Paulo was likely born sometime during the 1790s in what is today the Northwest Province of South Africa, but there are very few recorded details about his parents or childhood. According to David Livingstone, Paulo’s “family name” was Molefane, and he was a member of the Tshwene, a small Tswana group that had split from the Hurutshe many years earlier and had become attached to the Tlhaping. He was called Rrafifing (Father of Darkness), in apparent reference to a night-time male suitor and therefore some suspicion about the identity of his father. At his baptism Rrafifing adopted the more appropriately Christian name of the biblical evangelist Paul, or “Paulo” in Tswana.
Before becoming Christian, Paulo had been “quite a dandy — short of stature with round and shining limbs polished from head to toe with grease and red ochre.” He also had two wives who quarreled with one another, and “He, being of a mild and gentle nature, was unable to bring about reconciliation.” Eventually one of them ran away, and Rrafifing became interested in Christianity. On 5 July 1829, at the London Missionary Society (LMS) station of Kuruman, Paulo and his wife Sara, along with their two sons Isaka and Hendrick, were the first Tswana baptized by the Scottish missionary Robert Moffat.
Paulo became an important member of the Kuruman community during the 1830s. He frequently led prayer services and Sunday lessons, and he accompanied Robert Moffat and other members of the Moffat family as their driver and guide on several long journeys. As Mary Moffat remarked of Paulo after a trip in 1833, “Not having my husband with me I had occasion to put the more confidence in him, and truly it was not misplaced. He has proved himself faithful, did everything in his power to make me comfortable, and managed the rest of them admirably. I assure you that I had continual joy in him as a brother in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paulo’s wife and children developed similarly close ties with missionary families, and other relatives of theirs soon joined the Kuruman congregation, including Paulo’s cousin Mebalwe, who also became a successful evangelist.
During the late 1830s, the families of Paulo and Moffat were caught up in an adultery scandal. Being “a great favorite” of Moffat’s wife Mary, Paulo accompanied her as wagon driver on a long journey to the Cape Colony from November 1835 to June 1836. While Paulo and Mary were gone, Paulo’s wife Sara in Kuruman became pregnant, and when the baby girl was baptized in February 1837, it became evident that the father was a European. Suspicion was cast on Robert Moffat, who had baptized the baby without disciplining Sara for her apparent adultery. When some members of the LMS congregation at Griquatown enquired about the truth of the rumor, Paulo brought the matter to Moffat’s attention, and it quickly escalated into a bitter feud between the LMS missionaries at Kuruman and Griquatown.
Shocked by the rumor, Moffat vehemently denied it and accused the Griquatown missionaries of seeking to weaken the influence of the Kuruman mission and extend their own control over Tswana congregations. The Griquatown missionaries, meanwhile, traced the spread of the rumor to the Tlhaping ruler Mahura and blamed Moffat for his failure to win the trust of the people. In the acrimonious exchange of long letters, the discovery of the child’s father — a British traveler named Lieutenant Maultrie — received only a marginal note, while each mission claimed to represent the best interests of the Tswana, asserting ownership over growing congregations in the process.
Missionaries made no mention of Sara’s or Paulo’s thoughts during the adultery controversy, but it seems reasonable to assume that they were eager to distance themselves from the scandal and its missionary acrimony, and they soon left Kuruman to seek affiliation with communities further north. Paulo first went to the Kwena led by Bubi, but when Bubi was killed and most of the Kwena came under the rule of Sechele at Tshonwane, Paulo joined David Livingstone at a newly-established mission there and made plans to head further east. When Sechele and his Kwena moved from Tshonwane to Kolobeng in 1847, Paulo helped Livingstone build the new mission, but he continued to pursue his own goal of starting a new congregation elsewhere. Between 1846 and 1849, Paulo and Livingstone visited several eastern Tswana groups and, at the invitation of Kgosi Mokgatle, made plans for Paulo to settle with the Fokeng, but Boer opposition to British missionary support for independent chiefdoms forced Paulo to focus his efforts further west.
During an outbreak of Boer-Tswana warfare in 1852, Paulo was obliged to retreat to Kuruman, but he soon resumed his efforts to become the resident evangelist for a Tswana ruler. In 1854, Paulo moved with a group of fellow Kuruman residents to the Hurutshe community of Kgosi Moilwe at Powe, which had managed to secure some measure of peace with nearby Boers. After three years, Paulo decided to rejoin Kgosi Sechele of the Kwena, who had been without an evangelist or missionary for several years, and in 1857 Paulo moved to Sechele’s capital of Dithubaruba with his son Hendrick and the other Kuruman emigres.
