Mebalwe, son of Molehabangwe, was a member of a minor Tswana group in the interior of southern Africa called the “Tshwene” that took refuge near the London Missionary Society (LMS) station of Kuruman during the 1820s. When he was baptized in 1838, three months after his wife Ditseyane and their daughter Puleane, he was given the baptismal name “David,” but he continued to go by “Mebaloe” (spelled “Mebalwe” in modern orthography) and was always addressed as such by missionaries. Mebalwe soon became a deacon in the Kuruman congregation. In 1843 he embarked on his first evangelistic work further north, joining David Livingstone and Roger Edwards in the establishment of a mission with the Mmanaana Kgatla at Mabotsa. Shortly after Mebalwe’s arrival, while he and Livingstone were out hunting, a wounded lion attacked Livingstone and sank its teeth into his arm. Mebalwe successfully drew the lion’s attention away from the missionary, but in doing so he was bitten on the hip by the enraged animal before it died. Despite the injury, Mebalwe remained at Mabotsa with his family, helping to construct the mission premises and teaching in the school. At the end of 1845, he joined Livingstone in starting a new mission with the Kwena of Sechele at Tshonwane and moved again in 1847 with them to Kolobeng, each time helping to construct the new mission buildings.
At each site, Mebalwe took primary responsibility for the school, and when there was no missionary, he or another evangelist also conducted worship services. After Livingstone commenced his northern explorations in 1849, the Kwena mission fell increasingly under the supervision of Mebalwe and its other African members. Mebalwe accompanied Livingstone on one trip to Lake Ngami in 1850, but he was alone with the Kwena at Dimawe when they were attacked by a Boer commando in 1852. In a surprising demonstration of respect for Mebalwe’s position as preacher, some of the Boer party attended Mebalwe’s worship service on the day before the battle. Livingstone, however, felt that the Boers’ piety was belied by their subsequent actions. “They went the whole hog — attended church on Sunday, hearing Mebaloe preach, and then made the parson flee for his life on Monday. He ran the gauntlet, some of them calling out, when they saw him with clothes on, ‘Here is the chief’, & then the bullets whistled over, behind & before him.”
After barely escaping with his life and losing all of his cattle to the Boers, Mebalwe and his family retreated to Kuruman and settled there. As he had done with the Kgatla and Kwena churches, Mebalwe took charge of the Kuruman congregation when missionaries were absent, in 1855 and again in 1857. Mebalwe also continued to travel occasionally, conveying Mary Livingstone to the Cape Colony in 1859 and bringing the new missionary John Mackenzie northward in 1860 with supplies for the interior missions, but he evidently preferred to stay at Kuruman. In 1861, Robert Moffat persuaded Mebalwe to help found the LMS mission with the Amandebele in what is today western Zimbabwe, but after three years of service at Inyati, far from his family, he returned to Kuruman and remained there for the rest of his life.
As a leading Christian and ostensible employee of the LMS, Mebalwe was expected by missionaries to enforce European standards of Christian behavior, but obligations to his family and local community often superseded those expectations. In 1849 at Kolobeng, for example, when Mebalwe’s wife used “enchantments,” Livingstone was upset to find that “the teachers must have known of it and kept me in ignorance.” He angrily suspended the family from communion and stopped Mebalwe’s modest salary, but after exhibiting some remorse and continuing to lead the school, Mebalwe soon had his salary reinstated. He also supported the views of missionaries at Kuruman, speaking with members when they appeared to behave badly. In 1854, for example, he advised one old woman to stop wearing a kaross (leather blanket) that, according to missionaries, was so “filthy” that it “would disgrace a Bushman dance,” and he warned another woman to spend less time at the trader’s store. Eight years later, however, Mebalwe’s daughter Puleane was herself suspended from membership for “disgraceful conduct with English traders,” followed by her husband “for abusing the teachers for having cut off his wife from church.”
After Mebalwe’s death in 1882, he was eulogized by the missionary editor of the Tswana newspaper Mahoko a Becwana for his “gentleness of heart” and long life of Christian service, and Tswana members of the Kuruman mission respectfully remembered him as “father of the congregation.”
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; 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; Mahoko a Becwana, 1 (1883) 6.
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.