I stopped in my tracks. That was my uncle Bhetshu. What was happening? We had been together just a few minutes before heading northward towards home. We were herding two heifers that had earlier gone missing and had been left behind when the rest of the cattle went home. I had been walking in between the heifers and uncle Bhetshu as we passed through a bushy area from the dam. As we were about to reach a disused field, the heifers turned towards the west and I followed them, but Uncle Bhetshu continued along the straight trail that passed through the field. My grandfather Bhabhane had used to plough it, but he had decided to abandon it because he was harvesting nothing from it as the wild animals used to eat all the crops on their way to and from the dam where they drank water. 

The cry I heard was frightful, as if Bhetshu was running away from danger, back towards the dam. As the sound of his voice faded, I thought he might have reached the dam. So, I crossed the field on shaky legs, and decided to wait there, trying to figure out what was happening to  my uncle and where he might be. My mind was filled with all sorts of forebodings at that time. This was at Phelandaba, in the Tsholotsho District of Matebeleland North of Zimbabwe. Phelandaba is at the western side of Tsholotsho District and it is at the border of Hwange National Park. It was a new settlement of people who were dumped there by the Rhodesian regime in the late 1950s after being displaced from areas such as Matopo, Fort Rixon, and Bubi-Dromoland, to pave way for commercial farms. This was an area which was a forest in all its forms, teaming with wildlife. These wild animals were a menace to the new villagers, killing their livestock and grazing on crops in their fields.  The place was bushy, with thickets that you had to go round to reach where you wanted to go. It was common for people, especially cattle herders, to get lost in the bush and fail to find their way home. This is where we looked after cattle with all the dangers one can imagine lurking in the thickets. I had gone to school that morning, on Wednesday, 13th March 1968 as in any other day, and returned in the afternoon to herd cattle. That was the last day I did that with my uncle who was caught and killed by a lion a few metres from where I stood that afternoon. 

On that fateful day, my uncle Jiji, had in the morning taken the cattle for dipping and thereafter let them go to the pastures on their own. The ones on duty would follow to round them later in the day and drive them home. There were four of us herders, alternating and herding in pairs.  I did the task with my uncle Bhetshu, the last born in my father’s family.  My father, David was the first born.  My cousins, Michael and Clement made the other pair. It was uncle Bhetshu and my turn to go and round the cattle that day. We had left home just after 1400 hours in the afternoon. That day we had been lucky because we found most of the cattle at the dam gathered for water. After counting them, we realised that two heifers were missing. We then left the rest of the herd by the dam and followed the heifers’ trail. We did not have to search for long as we found them at a nearby plain called Bhele. We drove the heifers to the dam but found the rest of the herd had gone. Luckily, Michael was at the dam fishing, and he informed us that the cattle had taken the direction towards home. We proceeded with heifers past the thicket on the way home. That is when I heard the piercing cry and decided to wait at the end of the field.

While I was still waiting, Michael arrived. He came through the same trail that Bhetshu had used. I told him that I was waiting for my uncle who had screamed fleeing towards the dam and asked him whether he had seen him or not. Michael said he had not seen him, but that he had seen a young bush buck lying beside the trail just as he was about to reach the field. We walked back to have a closer look at the bush buck. When we reached the end of the field towards the thicket, we became terrified and retreated. Our sisters also came to the field to check what was happening as they had heard the voice of Betshu crying. They had happened to be nearby in another field. I told them what had happened and together we waited, hoping that Betshu would soon appear. He did not. We tried to creep towards the ‘bush buck’ with the sisters, but again we were gripped with fear as we reached the edge of the field and retreated. As we stood there bewildered, a group of village men approached armed with spears, axes and sticks. We sensed danger. Our fears were confirmed when they told us that we were in serious danger. They said we should quickly go home. Included in this group of men was grandpa Bhabhane and his three sons; David, my father; Uncle Philemon, Michael’s father and Uncle Jiji.

At home we learnt that Betshu had been mauled by a lion. Apparently, one hunter who was close to the scene had seen what happened and had run as fast as he could to alert the family and other villagers. Hardly an hour had passed while we were at home, that grandpa’s neighbour came by and brought another piece of sad news that in the process of trying to retrieve Betshu’s body from the lion, grandpa had been seriously injured by the same beast. This man was hurrying on his way to fetch the rangers who were camped in a village some kilometres away from our village. The rangers had come, and they had managed to shoot the lion. I loved my uncle Bhetshu and he and I had been great pals. I loved my grandpa even more and he loved me so much. I had a special place in his heart because I was the eldest son of his first-born son. When he had been brought home before being taken to hospital, I still remember him asking them to make him lie on the skin of his ox, Luxman that was also killed by a lion at night from the kraal a few years earlier. I had gone to see him. I can’t remember the conversation we had but I could sense that I was losing him. I had also gone to the vehicle where my uncle’s body was and peeped through the window. Seeing him lying there lifeless pained me so much. They then took my uncle’s body and the injured grandpa to Tsholotsho Hospital. My father went with them. Because of the serious nature of his injury, grandpa had immediately been transferred to Mpilo hospital where he died on Friday the 15th of March 1968. 

