Khama Boikano (B)
I am trying to lead my people according to the Word of God, which we have received from you white people, and you show us an example of wickedness.
Khama Boikano, or “Khama the Good,” was a paramount chief of the Bamangwato, a Bantu-speaking South[ern] African tribe. His kingdom was five times the size of England and Wales combined, and he ruled it for over fifty years. Khama’s baptism in 1858 put him in conflict with his father, who saw the Christian religion as acceptable to whites, but not fitting the personality of Africans. Additionally, Khama rejected the power of traditional diviners and healers, which brought him in conflict with tribal leaders. However, his skills as a warrior and hunter stood him in good stead, and he led his people to several important military victories.
Like many Christian converts, Khama balanced his activities as a tribal chief and the demands of his new faith. He rejected the demand for male circumcision, which caused controversy with tribal elders. Likewise, he opposed arranged marriages that benefited lineages rather than representing a lasting commitment between a woman and man. “I refuse on account of the Word of God to take a second wife,” he told another chief, whose response was to burn the huts of two of Khama’s sons.
Khama supported the work of missionaries. When a school was vacant for three years because the mission teacher was on home leave, Khama ran the school in the missionary’s absence. He replaced traditional animist rituals with Christian prayers, for example, the annual planting ceremony. He allowed the people to hold their traditional service, but then he asked the missionaries to bless the plants as well.
The Bamangwato leader also criticized traditional chiefs who encouraged the sale of cheap brandy, often fortified with tobacco juice, and profited from its sale. When he found some drunken white traders, he arraigned them before the native court and told them, “You think you can despise my laws because I am a black man. Take everything you have, strip the iron off the roofs, gather all your possessions, and go! I am trying to lead my people according to the Word of God, which we have received from you white people, and you show us an example of wickedness.”
The chief began each day with prayers with his immediate entourage, after which he sat under a palaver tree to serve as judge, give orders, and make decisions, as runners arrived with news. Sometimes European traders came to his court, asking for permission to set up a store in his territory. At other times traditional shamans and diviners discussed with him the conducting of their ceremonies, which Khama allowed, as long as they did not conflict with the new Christian God’s teachings. Once during a prolonged drought, people clamored to their leader to reintroduce traditional rainmaker practices. Khama’s answer was that he failed to see how a traditional god who ate grain porridge could help people in such a dire circumstance.
His later decades were filled with activity. The South African chief traveled to England to oppose the division of his kingdom between the Cape Colony and a chartered company. The missionaries supported him in his position, which prevailed. In 1914 Khama was responsible for building a large new stone church and a nearby school. And the chief, to keep warring mission factions from competing in the territory he governed, approved only the presence of a single mission group, the London Missionary Society, in his lands. He also encouraged his own people to act as Christian missionaries among neighboring ethnic groups.
Khama Boikano was an important African leader advancing the Christian religion among his people. His conflicts were ones that thousands of other African leaders encountered: joining the church but alienating his father, negotiating intense competition among missionaries, deciding how much leeway to allow traditional diviners, rainmakers, and other ritual practitioners, and being caught in a power struggle between the European colonial government and a chartered company.
*0 God, we march to Zion, but over a stony path, son set against
father, daughter against mother, Catholic against Protestant,
European against African, traditional healers against converts.
Help us to work through our conflicts, as did Khama Boikano,
that we may be found worthy, with the redeemed of Africa and
elsewhere, to stand before you in that new Jerusalem, of which
you are a part, ever Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. *
- “Khama Boikano,” in Horton Davies, Great South African Christians (New York: Oxford University Press, Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1951), 101-111.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved.