Khukhwi was born and raised in the Hurutshe Tswana community of Powe near modern-day Zeerust in South Africa. He was introduced to Christianity at the London Missionary Society (LMS) station of Kuruman, where his family sought refuge from Boer attacks in 1852. Khukhwi’s father Mogodi soon returned to the area of Powe, but Khukhwi remained at Kuruman, learned to read, was baptized and then joined other southern Tswana hunting, trading and evangelizing in regions further north. Khukhwi helped found the LMS Ndebele mission in 1860. As recounted by one missionary, “He seemed to me to be a promising youth, and was taught to read English, with a view to his future usefulness as a native teacher.” Upon graduating from the Moffat Institution at Kuruman in 1875, Khukhwi agreed to be stationed in the territory of the Tawana near Lake Ngami in what is today northern Botswana. After a preparatory visit with James Hepburn in 1877, he and his classmate Diphokwe Yakwe returned in 1878 with their wives, wagons and £50 salaries from the LMS to commence work as official Native Evangelists to the people of Ngamiland.
The southern Tswana migrants at first encountered some resistance to their evangelism, but they soon gained enough local support to work mostly independently from missionary oversight and funding. The Tawana ruler Kgosi Moremi showed some interest in Christianity and allowed Khukhwi and Diphokwe to teach, and Khukhwi felt optimistic about the prospects for the mission. As he recounted in a report published in the LMS Tswana newspaper Mahoko a Becwana, “people were very happy to see me.” However, as he journeyed south to Kuruman in 1880 to replenish supplies and visit relatives, word reached Hepburn that Khukhwi had engaged in trade, breaking LMS rules and upsetting traders in the chiefdom of the Ngwato, who were rivals of the Tawana. Hepburn confronted Khukhwi as he passed back through Ngwato territory, suspended him from his position, and told him to return to Kuruman. However, Khukhwi defended his actions and instead proceeded to Ngamiland, where he continued to preach and report progress. Among the people who soon “gave themselves to Jesus” were Kgosi Moremi’s mother, his wife and even the ruler himself.
Although Hepburn felt obliged to enforce LMS policies, Khukhwi impressed the missionary with his initiative and dedication, and Hepburn acquiesced to Khukhwi’s assertion of control over the Tawana mission. Senior LMS missionaries at Kuruman criticized Hepburn for exceeding his authority and putting too much confidence in Khukhwi. They ordered Khukhwi to return to Kuruman for reassignment. Before receiving their letter, however, Hepburn had already proceeded with a party of Ngwato evangelists to Ngamiland, where they joined Khukhwi preaching “in all the head men’s court yards” for two months. Stimulated by this evangelism and hoping to limit an expansion of Ngwato influence, the Tawana called Khukhwi as their own pastor and began paying him a salary of £60, £10 more than that offered by the LMS. Hepburn, meanwhile, citing the example of the first churches in biblical times, continued to defend the autonomy of Tswana congregations. He felt that LMS missionaries had “erred in ignoring these first principles in the founding of our Bechuanaland churches.” As it turned out, Khukhwi’s wife Dikeledi died in 1882, obliging Khukhwi to visit Kuruman and, while there, to face the censure of LMS missionaries. Although he failed to win their official approval at that time, Khukhwi managed to gain the support of a few missionaries and returned to Ngamiland, where he continued to work largely without a salary from the LMS.
After reassuring missionaries of his loyalty and returning to Ngamiland in 1883, he found that during his absence the Tawana and the work of Christianity had suffered severely from war with the Ndebele. The church had been destroyed and its books stolen along with most of Khukhwi’s cattle and other possessions. Many members of the congregation had lost faith in God, questioning the value of evangelists. As recalled later by Khukhwi’s son Roger, who accompanied his father back to Ngamiland, “Sometimes we were just sung about in dances that said, ‘The teachers have been driven by poverty to us; they have come in old, small wagons to us, saying they have brought God.’” In 1885, Khukhwi retreated south again, expressing doubts about the potential of the mission, and he received further discouragement when the LMS missionaries suspended him for earlier disobeying their orders. Nevertheless, Khukhwi returned once again on his own to Ngamiland and struggled to rebuild the congregation in the face of indifference from Kgosi Moremi. In recognition of his steadfast efforts, the BDC reinstated him as an LMS evangelist in 1890. But despite the death of Moremi that same year, the extension of colonial rule to Ngamiland and ongoing regional tensions ensured that Khukhwi’s evangelism would continue to be subject to larger political forces.
Khukhwi was able to strengthen his position with support from an LMS missionary stationed in Ngamiland, and by 1900 he was again entirely sustained by his congregation in the Tawana capital and was on good terms with Sekgoma, the regent and acting ruler. After 1900 however, when the Ngwato and British governments both challenged Sekgoma’s regency, the ruler conducted initiation rites and built a church for himself without involving Khukhwi. When the evangelist criticized such actions as un-Christian, the ruler banished him from the Tawana kingdom. Khukhwi appealed to the local British magistrate, who convinced Sekgoma to wait until the matter could be investigated by the LMS. The missionary Albert Jennings, hearing the congregation express support for Sekgoma, sided with the ruler, and Khukhwi was forced to vacate the scene of his labors for the past twenty-eight years.
Khukhwi returned south to the area where he was born and retired in 1906 to the Hurutshe village of Maanwane, where his son Roger was working as an LMS evangelist. At a meeting in 1907 of all the LMS missionaries who were working in Tswana areas, Khukhwi was recognized for his long years of service with a plaque and commemorative Tswana bible, and he passed away a few years later.
Stephen C. Volz, African Teachers on the Colonial Frontier: Tswana Evangelists and Their Communities During the Nineteenth Century, New York: Peter Lang, 2011; LMS Archives, School of Oriental and African Studies, London; James Hepburn, Twenty Years in Khama’s Country, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1895; Mahoko a Becwana.
This article, received in 2018, was written by Dr. Stephen Volz who has been teaching African history at Kenyon College in Ohio since 2004. He is currently a member of Faith Lutheran Church in Mount Vernon, Ohio, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.