At Dithubaruba, Paulo’s services became a matter of contention between Robert Moffat, Kgosi Sechele and German Lutheran missionaries of the Hermannsburger Mission Society (HMS), whom Sechele had invited to take the place of the LMS missionaries after they left him in 1852. Moffat felt that Paulo could work with the HMS missionaries if he wanted, but only if they assumed payment of his salary. Paulo was apparently unwilling to break his ties with either Sechele or Kuruman, and Sechele protested that “he could not let Paul go, he was to be his missionary and the Germans those of the tribes who have gathered round him!” When Moffat insisted that “the interests of the two Societies should be kept separate,” Sechele suggested expelling the HMS missionaries. Moffat, however, defended them, arguing “the missionaries were not his servants” but “the servants of the churches at home who fed and clothed them.” In fact, the German missionaries were obliged to work more as blacksmiths, masons and diplomats for Sechele than as servants of the HMS, and they were soon expelled from the mission agency for their apparent insubordination.
Out of respect to the LMS, Paulo agreed to take charge of Kuruman in 1859 while Moffat was away on an extended journey, but he soon returned north to work as an evangelist for the Mmanaana Kgatla led by Mosielele at Moshupa. He remained there for seven years until the LMS missionary Roger Price, married to Moffat’s daughter Elizabeth, asked him to once again rejoin Sechele’s community, where the LMS was re-establishing its official presence after a fifteen-year absence. Paulo acted as the main preacher for Tswana groups that had settled on the southern edge of Sechele’s new capital of Molepolole, leading services at the mission station in the valley while Price served the royal congregation on the hilltop. Paulo remained there until he died in 1873, and Elizabeth respectfully observed the elderly evangelist sitting “for hours in the Kraal — in the winter sun, after the cattle had gone to graze — with his hymn book, repeating the words softly to himself.”
Throughout his career as an evangelist, Paulo impressed European missionaries with his knowledge of Christian teachings and his ability to explain them to fellow Tswana in ways that stimulated their interest and earned their respect. Missionaries repeatedly praised Paulo for his skill and integrity. When Paulo first left Kuruman in 1845 to venture northward, William Ashton described him as “wise and judicious, and I doubt not but that he will be the most effective among all the native teachers.” Livingstone echoed that sentiment, judging Paulo to be “quite a superior man in knowledge, and his walk is all we can desire.” Moffat similarly admired his abilities, declaring, “Paulo is universally esteemed wherever he is and is by far the best native theologian in the country.”
Missionaries regularly relied on Paulo’s wisdom as an experienced Tswana Christian to help guide their evangelism. When Sechele first expressed interest in being baptized, Livingstone admitted that the chief “had spoken to Paul about what God had done for his soul, and on the subject of prayer, before he opened his mind to me.” Livingstone was later concerned that Sechele might be wavering in his decision, but he felt unqualified to judge without advice from Paulo, who was absent after being called suddenly to Kuruman by the death of a son, and he was grateful when Paulo returned in time to verify Sechele’s sincerity and calm people’s fears about baptism. When the HMS missionaries arrived at Dithubaruba with virtually no knowledge of Tswana language or culture, they depended on Paulo’s assistance and sought his advice on how to deal with converts guilty of polygamy. Paulo similarly helped the LMS missionary John Mackenzie prepare his first Tswana sermons. As recounted by Mackenzie, “It was my custom to read over what I had written in the hearing of Paul, the native teacher, who stopped me when I used a wrong word or expression. At first, I troubled the good man sadly by asking him in my ignorance why it was as he said, and not as I had rendered it. This seemed to him an unnecessary question. It simply was so — that was all he knew.”
Stephen C. Volz, “African Evangelism and the Colonial Frontier: The Life and Times of Paulo Rrafifing Molefane,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 47, 1 (2014) 101-120; LMS Archives, School of Oriental and African Studies, London; David Livingstone (Ed. Isaac Schapera); David Livingstone: Family Letters, 1841-1856 (2 vols.), London: Chatto and Windus, 1951; David Livingstone (Ed. Isaac Schapera), Livingstone’s Missionary Correspondence, 1841-1856, London: Chatto and Windus, 1961; Elizabeth Price (Ed. Una Long), The Journals of Elizabeth Lees Price (London: Edward Arnold, 1956).
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.