follow in his great-great-uncle’s footsteps and travel the 5,160 miles from Britain to Zimbabwe.

The 26-year-old writer’s trip was funded by the Eric Gregory Award, which is presented to poets under the age of 30 by the Society of Editors.

“I could have paid off my student debts or gone to Zimbabwe, so I decided on the latter. It enabled me to start thinking properly about Arthur Cripps.”

Once in Africa, one of his first ports of call was Leonard Mamvura, who, as a boy, was baptised in the river by Cripps.

Mamvura later became Cripps’s secretary, his reader and then, after he had an eye removed, his guide.

Sheers faced a 12-mile hike to Mamvura’s smallholding in Chivhu.

As he knocked on the door, he felt both excitement and apprehension - after all, he was about to come face to face with the man who could help him complete the Cripps jigsaw.

“Part of me was saying, ‘What am I doing here?’ When we met, I was in tears and he was in tears.

“There stood an 80-year-old man from Zimbabwe and I was this bloke from Wales.”

Sheers stayed with Mamvura for several days and he took him to the schools Cripps started and the churches he built. He also took him to his grave.

“It was a moving experience. I had been following him through his letters for a couple of years and got to know him quite well in a strange way.”

During his two-month stay in Zimbabwe, Sheers also followed some of his great-great-uncle’s routes.

“He had an amazing legacy. He was well-known for running 37 miles barefoot through the desert.”

Sheers got to know the community where his ancestor lived, although there have been many changes since Cripps’s death in 1952.

“It was only then that I realised the enormity of his character, the extent to which he was still honoured and remembered in the middle of the bush.” Of course, the part of the puzzle that Sheers was keen to solve was Cripps’s real reason for leaving his home in Kent for a new life as a missionary in Rhodesia.

“I did not really know the truth. It was said that he had read a book about a British soldier who was in Africa during a native uprising.

“The man had to execute local people but felt amazing guilt, so switched sides and joined the natives.

“The book really affected Arthur Cripps and he wanted to spend time righting some of the wrongs the Europeans had done in Africa.”

But as Sheers dug deeper, he found that the real reason might have been due to a failed love affair back in Britain. “It involved him not being allowed to marry the woman he wanted to marry.

“She was a farmer’s daughter and he was one of the clergy. She was forced into a marriage with another farmer.

“Arthur was heartbroken and left for Africa. There was a child involved whom he never saw but wrote to while he was out there.

“I recently made contact with his grand-daughter here in Britain but I have not met her yet.”

When Cripps first left for Africa, he promised his mother that he would return to Britain after two years.

“He did come back once. He had fallen out with the church. He was so extreme in his love of Africa and was very forward-thinking.

“But he was hankering for Africa and could not settle here. He went back and ebbed away into the bush and died there.”

Sheers returned to Zimbabwe in July this year to attend the annual memorial festival held at the ruined church in Maronda Mashanu, where Cripps is buried.

He is now planning to write a fictional book based on his great-great-uncle’s fascinating life, with a bursary from the Arts Council of Wales. It is also giving him inspiration for his second collection of poetry, which he is working on.

His diary of his journey has already been published by Poetry Wales and The Times.

“There’s still lots more for me to do. It can take a lifetime to research someone’s life.

“I am taking the issues raised and bare bones of the story and writing them in a fictional form.

“I’m finding it really interesting taking that kind of approach to it. There are whole areas you can explore in fiction that you can’t do factually.”

Sheers is not planning another trip to Africa in the near future.

“It’s hard to keep your finger on the political situation. We are not hearing nearly enough here on what’s going on there. It’s very touch-and-go about what’s going to happen.

“I would like to think that I may get out there for the memorial service again next year.”

So what does his family think of his research efforts?

“My family were surprised but, on the whole, very, very supportive, especially my grandparents. It’s brought back all sorts of memories for my grandmother [Cripps’s niece].”

email: karen.price@wme.co.uk

©1999 Western Mail & Echo Ltd 
Talk about this story in our forum.

Send a Totalwales Postcard.

Other Arts
Bryn’s Dreaming Of No. 1

Top Designers Seek Fashion Links

Mother Joins Ioan At Movie Premiere

The Death Of Two Grumpy Old Icons

New Music Needs Promoting

Ensemble Aims To Raise Profile Of Art Form

Hospital Stay Forces Dame Shirley To Miss Tv Show

Whatever Catherine Wants, She’ll Have News

Central Venue Attracts 100 Offerings

Cast List Left Star, 13, Speechless

Mam, It’s All So Different Now

Classic Coward Reveals The Masks Behind The Faces

Creating A Newspaper Family

Poets Set New World Record Of 32 Hours Of Reading

Hopkins Could Play Lecter Again

Cookery Writer Joins With Valleys Education Worker In Penrhys-west Africa Expedition

Haiti’s Magic Children Tell Such Stories

Vale Market Town Gets Ready To Swing In First-ever Weekend Jazz Jamboree

Company’s Most Controversial Show To Date

1 Wham! Then It All Happened For Pepsi

Sutherland Works For St David’s

New Houses In Character

Channel 4 Volunteers Try Out Life For Opposite Sex

There’s Still Room For Designers

‘Jones The Voice’ At The Cia Saves The Best Until Last

Film/artswales Sci-fi Chiller’s Star Looks Arnie’s Heir

Exhibition Seeks To Alter The Viewers’ State Of Mind

Designer At Odds With Controller Over Diy Shows

Author Coup For Literature Festival

Valleys Roots Concerts Take In Folk Protest Songs


back to NEWS index