Kama was the chief of the Gqunukwebe tribe and was the first chief to publicly acknowledge that he was a Christian. The territory of the Gqunukwebe was west of the Buffalo River in the Eastern Cape.
Kama was the second son of Chungwa who was killed in a skirmish with the Boers in the early years of the eighteenth century. The Gqunukwebe were not of the Xhosa royal house but were descended from a commoner. Kama was born at the time that Van der Kemp was trying unsuccessfully to establish mission work among the Xhosa. Van der Kemp moved away to Bethelsdorp, but from 1821 the Rev. William Shaw of the Wesleyan Methodists tried to establish mission stations in the Eastern Cape. In 1824 Henry Somerset, Commandant of Kaffraria, arranged a meeting so that Shaw could meet the chiefs: Ndlambe, Dushane, Mqhayi, Phato and Kama (Hammond-Tooke 1972, 10). Kama was the brother of Chief Phato and second in power in the tribe. The first of the mission stations envisaged by Shaw was established at Wesleyville, near Peddie, in 1823.
Kama was married to Nongwane, the daughter of Chief Ngqika. She had often listened to Ntsikana and had been impressed by his message. After the arrival of the missionary Shaw, Kama noticed that she often stole away by herself. One day he followed her and discovered that she went to pray. This was an important factor in the conversion of Kama.
Kama’s final decision to become a Christian came during a visit to Grahamstown. He attended church services and was especially impressed by Holy Communion. The historian Whiteside (1906, 180) commented that Kama ‘left Grahamstown convinced of the supreme advantages of a Christian civilisation’. After Wesleyville was destroyed in the war of 1834, Kama moved nearer to the Fish River. When there was no missionary he preached and led prayer meetings himself. Shaw wrote in his journal that Kama ‘firmly believes the Gospel and often defends it against the arguments of many of his pagan people. He tells me that he prays to God daily and when he is at home is rarely absent from public worship’ (Hammond-Tooke 1972, 90).
Soon after this an event occurred which brought out the character of Kama as a warrior. He had always been considered a mild man but when the homes of his people were attacked by strangers one day they fought back and won. When the war of 1846 broke out Phato was drawn into it and lost everything. Kama supported the English and kept the line of posts open from East London to Fort Beaufort (Holden 1877, 317). A rift developed between the brothers, Phato and Kama, and Kama and his followers moved away from Phato’s territory.
Kama was convinced that he should have only one wife and this led to some difficult moments. The Xhosa tradition was to have more than one wife and Kama had to argue with his councilors. The test came when Mdushane, the son and successor of Ndlambe, sent Kama one of his daughters as a wife. Ndlambe was a chief of higher standing than Kama but Kama still refused to take another wife. He said that he could only rule the tribe according to the will and commandments of God. The daughter of Mdushane was sent back to her father with a generous gift of cattle and tributes to the house of Ndlambe. Shaw relates other incidents of the same kind when Kama refused to entertain the thought of taking another wife. When a complaint was lodged with Maqoma, the son of Ngqika, he answered: ‘I, Maqoma, son of Ngqika, do not have authority to question the laws of the God of Kama’ (Hammond-Tooke 1972, 31). To escape the wrath of Phato, Kama and his followers eventually settled in Kamastone, near Whittlesea. Kamastone was named after Chief Kama and the Rev. Shepstone, a pioneer Methodist missionary in the area.
In the meantime Kama’s second son, Xhanti, was growing up and learning about the Christian message at Salem. Shaw described how one day Kama asked him to take his son and train him in the Shaw household so that he might be able to read, write and speak English. The boy became known as William Shaw Kama.
In 1829 Kama caused a stir when he attended a meeting of the Auxiliary Missionary Society dressed in ‘European costume’ and thanked the missionaries for bringing the Gospel. At the same time, he asked the missionaries to open more mission stations. When Mount Coke was established Kama and his brother Phato both brought donations towards setting up the mission. That year, too, Kama and his wife were baptized into the Christian faith by Shaw after attending catechism classes. His baptismal name was ‘William’.
When the town of Whittlesea was attacked in 1851 Kama and his followers came to the rescue. In gratitude the governor granted the Gqunukwebe a permanent territory of their own between the Chumie and Keiskamma Rivers, near Middeldrift. The Annshaw Mission was established there, named after the wife of William Shaw. Kama became the leader of the church. Sunday was proclaimed a day of rest and worship. Because of the strong faith of Kama, his followers were not affected by the cattle killing of 1857 and so escaped the suffering and starvation experienced by many other tribes.
In 1866 Bishop Taylor of California came to South Africa to hold revival meetings. One of the places where there was a great revival was Annshaw. William Shaw Kama became a local preacher and, with Charles Pamla, accompanied Taylor on his travels. The young Kama wanted to enter the Methodist ministry, but when the time came for his father to die he had to become chief as both his other brothers had already died.
Holden describes how when he went to Annshaw in 1871, he found the chief old and feeble. Kama could no longer walk to church and had to be taken to the services in a cart. He grew gradually weaker until he died on 25 October 1875 (Holden 1879, 46). On his gravestone in the grounds of the church in Middeldrift are the words: ‘a noble man, a just governor and a faithful Christian.’
J. A. Millard
Crafford, D., ed. Trail-blazers of the Gospel: Black Pioneers in the Missionary History of Southern Africa. Pretoria: ISWEN, 1991.
Hammond-Tooke, ed. The Journal of William Shaw. Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, 1972.
Holden, W. C. A Brief History of Methodism and Methodist Missions in South Africa. London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1877.
——– British Rule in South Africa. London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1879.
Taylor, W. *Story of My Life. *New York: Eaton & Mains, 1895.
Whiteside, J. A History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of South Africa. London: Paternoster, 1906.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Malihambe - Let the Word Spread, copyright © 1999, by J. A. Millard, Unisa Press, Pretoria, South Africa. All rights reserved.