That night, and the days that followed were not easy for me. I was asking myself question after question about death, God and misfortunes. Why did such mishaps happen to my family? How had I escaped? What made me turn to follow the heifers? What would have happened to me if I had not followed the heifers? What would have happened if Michael and I had got into that thicket to see the ‘buck’ that he had spotted earlier? Why was I spared? Did God orchestrate that? This was not the first incident that I had seen my dear grandpa in pain. Three years back he had been injured by a leopard on the leg and was taken to Pumula Mission hospital where he was treated. A year after his injury, I was bitten by a snake on my left arm while asleep. I was also taken to the same hospital where I spent six months under treatment. I remember him and Mom visiting me in hospital. When I saw them, I cried inconsolably. He comforted me and gave me the goodies that they had brought. I guess the bond I had with him had started there.  During my stay at the hospital, I had been attended by Christian nurses and a doctor. That had developed in me the gospel seed that had already been planted by my mother and watered and cultivated by the school we were attending which was run by the Brethren in Christ Church (BICC). The hospital was also run by the same church. I am sure that much of what I am as a Christian was greatly impacted by events such as these misfortunes. 

The death of my uncle and grandpa was a tragedy to the family and it caused a lot of suffering. This also completely changed the direction of my life and disrupted my educational performance and endeavours. I could not understand the afflictions that seemed to hound us. The disastrous deaths of my uncle and grandpa happened when I was doing Standard Two at Phelandaba Primary School. I used to do well at school always coming out top of the class or second, at the end of the year. But the events that ensued made me drop out of school in 1970 at 12 years of age while doing Grade Six, after the change of the education system from eight years of primary education to seven years. I was devastated. 

The death of grandpa and his last-born son in the circumstances I have described above meant that it was no longer possible to remain at Phelandaba. After their burial in Bulawayo and after harvesting the fields, the family relocated to Nkayi. The burial and relocation took all the family resources, making life very difficult thereafter. I kept asking, why Lord? We first moved to a place called Katasa in Nkayi District. There we stayed with our maternal uncle. We were hardly a year there and my father was arrested and jailed for three months for staying illegally in the area. It was time to move on again. We finally got a place at Gampinya, still in  Nkayi District, but further north towards Gokwe. This was in the same year 1970.

When we had settled at Gampinya, my mother enquired whether there was BICC around. She found out there was one about 20 km away from our village. We started attending church, 20km to and fro meant the whole day was taken as we left very early in the morning and came back in the evening. But that was nothing, we loved it all. I became involved in youth activities and in 1972, I decided to follow Christ and was baptised later. It was in this baptism meeting that my mother met with Rev Elliot Ziduli’s parents and got to hear about Ekuphileni Bible Institute (EBI) where Ziduli had trained and was then an evangelist. My mother wished the same for me. We started pursuing that possibility. In 1973 I was accepted to study at EBI and joined in 1974. I joined EBI as a primary school dropout, having left school in 1970 while I was doing Grade 6. My parents had been unable to pay fees and buy books for me. The events that started in 1968, that led us to leave Tsholotsho and end up in Nkayi had left the family destitute. That was so bad and unfortunate. 

Little did I realise then that all the misfortunes suffered were footprints leading to who I am, and to where I am today. If the wild animals had no been a menace that drove us out of Phelandaba, we would not have moved to Nkayi. I would not have met the Zidulis who introduced me to EBI. It was at EBI that I met Sibusisiwe in 1975, and after training we married in 1979 while I was an assistant Pastor at BIC Nguboyenja. We were blessed with two precious children, a son in 1980 and a daughter in 1984. I would not have furthered my studies nor left for Daystar University in Kenya in 1988 where I completed a BA and graduated in May 1992 with a double major in Bible and Business Administration. I would not have further enrolled for M A in Biblical Studies, graduating in 1994. In June 1995, I joined Matopo Book Centre where I ended as Manager and worked there up to December 2001. I did an MBA course with National University of science & Technology, NUST from 1999 to 2001 June. I then joined Bulawayo Polytech in May 2002 where I lectured in  Human Resource Management,  Marketing and Business Management, leaving in March 2005. I would not have ended up at  NUST, where I lectured at the Graduate School of Business from April 2005 and retiring in December 2021. I lectured in Human Resources Management and Organisational Behaviour, and also supervised students’ projects. While at NUST I was coordinating  MBA programmes for the university with ZIPAM and  Africa Leadership and Management Academy, ALMA. 

The Phelandaba boy who was plagued by disasters is a happy and fulfilled man. That young boy many years ago almost believed he was born to suffer. Meanwhile, the Lord was navigating the ship of his life towards his perfect will and purpose for him. While he thought it was unfair of God to allow hardships in his younger life, the man I am often reflects and ask himself if all that happened the way it did had not been, where would I be? When I tie all the dots, I see the hand of God arranging the process, and I am grateful I traversed that road; for as the Lord declares, his thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are our ways his ways (Isaiah 55:8). I salute his mysterious ways.

Joel Penn Ndlovu is happily retired from office work, but not from the pastoral calling. He and his wife Sibusisiwe are now contented farmers; rearing cattle, pigs, and doing horticulture in a safer place without the menace of wildlife.