Noyi Balfour (circa 1783-1873), an early Xhosa convert to Christianity, was a founder of the Lovedale Missionary Station in the Transkei, and was one of those who translated the New Testament into Xhosa in 1834.
His story is intricately bound up with the life of Ntsikana, the Xhosa prophet and theologian. Noyi was one of Ntsikana’s first seven converts. He was appointed as the successor to Ntsikana, and the band of converts was entrusted to his care; Ntsikana advised him to take them, after his death, to the mission station at Gwali, established by Brownlee in 1819-20. This he did. While on a visit to Cape Town in 1824, Noyi was baptized and given the name “Robert Balfour,” after the eminent Dr. Balfour of Glasgow.
Noyi was the son of Goiniswa, and was directly descended from Ngconde, a former king of the Xhosa. His grandfather, Gando-we-ntshaba, like others of his house, had been stripped out of his titles and driven out of his royal home. He and his people had travelled westwards, crossing the Bashee, Great Kei, and Great Fish Rivers, until they settled in the Zuurveld, the area now known as the Midlands in the eastem Cape Province. By the time of Noyi’s birth, this area was occupied by the Xhosa (i.e. the Ntinde, Gwali and Rarabe people), as well as the Khoi Khoi, and the vanguard settlers of the Boers, who had left their settlement in Table Bay in search of more land for their stock. These three groups had lived together in peace for more than 50 years, and inter-marriage was not uncommon. According to T.B. Soga: “They were an indistinguishable mass of light-skinned people.” [Those who were Xhosa only knew this by virtue of the fact that they still knew their clan names.]
By 1812 British troops had dispossessed the Xhosa of the lands between Grahamstown and Algoa Bay, and had pushed them eastward to an area in the Keiskamma River Region. This was a period of great unrest among the people, who resisted the taking of their land and stock. Makhanda, the Xhosa military leader, also known as Nxele, rallied the people to resist this onslaught, and the response to his call was great. Before his “Vision in 1814” Ntsikana, the prophet had responded positively to Makhanda’s call. But later he spoke otherwise, and Noyi was one of the first to respond.
In 1816 the Rev. John Williams (Veldyam) arrived at Sihota, on the Kat River, to establish the first mission station among the Xhosa. With him was Jan Tshatsu, who had been to a missionary school at Bethelsdorp. Noyi visited him at Sihota, and he and his companions attended the prayer meeting held by Williams. “It was during this prayer meeting,” he is reported to have said, that “I felt something strange within me. I cried like a child and fainted. When 1 came to, I asked the Mfundisi: ‘What is this? What is happening to me?’ His answer: ‘It is the spirit of God that has entered your soul.’” Thereafter Noyi was a frequent visitor at Sihota. It was during these visits that his wife, Nobuyiswa, daughter of Ntshanga of the Ntinde, his sister and her husband, and others were converted to Christianity. At the beginning there were only seven of them.
Then Noyi went to Ngqika, king of the Rarabe, to tell him what had happened to him and to beg him to accept Ntsikana’s message. Ngqika replied that Ntsikana himself had already been there with the new message and he (Ngqika) had fully accepted it. True to his word, Ngqika now and again attended Ntsikana’s prayer meetings and brought his wives with him.
John Williams died in 1818. Those converts who were at the station wished to remain there even after his death; but the colonial troops told them to move to the Tyhumie Valley where the British had settled Ngqika and his people. Some left Sihota, but Noyi and a few others remained until the colonial troops came again to move them. They first settled at Gqora, and then moved to Thwathwa near the Mankazana range. This was a difficult journey. The country was still in turmoil after the War of amaLinde; they were not welcome among the people and above all, Ntsikana, their leader was ill. But at every over-night stop, they held a prayer meeting before going to sleep, and another in the morning before proceeding on their journey.
At Thwathwa, Ntsikana appointed Noyi as his successor, and exhorted him to move his band of followers to the Gwali Mission Station, after his death, for only there would they be safe. Ntsikana died in 1821. Noyi gave the funeral oration. After the period of mourning, Noyi moved Ntsikana’s followers to the Gwali Mission Station, which had been established by the Rev. Brownlee in 1819-20.
At the Gwali Mission Station, Noyi acted as interpreter and catechist. When the Rev. Brownlee visited the court of Hintsa, king of the Xhosa, he took Noyi and others with him. Noyi and an associate, Matshaya, then proceeded to the court of Ngubengcuka, king of the Thembu, to preach the word, while Brownlee returned to Gwali. In 1821 Brownlee was joined at Gwali by the Revs. Bennie and Thompson. Bennie started working on alphabetizing the Xhosa language with Noyi as his assistant. In 1822 the two went to Somerset East, 70 miles northwest of Grahamstown, to print the first books in Xhosa. In 1824 Noyi accompanied Mrs. Brownlee to Cape Town, where he was introduced to the missionaries as one of Ntsikana’s first African converts. To convince themselves, the missionaries asked Noyi to preach, which he did.
About 1826 Ngqika came to Gwali to assign the missionaries to various stations. The Rev. Bennie was assigned to Nqeno’s people, the amaMbalu in Ncera. Noyi (now Balfour) was sent there to assist him. The new station was named “Lovedale,” after Dr. Love, Secretary of the Foreign Mission Committee of the Free Church of Scotland. At Ncera, the Revs. Bennie and Balfour set about translating the New Testament into Xhosa. In 1834 they again went to Somerset East to have the New Testament printed in Xhosa.
On their return they found that the station had been burnt down during Hintsa’s 1834 War. A new site was needed. Noyi went to Tyhali, the Xhosa regent, to ask for a site, and was given about 7,500 acres west of the Tyhumie River, to build a mission and a school where their sons and daughters would receive education, a place that would be their heritage to the end of time. So it was that Lovedale was moved to its present site, where many students, African, Colored, Indian, and white from South Africa and from beyond its borders have received their education.
Sangani Makhaphela Balfour, uBawo, uNoyi [My Father], Robert Balfour, Family Notes, 1900; John Knox Bokwe, Ntsikama: The Story of an African Prophet, Lovedale, 1914; W.B. Rubusana, Zemk’ iinkomo maGwalandini, [There Goes Your Heritage, You Cowards!], 2nd ed., London, 1911; T.B. Soga, Intlalo kaXhosa [Customs of the Xhosa], Lovedale, 1936. pp. 16-17.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume Three: South Africa- Botswana-Lesotho-eswatini. Ed. Keith Irvine. Algonac, Michigan: Reference Publications Inc., 1995. All rights reserved.