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
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
“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
“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
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
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
“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].”