Blessed Benedict Daswa: Debunker of Witchcraft, Martyr

Here’s a story that’s sad and beautiful. It happened in Mbahe, Limpopo Province, South Africa. Mbahe is a village close to Kruger National Park, a place familiar to those of us who watch WildEarth.

On January 25, 1990, there was a bad thunderstorm, and lightning struck several thatched huts, burning them to the ground. The village council held a meeting, and the elders decided that the lightning strikes (and those previously suffered during a storm in November) had been caused by witchcraft. Therefore, they would collect a special tax from everyone in the village to pay for a witchfinder (“sangoma”).

At this point, the village council’s secretary arrived, who was also the principal of Nweli Primary School, and he objected. Strongly.

Tshimangadzo Samuel Benedict Daswa (born in 1946 in Mbahe) was a man of the Lemba people, and of the Bakali clan. The Lemba followed Jewish practices and ate kosher, but also believed in blaming witches for all disasters. His family was happy and hospitable, with lots of kids. His chores included watching his dad’s small herd of cattle. While attending Mbahe Primary School, he lived with his uncle, Ralson Ramudzuli Matshili, who was the principal and lived in town. Matshili was Catholic. Daswa admired Catholicism and his uncle’s Catholic friends, and began to take catechism classes. He was baptized at the age of 17, in 1963, at Malavuwe village; and his catechist, Benedict Shadrack Risimati, was his sponsor.

Then his father died young from an accident, and so he worked and supported his siblings until they were grown up. (Although his mom also started a business, brewing traditional beer!) He got a job in Sibasa with a Christian employer — but then, his new boss told him that he’d have to stop being Catholic and join his boss’ church. Daswa quit, and started looking for another job.

He moved away, worked his way through college, and became a teacher, graduating in 1973. He married in 1974 with Shadi Eveline Monyai, and they had seven kids at the time of his death. (She died in 2008, but she lived through all this, poor lady.) He was considered unusual for a man, particularly one of high status, because he helped with “women’s work.” He cooked and did laundry at the river. He particularly insisted on doing the hard work of carrying water from the river, and the finicky work of ironing his own shirts!

He worked as both a secular teacher at Nweli School and a religious catechist, eventually helping build Nweli Church (aka the Church of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary). The pilgrimage booklet says that all the decorative stones were transported from the Mutshundudi River in the back of Daswa’s pickup truck, back in 1984. His wife testified that he’d told her that he didn’t feel like he could build them a house and move into it, until the Lord’s house had been finished.

He became a byword for honesty and determination. In 1977, he had become his school’s principal. (Nweli was a village right next to Mbahe, with Shangaan tribespeople, many of whom were Catholic. His catechist was a Shangaan man from Nweli.) He was the first to arrive and the last to leave, and he kept everything organized. People knew that if kids didn’t show up for school, he’d come looking for them; and he persuaded parents to let their girls finish school instead of marrying them off first. Both as a subordinate and as the guy in charge, he encouraged working together and helping each other. He loved sports, teaching and playing field hockey, volleyball, and soccer, and starting the local Mbahe Eleven Computers soccer team.

But he was also stubborn in another way. When his amateur soccer teammates decided to use “muti” (medicine, magic) to try to defeat other teams, he ended up leaving the team and starting his own rival team: the Mbahe Freedom Rebels. He also strongly discouraged witchcraft beliefs, as well as the burning and killing of suspected witches.

So yeah… it’s probable that the elders were trying to make their decision before Daswa got there, if you ask me.

When Daswa heard about the witchfinder plan, he patiently explained that lightning was a natural phenomenon, and rejected witches as an explanation. He explained the science. His argument was overridden. He then announced that he wasn’t paying any 5 rand fee, because as a Catholic, he was forbidden to mess with any of this magical stuff. Naturally the elders weren’t thrilled to be told that hiring a sangoma was also dealing with magic!

A lot of grumbling ensued about his lack of public-spiritedness, and his lack of support for traditional folkways like burning witches. He was a stumbling block, keeping them from dealing with the witches. Maybe he was a witch!

And so, on February 2, 1990, his neighbors and former students conspired to ambush his car and kill him, right next to the soccer field, in the traditional method of a witch hunt. Returning home, he found his road blocked by a fallen tree. When he honked to get help from villagers, a mob of men swarmed out of the roadside bushes and started to stone him. He ran to a shebeen selling beer, but his mother’s business colleague told him to get out. He ran to a nearby woman’s house and hid, but the mob threatened her life and she told them where he was. Members of the mob dragged Daswa out of the house. One of them assured him that he’d be okay, and one point the mob kept a guy with a knobkerrie, a traditional war weapon, from hitting Daswa. But as he prayed, “God, into Your hands receive my spirit,” apparently some of the mob got set off and started beating him up more. In the confusion, the knobkerrie guy came up behind Daswa and clubbed him over the head. That’s what killed him. He was 43.

At which point, the mob boiled some water and poured it into his ears and nose, to make sure he was really dead.

After the mob left, the woman got in touch with one of Daswa’s brothers, who sat with the body until it could be removed to Daswa’s house. He received a Catholic funeral at Nweli Church, and the priests wore red vestments because they knew he was a martyr. In the wake of his death, his mother converted to Catholicism as well. (She’d been going to Mass with the family for years.) Later in 1990, his wife Eveline gave birth to a posthumous child, Ndifhedzo Benedicta Daswa.

The parishioners of Nweli Church went to his grave every year on the Sunday closest to All Saints’ Day, asking for his prayers.

Feeling strongly about this whole incident and taking notice of the local private devotion to him, the diocese of Tzaneen submitted his cause to Rome in 2008. His martyrdom status was accepted quickly, in 2013, and he was beatified in 2015. Thirty thousand people attended his beatification in Tshitanini. His parish has his body in a vault, and they are working on building a shrine. (In Tshitanini, because the local tribe made the land available.)

To avoid conflicting with the Feast of the Presentation/Candlemas, and hence not giving him his due (especially given that it’s a Marian feast and he was from a Marian parish), Bl. Benedict Daswa’s local feastday is celebrated on February 1. He’s a good feastday neighbor to our St. Brigit! He was a layman, a father, a good son, a student, a true educator, and a martyr for Truth Himself. He is called an “Apostle of Life,” because he worked to lead people to a fuller life, without enslavement to the occult and ritual murder. He also makes a good intercessor for South Africa, which is having plenty of problems.

Blessed Benedict Daswa, in this time of craziness and unreason, pray for us!

Pilgrimage tour booklet about Bl. Benedict Daswa. PDF. Lots of interesting info, like his mom being a brewster!

Testimony and memories of him by his eldest daughter, Helen. She worked in the UK, and ended up telling her dad’s story to a co-worker. The guy couldn’t get it. “Why didn’t he just pay the five rand?” Argggh.

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