Sebubi, son of Sekopo, was a Tlhware Tswana from the village of Gamohana in what is today the Northern Cape province of South Africa. He was baptized at the London Missionary Society (LMS) station of Kuruman in 1835, followed by his wife Ditlholelo and their children. As indicated by his family’s donations to the church, Sebubi was “a man of great respect and influence” among Tswana Christians in the area. By 1844, he was working as an LMS evangelist in Gamohana and its nearby villages, and in 1845 he visited other Tswana communities further north “for purposes of barter etc. in order to enable himself to purchase a wagon.” Upon returning, Sebubi expressed a desire to work as an evangelist in the north, but his wife refused out of fear of “savage beasts and savage men.” Three years later, after some pleading from the missionary Robert Moffat, Ditlholelo finally relented and agreed to her husband’s move.
During Sebubi’s earlier journey, he had visited the Mmanaana Kgatla at Mabotsa, where the missionary Roger Edwards expected Sebubi to come work as a teacher and assistant, but Sebubi instead made his own arrangements to evangelize a group of Ngwaketse under the leadership of Senthufe at Kgwakgwe. Although Sebubi had “strong Christian principle” and seemed “to have his heart in the work of teaching the heathen,” he could not read or write and was therefore accompanied by his better-educated nephew Tlhomelang. Kgosi Senthufe did not interfere with the work of the evangelists, but neither did he offer much support, and very few Ngwaketse attended worship or school. They were skeptical of Christianity and perhaps of Sebubi, who earlier had been involved in Tlhware attacks on the Ngwaketse and had been regarded as “a great warrior, and inspired terror in the minds of the Wanketse.” In 1852, all evangelism in the region was suspended due to the Tswana-Boer war, and Sebubi and Tlhomelang retreated to Gamohana.
In 1853, Kgosi Sechele invited Sebubi to return north and work as an evangelist for the Kwena, but Sebubi was delayed by the illness of his wife and eventually declined the invitation. Sebubi was uncomfortable with the prospect of sharing the pulpit with someone who had eagerly embraced the Bible but continued to perform some duties of a Tswana chief that Europeans regarded as contrary to Christianity. In support of Sebubi, Robert Moffat gave him a letter instructing the ruler, “that there was a strange and unholy mixture in a chief sanctioning wicked heathenish customs among his people with impunity and then standing up with the Holy word in his hand and preaching repentance, faith and holiness.” Sechele angrily replied, “I am a believer, and I have studied the Word of God, and I must not preach! If I must not preach, I must not pray either, I suppose? I can pray, and how is it that I cannot preach as well as pray?” Sebubi countered, “You are chief and as such you are the fountain; good and not evil should flow from you if you are a believer: but you are only a fountain of rain-making, Boguera and Boyale [initiation rites]. You teach your people to do these things: does the Word of God tell you to do so?”
Given the unlikelihood of success with the Kwena, Sebubi instead returned with Tlhomelang to the Ngwaketse in 1854 at their new community of Kanye. The evangelists were welcomed by the new ruler Kgosi Gaseitsiwe, who had been introduced to Christianity and taught to read by a Tswana evangelist while he was a refugee near a Tlhaping community further south. Unlike Sechele, however, Gaseitsiwe was not baptized, and the majority of Ngwaketse at Kanye were uninterested in the teachings. Rather than remain in the capital, Sebubi, Tlhomelang and their families moved a few miles northeast of Kanye to Tlhorong, where they could practice irrigated farming and establish a separate community run on Christian principles. They christened their settlement “Ranaka” (a shortened Tswana version of “we reside by the word of God”) and managed to attract a number of other southern Tswana Christians, most notably Sebubi’s uncle Thema and his family. Sebubi continued to visit Kanye every weekend to preach and teach, occasionally to large crowds generated by Gaseitsiwe’s respect for Christianity, and Sebubi dedicated the rest of his life to serving congregations in Ranaka, Kanye and nearby communities.
While Sebubi established a Christian community of immigrants at Ranaka, other southern Tswana were drawn northward by their oxcarts, as Sebubi had been initially, to profit from a booming trade in ivory and guns during the mid-nineteenth century. As indicated by Sebubi’s strained relationship with his son Sebego, the motives of hunters and traders often conflicted with those of Christian evangelists. After Sebego left Ranaka to pursue a more mobile and lucrative career, the LMS asked him to negotiate on their behalf with a northern ruler, but missionaries then criticized him for the wealth and status that he acquired as their representative. Almost twenty years later, Tswana evangelists found Sebego settled near the Okavango in a Hambukushu village, where he had “buried his bible and is living with a Bushwoman for wife,” still focused on “getting rich.” Sebego apparently achieved some success accumulating followers and dependents, and he eventually became a headman in the Tawana capital of Maun. Missionaries, however, continued to be critical of Sebego, such as when he tried to recruit more southern Tswana to join him at Maun, and it was Sebubi’s dying wish in 1891 that his wayward son might still return to a community of believers.
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.
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.