Biography: Samuel M. Mlotshwa (1914-2012)

Goshen College student Mckenzie Richardson adapted this biography written by Barbara Nkala and Doris Dube, in Growing and Branching Out: Brethren In Christ Church in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa (2014). Published online in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), it has been adapted and reprinted here with permission.

Samuel M. Mlotshwa: music teacher and singer in Ibandla Labazalwane Kukristu e-Zimbabwe (BICC Zimbabwe); born in 1914 in Mayezane to Masigwa and Lomapholisa. He was the first born in a family of seven. In 1937 he married Matshwawu Matshazi; they had six sons and six daughters. Samuel died of natural causes 8 April 2012 at 98 years old.

Samuel Mlotshwa gave his life to the Lord at a very young age, as his parents were well-respected worshippers. His father was one of the first ten believers baptized into the Brethren in Christ Church of Zimbabwe in 1899 at the recently founded Matopo Mission. Samuel was also baptized there, and throughout his life he served the Lord through his teaching, love of music, and his astounding bass voice. His awareness of the power of music allowed him to inspire others and draw them into worship.

Originally Samuel was interested in herding cattle and farming like his father, although he could be heard humming different tunes as he went about his chores. Samuel began his formal education at a primary school in Mayezane, after which he attended Matopo Mission for his upper primary education, where singing hymns motivated his love for music. Here Samuel also took a teacher training course.

Samuel went on to teach at different schools in the Insiza, Filabusi area. He also planted trees and taught songs to the students at Bungwe Primary School between 1937 and 1938. Samuel Mabhena, Mlotshwa’s nephew, remembers his uncle’s lasting influence. “The schools in that area were just bare, there were no trees. Mlotshwa planted a guava orchard at Bungwe. Many children were educated from the sale of guavas to communities where there were no trees… When Bungwe Secondary School was built, it was situated very near to the Primary School to be near a school with trees.”

Samuel was then transferred to Bulawayo, where he taught at Lobengula Government Primary School. At Lobengula, Samuel found ways to use his position to continue to serve the Lord. For example, when the BICC needed meeting space, he asked for permission from the headmistress to use his classroom for Sunday worship services. The same classroom was also used in preparation for music competitions. Samuel became renowned as an organized and effective teacher.

Samuel and his wife Matshwawu were both blessed with beautiful voices, and they joined Makgema Motswana’s choir, the Glee Singers. Their time in the Glee Singers improved Samuel’s ability to teach music with the tonic solfa and staff notation. Other churches often invited him to lead worship and sing with the congregation.

The highlight of his music career came in 1960. Samuel was asked to teach and conduct the Hallelujah chorus, when evangelist Dr. Billy Graham came to Bulawayo. Samuel was transferred to Mtshabezi Primary School (also founded by the BICC) in 1961. There he started many different choirs for teachers and students. In addition, he traveled to teach music and lead choirs at the Bible School and at Regional Conferences. Samuel primarily taught hymns of worship, African-American spirituals and South African compositions. Later Samuel was transferred to Mayezane school. While continuing teaching, he also formed an octet, whose performances were so popular that their songs were recorded and are still enjoyed today.

Samuel dedicated his life to spreading the word of God through music. He taught many people how to worship God with their voices. At the end of Samuel’s life he was hard of hearing and could no longer sing well, although he still enjoyed watching others sing. His legacy lives on through his family and the students he taught.