The missionary legacy: how the LMS helped build Botswana

Botswana - Since the church emerged in Botswana in 1799, its contribution to politics, education and the economy is unprecedented.

Robert Moffat was an LMS missionary who came to Botswana around 1817 and worked amongst the Tswana group called the Batlhaping in Kudumane (then known as Kuruman) in South Africa. The presence of this celebrated missionary amongst the Batlhaping came at an opportune time because he helped them and others of the Tswana stock during the Difaqane era. According to historians, when the Batlhaping were attacked by marauding tribes, he asked the Griquas who were better armed and expert horsemen to help repel the attackers. This made Moffat a revered missionary among the Batswana, and he was permitted to stay in Kudumane as long as he wished. From Kudumane, Moffat spread his influence to other areas occupied by the Batswana and it can be said that he was a pioneer who opened the way for other missionaries like Dr David Livingstone.

Livingstone, otherwise known as Ngaka (doctor), came to Kudumane in the 1840s. The Batswana dearly loved the good doctor because apart from spreading the message of salvation, he was their dedicated ngaka. Although Livingstone would later leave the LMS to become an explorer he had made a great impact on the Batswana. It was he who converted Kgosi Sechele I of the Bakwena and became his advisor after a well-talked about spiritual duel that allegedly took place at Logaga-la-ga-Kobokwe.

Because the LMS missionaries' primary purpose was to convert the Batswana to Christianity, they persuaded the dikgosi, to do away with traditional practices such as rain-making, polygamy, bogwera and bojale (initiation schools), bogadi (dowry), boloi (witchcraft) and alcohol that clashed with Christianity.

Kgosi Khama III of the Bangwato, who happened to be a devout LMS Christian, enforced Christian principles on his subjects, and any person caught supposedly indulging in any of the "don'ts' was severely punished or banished.

The king abhorred witchcraft and alcohol drinking which most people practised in secret. It is also interesting to note that during Khama III's time, the LMS was the only legal church in Khama's country.

Perhaps the most notable contribution of the LMS to the politics of Botswana was when their missionary WC Willoughby, accompanied the three kings, Khama III of the Bangwato, Sebele I of the Bakwena and Bathoen I of the Bangwaketse to Britain and acted as their advisor and interpreter in their mission to protest against the incorporation of Bechuanaland into either South Africa or Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The three kings wanted to stop the ruthless Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company from colonising Bechuanaland in the late 1890s. One can only imagine how helpless the kings would have been without someone like the Reverend WC Willoughby, who spoke fluent English and understood the English culture.

John Mackenzie was another LMS missionary who was an opponent of Boer (and Rhodes) colonisation of Bechuanaland. His efforts helped save Batswana from the ruthless rule of the Boers who were known for having little regard for blacks. The LMS missionaries also helped educate Batswana. James Read and John Campbell published literature that cultivated a reading and writing culture amongst the Batswana.

At the forefront of all this literature was the Setswana Bible that Moffat had published by the end of 1857. In 1903, the LMS opened the Tiger Kloof Institute in the neighbouring South Africa, and the institution produced notable figures in the history of Botswana such as Sir Ketumile Masire and Dr Gaositwe Chiepe, just to name but a few. Years later, school was 'moved' to Botswana and became known as Moeding College in Otse. Interestingly, it was the one of the government schools that produced the best Form Five result in the not so distant past.

The Scottish Livingstone Hospital in Molepolole, built in 1934, was a joint venture between the United Free Church and the LMS - and it still offers medical services to Batswana.

It must be noted that like Moeding College, the hospital is now under Botswana government control.It could be said that the LMS missionaries contributed to the economy of Botswana too by bringing positive changes to the lives of Batswana during the turbulent times of war, strife and drought. Some early missionaries were active in trade, or attracted traders who believed missionary-occupied areas were safer. Some missionaries were also good gun and ox-wagon repairers and were therefore an integral part of commerce in the day. And they also introduced some new agricultural methods such as irrigation, dam constraction and improved horticulture among the Batswana.

In 1967, the LMS in Botswana integrated with other branches in the Southern African region and became known as the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA).

Today, the UCCSA continues to play an active role in the politics, economy and education of Botswana. Just before the 1999 general elections, UCCSA leaders tried to pull the Botswana National From (BNF) together, which was falling apart. We can only look back and thank the LMS for helping carry this country through turbulent times.For researchers, tourists and students of history and archaeology, a visit to the ruins of the old LMS church building in Old Palapye near Malaka would be richly rewarding.