By John Masuku
Translating and reviewing the Living Bible and New International Version (NIV) editions of the Holy Bible from isiZulu to isiNdebele with Isaac Mpofu, the legendary author and educationist who died on June 3 and was buried last Thursday in Bulawayo instilled in me a wild belief that isiNdebele was the language spoken throughout the Old and New Testament times.
Together with other team members he was my greatest mentor, instantly turning me into an upcoming expert and authority in some circles, given that I had studied Shona in my primary and secondary education.
Mpofu readily found appropriate translations for many words and phrases I never imagined would bring out a vivid picturesque of dwellings during ancient biblical times.
Around our translation table we spoke undiluted Ndebele and I loved it more during meal times when Mpofu would say “Ake ungiqhubele iziyoliso lezo lami ngiyolise”(Please pass me those spices so that I can add them to my food).
Until 1981 I had not personally met the revered Ndebele writer except through his classic novels Wangithembisa lami (You also promised me) and Akusoka Lingelasici (No suitor is without fault)which were read on radio by broadcasters Amon Nyamambi , Agritty Gumede and others while as families we would never miss any Ukufundwa Kwengwalo (Book Reading) episode in the evenings on our crackling and hissing Short and Medium wave radio sets.
My fellow journalist Pius Wakatama then director of Living Bibles International which later became International Bible Society Zimbabwe (IBSZ) and now Biblica invited me to be part of the Ndebele translation and review team also comprised of well established authors and language experts like Ndabezinhle Sigogo, Amon Nyamambi, Barbara Makhalisa Nkala, later to be joined by David Ndoda and Joana Sibanda. One of our team members was late Rev Godfrey Mpofu (Mazaranhanga) who was one of Mpofu’s best Ndebele students during his teaching life somewhere in the Mzingwane area in Matabeleland South province.
Our task was to simplify the predominantly isiZulu Ndebele Bible into everyday spoken and written isiNdebele.
Mpofu had been part of a much earlier team that had worked on the 1978 Ndebele Bible under Zimbabwe Bible Society but Living Bibles felt that the language had fully developed to stand alone to the extent of replacing some remnants of isiZulu that still remained.
He became a key resource person in our group due to his background of having studied Zulu and Divinity at undergraduate level at the University of Zululand in South Africa.
But above all he simply enjoyed spoken and written Ndebele language as he later confirmed in a wide ranging interview with ZBC’s Khulumani FM in Bulawayo about his life history.
He revealed that from writing novels he moved on to write secondary school textbooks under the Ulimi Lwethu series published by now defunct Longman Zimbabwe when fellow translator and publisher Makhalisa Nkala was one of the Ndebele editors there.
From such an experience he was also able to assist the ESwatini Education Ministry to train writers of different educational material in the local language. At a requiem mass for the late novelist, playwright and traditionalist Makhalisa Nkala spoke very highly of Mpofu.
“Apart for the well-known book Wangithembisa lami ubaba uMpofu wrote other books such as Akusoka lingelasici, Izenzo zabantu, Amaqalingana ezindana, Maweni as well as Izithelo that chronicles the history of the Brethren in Christ Church.
He was a trusted writer as his writing prowess was rich and enjoyable to read all the time,” she said.
Wangithembisa lamiMpofu was to later move on to multiple platforms wherever he was invited to showcase the richness of Ndebele language, literature and culture through writing, music and discussions.
He participated in many Ndebele programmes on ZBC Radio Zimbabwe, wrote a regular English column about Ndebele cultural issues for Alpha Media’s Newsday Southern Eye publication and also contributed to Voice of America (VOA Studio 7) cultural programmes about which producer Gibbs Dube remarked; “We will certainly miss ubaba uMpofu’s input to our cultural programmes which were extremely popular with in-country and diaspora audiences”.
VOA correspondent and former popular Radio Zimbabwe broadcaster Ezra Tshisa Sibanda said “Mpofu’s literary and cultural roles deserve conferment of national hero status on him.
He was a national treasure, a moving library, a cultural ambassador and a great award winning chorister in his Brethren In Christ Church (BICC) who even led the church’s choir on a tour of the USA exhibiting Zimbabwean music talent.”
My most memorable Bible translation sessions with Mpofu were those involving simplifying the terminology about the Temple construction by King Solomon described in the books of Kings and Chronicles as there are too many complicated descriptions of measurements and structures involved.
Mpofu being a strict teacher that he was would meticulously translate all of them very clearly into Ndebele for the team’s discussion and adoption.
He was gifted in giving contextual illustrations of our translations by and there was no room for short cuts or generalisations and this is quite evident in one of his last books Sithini IsiNdebele a handy companion or a perfect encyclopedia for language learners published by Makhalisa Nkala’s Radiant Publishing company.
The Barbara Clara Makhalisa Nkala Literary Trust (BCMNLT) established by Makhalisa Nkala, which I chair also prides itself of having Mpofu’s rich and inspiring literary works in its stable.
“I cherish my book Sithini IsiNdebele because it describes the many ways of how our language is mutilated and solutions towards correcting mistakes.
It illustrates that Ndebele as a language is very much alive and complete and can describe any yesteryear and present day events,” he explained in a Khulumani FM interview with hostess Nokuthula Ndlovu.
To me Mpofu was just like my own biological father, a great advisor.
We called each other regularly on the phone and discussed about our families often joking about many current happenings.
In most cases we would talk about how the language was being misused on national radio stations especially in some news translations and advertisements.
He trusted me to the extent of confiding with me that he was planning to remarry years after he had lost his first wife Martha Nhliziyo by whose side he now lies at their Worringham farm outside Bulawayo.
As news of Mpofu’s demise filtered through many people reflected on his contribution to their educational development as their teacher, headmaster and writer of their set books.
Broadcaster Kelvin Sifelani popularly known as Soul Supreme said his mother was taught by Mpofu at Mzinyathini in Mzingwane district in the 1950s.
BCMNLT board member Engineer Nomusah Jowah (nee Makhalisa) recalled that she had read and enjoyed Mpofu’sWangithembisa Lami as a set book at Matopo High School. Social media was awash with numerous tributes to a great author.
“I became closer to ubaba uMpofu as our fatherly Mpopoma BICC choir master who was so dedicated to the growth of our church as chairperson of the committee that later oversaw the building of the Bulawayo Central church in the city where we worshipped in later years,” remembered Newfoundland, Canada-based Ethel Sibanda.
Rising through the ranks in the education sector Mpofu later became the education ministry’s schools’ inspector, Regional Director for Manicaland and Matabeleland South before being elevated to the position of Deputy Secretary for Education, about which roles he once said:
“I criss-crossed the entire world on educational matters, landing in some countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe that I could never imagine ever visiting.
I learnt a lot about their learning curricula, culture, lifestyles and got lots of motivation to vigorously promote my own language and culture back home.”
The writer John Masuku is a veteran radio and television journalist and media consultant/trainer.
Contact him on email: email@example.com Twitter: @john_masuku