The One Who Crawls
A giant for God
By Zebron Ncube
They called him “Magaqa,” “the one who crawls,” because from birth to death he never walked upright, but went everywhere on his hands and knees. And yet there are few in the history of Seventh-day Adventism in Zimbabwe who command more regard and appreciation than Judas Singazi Bhebe. Never, through 45 years of service for God and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, did he allow his physical disability to deter him. Knowing Bhebe’s story should inspire all those who must live with debilitating physical challenges.
Magaqa’s Early Years
Born on May 1, 1901, at Sikombingo, eight years after Adventism got into the southern African country then known as Rhodesia, Bhebe spent his early years in what was known as the Lower Gwelo Reserve1 in the Midlands Province of the country that, from 1979, would bear the name Zimbabwe. With wheelchairs either unknown by or unaffordable to most Africans, Bhebe moved along the ground using pads for his knees and hands. He learned to read before he started school, from a book entitled Cetshwayo, about a brother of Zimbabwe’s famous Zulu king Tshaka. Impressed by his talents, someone advised him to go to the local Adventist mission station at Lower Gwelo in order to develop his potential. Instead of enrolling as a student, Bhebe requested baptism of the mission’s superintendent, Pastor John N. de Beer, who duly obliged on December 3, 1921.
1944Study and Service
Two years later, in November 1923, when Sikombingo school opened, Judas Bhebe attended, doing the first three years of his education under the tutelage of Paul M. Moyo and Sihlabo Ncube, two of Zimbabwe’s first native teachers. After those three years Sihlabo Ncube and F. Burton Jewell, a missionary in charge of the district, invited Bhebe to teach right where he had been trained. He would work there from 1927 to 1930. A six-month stint at the mission followed in 1931, before Bhebe was sent to Solusi Mission for teacher-evangelist training as a prerequisite for pastoral ministry. Many of his classmates would themselves contribute significantly to the developing educational and pastoral work in Zimbabwe. Their names may not be widely known, but their works do follow them.2
Historically, Adventism in Zimbabwe grew around teachers and schools. Early mission stations emphasized education. Missionaries expanded the church and penetrated the communities through their work in the schools. Physical disability notwithstanding, Pastor Bhebe too was a part of this tradition.
At the end of his training in 1934, Bhebe conducted evangelistic meetings at Mayembe, a few miles west of Solusi. Elder R. Mote, in charge of the work in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), then called him to come and teach the Ndebele people settled in Monze, to the south, where Zambia Adventist University is today. There he taught for four years and learned to speak the Tongan. In 1939 he was transferred north to Ndola to teach at Musofu Mission. While there he married Esther Velaphi Moyo, whom he had met at the settlement.
In June 1945, at the end of World War II, he returned to Lower Gwelo (Somabula Mission) in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) as teacher and preceptor. In the ensuing years Bhebe served in different schools: Shagari (1946 -1949), Lower Gwelo (1950 -1951), and Jonkola (1952). From 1953 to 1955 he served as pastor of Mtapa church in the city of Gweru, and began the construction of a church building. His rapport and connections with public officials enabled him to request a church building donation from the Ministry of Education in Harare. He received $100—a lot of money in those days.
The years 1955 to 1959 saw him back at Lower Gwelo, replacing Simeon B. Dube as pastor. Officiating at his ordination, in 1957, were Elders Ralph S. Watts, president of the Southern African Division, and Edward Trumper, secretary-treasurer for the Southern Rhodesia Mission, along with Simeon B. Dube, later to become the first African president of the Adventist work in then Southern Rhodesia.
Bhebe continued to serve as church pastor when, in 1960, he moved to the office in Gweru as translator. Translation work gave him a wider audience in church circles. The promotion also meant he could own a tricycle operated with his hands. Thereafter he needed to crawl only when getting inside buildings. Bhebe retired in 1966 but continued working until retiring again in 1972.
Bhebe’s associates included Jackson Ncube, who served God for many years in spite of polio in both legs; Isaac Xhiba, the first African to attend a General Conference session as a delegate; and Moses Donga, one of his great mentors. It was during his contact with Donga in 1930 that Bhebe wept to God, “I did not make myself this way!” In his discouragement he asked Donga to send him to Ngigeni School in the Zhombe area. Instead the Lord redirected him to Solusi Mission to train there as a teacher-evangelist.
Early missionary work cannot overlook the contribution of local men and women who penetrated the most difficult places. They did not have the luxuries of cars, telephone, electricity, Internet, and all the modern paraphernalia that many of us today enjoy. In 1927 when Pastor Bhebe began his teaching ministry, the Adventist Church in Zimbabwe had a little more than 1,500 members. Today the membership stands at more than 600,000 in a population of 12 million. It is pioneers like Bhebe that set the stage for aggressive mission work and blazed the trail in spite of disabilities.
It was my privilege to see and hear him preach at a Solusi College Week of Prayer. His knees “sat” on a chair so he could be visible behind the pulpit. In fluent English, and without notes, he spoke directly to his audience, sometimes with his elbow resting on the pulpit and his hand over his chin, culturally a sign of confidence, sincerity, and compassion.
In an interview before he died, he told me about an incident that took place in Gweru. Walking on his knees and hands along the sidewalk on Main Street, he observed a man cursing and harassing the servant who was pushing him as he rode in a wheelchair. Pastor Bhebe sat upright on the sidewalk and taunted the wheelchair rider: “Why do you harass the man who is helping you? You look at me! I walk on my knees with no one to push me!” Then he said to the servant, “Leave him alone; let’s see what he will do without you!” In those colonial days that kind of confrontation was unthinkable. But it shows how confident and forthright a man Bhebe was.
Self-pity could not conquer him, nor did physical disability hinder God’s purposes for his life. He traveled and worked extensively regardless of the physical challenges. His legacy of teaching and preaching inspires the school and the church to get humankind ready for the return of Jesus. We owe this to him and to all our pioneers.
1 Gwelo is today’s Gweru.
2 Among the contributors from that period who remain largely unsung are Kaiser Mlalazi, Bafanana Sithole, Lewis Nikane Sibanda, Naomi Mbuyisa (Mrs. Mackenzie Nkomo), Dickson Dumba, Isaac Gurure, and P. J. Ngono.
Born in Zimbabwe, Zebron Ncube is senior pastor of Highland Avenue Seventh-day Adventist church in Benton Harbor, Michigan, U.S.A. He and his wife, Peggie, have two daughters, Lindile and Nozipho, and a son, Nhlalo.